‘The more people vaccinated, the closer we get to normal’: Faculty Assembly encourages vaccination mandate, talks budget policies

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Faculty Assembly met last Wednesday, discussing and voting on a required vaccination mandate and policy changes to better accommodate the University’s new decentralized budget model, as well as addressing updates to language in academic committee policies.

By Millicent Watt, Senior Staff Writer

As a debate convulses the nation following the CDC’s latest masking guidelines, Pitt’s Faculty Assembly spent the majority of its last meeting discussing the complications of implementing a required vaccine mandate in the fall.

Dr. John Williams, head of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said vaccinating Pitt’s community is important so students can return to their “normal” routines as the CDC releases more liberal guidelines for vaccinated people.

“I don’t control the state or the federal guidelines for masks and mitigation but I can tell you, the more people vaccinated, the closer we get to normal,” Williams said. “I mean, already fully vaccinated people have that change of no quarantine, which is an enormous change, and the CDC will probably introduce more changes.”

The Assembly met last Wednesday and discussed and held votes about a required vaccination mandate and policy changes to better accommodate the University’s new decentralized budget model, as well as addressing updates to language in academic committee policies.

Chris Bonneau, outgoing Faculty Assembly president, announced Robin Kear as next academic year’s president, Kris Kanthak as vice president and Gosia Fort as secretary.

Regardless of implementing a vaccination mandate, Geovette Washington, senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer, said Pitt’s goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible — including members outside of the Pitt community. Washington said instead of using mandates to get people vaccinated, Pitt is trying to use education and provide incentives to motivate community members to get vaccinated.

“Our preference is to educate and incentivise people as opposed to mandating because mandating is hard, and there are a lot of different complications,” Washington said.

Washington said while many other colleges and universities across the country are implementing a vaccination requirement for the fall semester, the actual rules for both students and faculty vary from school to school. She said some schools — such as Penn State, all Ivy schools and Boston College — are requiring all students to be vaccinated, while some are only requiring students in university housing to be vaccinated.

Washington said if Pitt were to prohibit unvaccinated students from being on campus in the fall, it would have to deliver a remote education to those students without the [email protected] model and the option to take classes virtually.

“As we move back to what we hope will be a more normal campus life in the fall, some of those tools won’t be available to us,” Washington said. “And as we try to figure out what to do if we were to do a mandate, thinking about how you deliver education to those people who won’t get vaccinated and provide work opportunities to those people is a big question for us.”

A remote option for the fall semester is not currently in the works, according to Pitt administrators. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said “a school may design a course that integrates remote learning and in-person learning, but it won’t be on an individual basis,” during a Senate Council meeting on March 25.

Washington said another possibility — one that nearby Carnegie Mellon University is exploring — is to require students to be vaccinated and have stricter mitigation measures and guidelines for students who cannot get vaccinated, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, quarantining and frequent testing.

In order to enforce these guidelines, Washington said the University would need a way to track unvaccinated and vaccinated students. Washington said Pitt could use pre-existing systems, such as the Student Health Services’ vaccination database, which is currently used to store vaccination information. Faculty and staff who work in certain research labs that require special vaccinations also have a database which stores those vaccination records, according to Washington.

But Washington said the individuals who could potentially view COVID-19 vaccination records would be limited, making guideline enforcement difficult.

“Who could know about that and who can ask questions about individuals would be very limited, which again makes enforcement a little uneven in places,” Washington said. “So those are things that we would have to work through.”

According to Williams, the CDC is still unsure of what to do about international students who received vaccines other than the three vaccines currently authorized in the United States. Williams said universities can accept other countries’ vaccines as proof of vaccination, or if antibody tests are developed in the future, universities can provide those tests to international students to determine their immunity.

Washington said while Pitt wants to open campus as much as possible depending on vaccination and infection rates, it is ultimately up to the students’ comfort levels.

“Our goal is to make this campus as open as we possibly can, depending on what the vaccination rates look like and what the infection rates look like,” Washington said. “We’re not going to be able to eradicate it, it’s going to be out there and it’s also going to be about people’s personal comfort level, regardless of what our rules are on campus.”

The Assembly voted to encourage Pitt’s Senate Council to consider a required vaccination mandate. The vote passed with 90% in favor and the policy will be introduced to Pitt’s Senate Council at its next meeting on Thursday.

Tyler Bickford, chair of the Senate’s budget policies committee, discussed a resolution introduced at last month’s Faculty Assembly meeting that asked Pitt to take more time for community input during its planned change in budget models. 

Pitt’s current budget model will transition to a responsibility-centered management model, which would make individual schools and research institutes — such as the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and Swanson School of Engineering — in charge of their own costs and revenue.

According to Bickford, key points to the resolution include prioritizing transparency and participation, and to use existing committees and shared governance structures instead of creating new committees which may “dilute lines of responsibilities.” Bickford said planning and budget committees at the unit level should be strengthened, so they can communicate and understand happenings and processes in other units and are able to communicate with the Senate.

Bickford said the Planning and Budget Committee system needs to be strengthened and “robust enough to adequately handle an RCM-kind of decentralized budget model.” Bickford said the PBC system is not prepared to handle a decentralized budget model due to the nature of current responsibilities and “already has some serious concerns.”

“PBC members consistently report that they’re not actively involved in the kind of budgeting itself, but much more in the kind of planning,” Bickford said. “So if that’s the case, then I don’t think a decentralized budget model, I don’t think the current PBCs are constituted in the way that they can actually manage this.”

The Assembly passed the resolution with 98% in favor.

The Assembly also voted on the policies regarding the University Council on Graduate Study and Provost’s Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Programs, which updated language that relates to “the creation and convening” of PACUP and UCGS, according to John Stoner, co-chair of the Senate’s educational policies committee. These language changes allow PACUP and UCGS to be better aligned to ensure the committees properly represent their targeted student population, according to Stoner.

Both the UCGS and PACUP policies passed with 80% in favor.

Besides discussing policy changes, vaccines and budgets, Bonneau reflected on his past term as Faculty Assembly president and compiled a list of the Assembly’s accomplishments. He said the list doesn’t do justice to the amount of time and effort the Assembly members spent representing Pitt’s faculty.

“I was shocked at how much we’re able to get done together, and advancing the interests of faculty at the University,” Bonneau said. “Of course, the list doesn’t do justice to the amount of time and effort many of you put into achieving these things.”

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