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IHL Prohibits Mississippi Colleges, Universities From Mandating COVID Vaccines

students wearing masks walk around the MSU campus
The Mississippi IHL Board of Trustees banned the state's colleges and universities from implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates in a vote on Sept. 17, 2021. The decision comes after the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University faculty senates voted to call on their administrations to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Photo by Megan Bean/MSU

The state board that oversees higher education in Mississippi voted today to prohibit all public colleges and universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment or enrollment. The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees made the decision following weeks of confusion over a previous vote in August.

“The individual universities have been prohibited by the Board from implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a condition of employment or enrollment except for clinical settings,” IHL Communications Director Caron Blanton told the Mississippi Free Press today. 

The IHL had considered mandating COVID-19 vaccines during an Aug. 27, 2021, meeting, but voted against doing so. At no point during the August special meeting, though, did any board member mention banning individual universities from imposing their own  mandates.

“I’d like to make a motion, and I’d leave it to the staff to provide the exact language and I assume there’ll be a press release of some kind to follow, but I’d like for us to point out our support for the vaccine and that it is by far our best form of protection for our schools,” IHL Trustee Chip Morgan said during the Aug. 27 meeting. “… I think we ought to say at this time it’s our view that that would not, we would not impose any requirement on the universities to mandate vaccination.”

At the time, the board voted 9-to-2 to approve that motion, with only the board’s two physicians voting for a vaccine mandate. Later, the faculty senates at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University voted to call on their administrators to implement a vaccine mandate. MSU administrators, the Mississippi Free Press reported on Sept. 13, told faculty they could not implement a vaccine mandate because of IHL’s Aug. 27 vote. 

This publication noted that the MSU Faculty Senate leaders pointed out correctly that the Aug. 27 motion did not include a prohibition on individual colleges and universities mandating the vaccine on their own. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 14, Blanton, the IHL communications director, emailed the Mississippi Free Press in response to the Sept. 13 MSU story noting that IHL had already issued a press release following the Aug. 27 vote in which it explained “that the Board of Trustees voted against mandating students and employees to show proof of vaccination as a condition of employment or enrollment, except for students in healthcare-related programs at the universities… .”

This reporter asked Blanton to clarify whether or not it is IHL’s position that the Aug. 27 vote against implementing a vaccine mandate also amounted to a prohibition on individual universities and colleges mandating vaccines on their own. Blanton replied by quoting from the minutes for the Aug. 27 meeting.

“A motion was made by Trustee Morgan, that, except for clinical settings within institutions, centers, departments, and programs, institutions are directed to refrain from mandating the COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of enrollment or employment. It was seconded by Trustee Hubbard,” the Aug. 27 IHL board minutes say. “The motion passed on a 9 to 2 vote, with Trustee Ogletree absent and not voting.”

The Mississippi Free Press pointed out a substantial inconsistency between Morgan’s own words as he made the motion during the Aug. 27 meeting and the motion recorded in the minutes.

“There seems to be a big difference between saying you will not ‘impose any requirement on the universities to mandate vaccination’ and what’s recorded in the minutes: that ‘institutions are directed to refrain from mandating the COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of enrollment or employment,’” this reporter wrote in an email to Blanton yesterday afternoon at 2:33 p.m. “Can you please help me understand this discrepancy and why it exists?”

IHL Policies & Bylaws 201.0301, this reporter also noted, says: “Minutes shall be kept of all meetings of a public body, whether in open or executive session, showing … an accurate recording of any final actions taken at such a meeting… .”

Blaton responded today at 4:33 p.m., saying the IHL met today to address the issue.

“The Board, at its retreat/meeting today, clarified any confusion around the August 27, 2021 vaccine related motion by voting to rescind such August 27, 2021 motion and by approving the following: except for clinical settings within institutions, centers, departments, and programs, institutions are directed to refrain from mandating the COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of enrollment or employment,” Blanton wrote.

She said today’s vote was 8-to-1, with only Trustee Dr. Steven Cunningham, a diagnostic radiologist in Hattiesburg, voting against the prohibition. Dr. Alfred E. McNair, the other physician on the board who voted with Cunningham against the Aug. 27 motion, was absent for today’s vote, as were trustees Tom Duff and Jeanne Carter Luckey.

Under IHL, Mississippi’s colleges and universities already mandate proof of immunization for measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and tuberculosis.

The governor appoints members of the IHL Board of Trustees. Republican Tate Reeves, the current governor, has appointed three members since his term began in January 2020. Former Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who led the state from 2012 until Reeves took over in 2020, appointed the other six current board members.

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