The Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning voted last week to ban public universities from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students, faculty and staff. The move appears to make it the first higher education governing board in the country to do so.

Mississippi’s eight public universities are now “prohibited by the Board from implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a condition of employment or enrollment except for clinical settings,” Caron Blanton, IHL’s spokesperson, wrote in an email Friday.

The vote, held without notice at the boards’ annual retreat two-and-a-half hours from Jackson, came as a surprise to many faculty and staff.

For months, faculty urged Mississippi universities to join the hundreds of other colleges across the country that have mandated the COVID vaccine. But administrators, namely those at Mississippi State University and University of Mississippi, insisted they did not have that authority even though IHL said they did. In August, Blanton told Mississippi Today that IHL’s immunization policy “represents the minimum requirements that must be enforced by the universities. Additional requirements are not prohibited.

That’s no longer the case with this new vote, which appears to be the first time a higher ed board has moved to ban a COVID vaccine mandate.

“The decision by the Mississippi Board of Trustees is a slap in the face to all faculty and students calling for basic public health protections to ensure safe learning environments in their classrooms and on campus,” Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, told Mississippi Today in a statement.

In late August, as the delta variant surged across Mississippi, the IHL board called a special meeting to debate whether or not to require the vaccine. At that meeting, held on Aug. 27, the board voted over the objections of the two physician board members not to require the vaccine.

After 19 minutes of discussion, Trustee Chip Morgan, a real estate lawyer, made a motion for the board to vote on.

“I will leave it to the staff to provide the exact language,” Morgan said, “but I’d like for us to point out our support for the vaccine, and that it is by far and away the best protection we have for our schools.

“And with the caveat of the medical center, and I presume … some of the nursing programs are gonna have clinical interaction,” he continued, “but other than that, I think we ought to say at this time, it’s our view that we would not impose any requirement on the universities to mandate vaccination.”

At a faculty senate meeting at MSU two weeks later, David Shaw, the provost, fielded repeated questions from professors about whether IHL’s vote left the door open for individual universities to require the COVID vaccine. To their surprise, Shaw pointed to the August vote as proof of why the university could not mandate the vaccine.

The overwhelming vote by the governing board against vaccine mandates, Shaw said, amounted to a “very clear directive” to universities.

This left the faculty confused — the vote had not seemed to change IHL’s stance on whether individual universities could impose vaccine mandates on their own.

“Could you please get the legal counsel of either IHL or the university to explain to us why we need authority from IHL in order to institute this,” one faculty member asked Shaw at the meeting.

Confusion deepened last week when the provost emailed MSU faculty with an update on IHL policy.

In the email, Shaw told faculty the minutes of the August IHL meeting showed the board had passed a motion stating that “institutions are directed to refrain from mandating the COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of enrollment or employment.”

That was different from what a recording of the meeting showed IHL had voted on.

By Friday morning, though, IHL took a new vote to confirm the policy as Shaw’s email described it.

A recording of that vote and any discussion is not available because the vote took place during the board’s annual retreat, which this year was held in West Point in a room that “did not have the technical capabilities for webcasting,” Blanton told Mississippi Today.

Across the country, a handful of state legislatures and governors have prohibited public entities from requiring the vaccine. Seven states, for example, have banned vaccine requirements for state workers, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. But the IHL appears to be the first higher ed board to institute a state-wide ban.

“The Board acknowledges that vaccinations are the safe and effective way to end the pandemic but will not institute a vaccine mandate,” Mulvey said. “Instead, they are mandating that faculty put their health at risk in order to do their jobs. This is malpractice in board leadership that will lead to additional serious illness and death.”

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.