Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lawsuit Challenges Indiana University's Mandate Requiring COVID-19 Vaccination


More and more colleges and universities are requiring students and faculty to have a COVID-19 vaccine before they return to campus in the fall, but a new lawsuit in Indiana is challenging one of those mandates. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us to talk about it.

Hi there.


SHAPIRO: Tell us what's in this lawsuit.

NADWORNY: Well, a group of eight students, a mix of undergrad and grad students, say Indiana University's mandate is unconstitutional and violates their rights of personal autonomy. The university - which does offer exemptions for religion and medical reasons, or if you're attending the school remotely - won't require proof of vaccination per state law, but they do say they're requiring the vaccine because it will support a return to safe and more normal operations this fall.

SHAPIRO: Now, we've had experts on this program say that employers can require vaccinations. Can universities? I mean, what are the chances of this suit?

NADWORNY: Well, the legal issues vary state to state, but nationally, there's a long history here of colleges and universities requiring vaccines. Take the vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella. A survey of colleges found 87.5% required it. I talked about this with Mike Vernick at Akin Gump. That's a law firm representing colleges and universities.

MIKE VERNICK: Given the cultural and political sensitivity around vaccine mandates, I don't think that you're going to be able to inoculate yourself from lawsuits. But, that said, I think they stand a good chance of surviving challenges.

NADWORNY: There is the question of the EUA, the Emergency Use Authorization. That's new. But Vernick points to a case at a hospital in Houston that mandated COVID vaccines for employees. That policy was upheld in court, so that could set a precedent for colleges.

SHAPIRO: How common are these mandates in higher education?

NADWORNY: Well, they're getting more common. More than 500 colleges have announced vaccine requirements. Experts say more will follow, especially if full FDA approval comes. Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied. But those colleges aren't evenly divided among the U.S., mostly because of politics. I talked with Chris Marcicano from Davidson College about this. He's been tracking these requirements.

CHRIS MARCICANO: Yes, there is a red-state-blue-state divide. Public institution mandates are by far in blue states, but there are red states where institutions have mandates.

NADWORNY: He says a big reason is that public universities want to avoid a political fight because they need funding from political leaders.

MARCICANO: This is a fairly high-profile issue. Institutions, especially ones that are reliant on state appropriations, do not want to make their appropriators mad. You know, you don't bite the hand that feeds you.

NADWORNY: But even without requirements, universities are strongly encouraging students and staff to get vaccinated, offering financial rewards and incentives - T-shirts, Starbucks gift cards. At the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, students could win free tuition and fees. Staff members could win a trip to Ireland to see the Huskers play football. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released new guidance for colleges. One key element is on campuses where everyone is fully vaccinated, they say colleges can return to full in-person learning without mask-wearing or physical distancing.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Thanks for your reporting.

NADWORNY: You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.