Eastern Oregon University is still deciding whether or not to require COVID-19 vaccinations on its campus this fall.
According to a recent survey, there’s a clear split within the campus community on a potential vaccine mandate with faculty overwhelmingly in support of a requirement and students just as strongly against it.
EOU, based in La Grande, is one of the last public universities in the state to make a decision on the matter. The Oregon Institute of Technology also has not announced a decision on a vaccination requirement.
The remainder of the public universities say they will require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall for on-campus students and employees, with some exemptions.
“My intention is to make a decision by the end of this month or early June, roughly,” EOU President Tom Insko said in a board meeting on Thursday.
Insko issued a survey last week to the campus community asking about their thoughts on a potential vaccine mandate for on-campus students and employees in La Grande. The survey closed Wednesday evening.
It asked specifically if campus community members would be in support of a vaccine requirement, once the COVID-19 vaccine is fully approved by the FDA, with exemptions allowed. The three available answers were “yes,” “no” and “unsure.”
From the early survey results, Insko said 877 people participated.
The majority of participating students said they were against a vaccine requirement with 65% voting “no” and 30% voting “yes.”
For faculty though, roughly the opposite was true. Insko said of the faculty members who voted in the survey, 75% of them were in favor of a mandate while 22% were against one.
Staff members were roughly split, with 47% against a mandate and 43% in favor. Some university partners who work on campus, like those who work for Sodexo — the university’s food provider — also took part in the survey. Those employees voted mostly against a mandate: 60% “no” and 20% “yes.”
Nearly an hour of Thursday’s board meeting was dedicated to Insko seeking input from the university trustees on a potential vaccine mandate.
Board members also had varying opinions on a vaccine requirement with some firmly in support of a mandate and others adamantly opposed.
“Coming from a medical background — I’m very supportive of the mandate,” Trustee Brad Stephens, a retired orthopedic surgeon, said Thursday. “The science is very clear that the vaccine is effective and it’s safe… I think it’s important for Eastern to stand up for truth and science.”
Stephens said he appreciated Insko getting input from various groups on campus, but “I don’t think a democratic vote process is a very rational way to make a decision here.”
Faculty Trustee Karyn Gomez also spoke in favor of a vaccine mandate, and she brought another perspective to the table.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to this institution, and the least expensive and most effective way to keep the campus safe is to provide vaccinations and make sure our students are vaccinated,” Gomez said, “because that will mitigate the need for the expensive testing. It will also mitigate the need for a lot of the safety equipment and other processes we have in place.”
Student Trustee Cedric Riel said Thursday that he’s one of the students who voted in the survey against a mandate.
“My main thing that I would put out for consideration in making this decision is the majority of students voted ‘no,’” Riel said, also noting the differences between the different campus populations. “The incoming students and the retention of students, I would argue, is really important to focus upon.”
Riel said he had heard from students who said they would seriously consider leaving EOU if a COVID-19 vaccination mandate was in place. President Insko said he had also heard from students via email who had said something similar.
“I don’t think it’s a question of if we will lose students if we chose to mandate. How many, I don’t know. I could only speculate,” Insko said. “One could argue we could lose students if we don’t mandate.”
Riel said the university should try to take into consideration how many campus members might already be choosing to get vaccinated without a mandate in place.
“If enough will be vaccinated without a mandate, it seems like more of an argument on principle than it does [for] the real science,” Riel said.
According to data from the Oregon Health Authority, Union County — where EOU is located — is among the counties with the lowest vaccination rates in the state. About 32% of the county’s population has received at least one vaccine dose. That compares to about 50% for the state as a whole, according to OHA.
Of course, some students may be coming to EOU in the fall from other Oregon counties or other states with higher vaccination rates.
“This is not a decision I will take lightly,” Insko said. “This is a highly, highly emotional topic, and regardless of the decision there will be, as you can see from these survey results, upset people.”