What Is Penn State Thinking?

One of the largest universities in the nation has a patchwork response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Illustration of Penn State University campus covered in germs
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Paul M. Kellermann is a teaching professor of English at Penn State University.

As the fall 2021 semester approaches, nearly 700 college campuses across the United States are requiring proof of vaccination for students or employees. If you plot these colleges on a map, the image bears a striking resemblance to one depicting the results of the 2020 presidential election. And that image resembles a map of current COVID-19 hot spots, which mirrors a map of vaccination rates. In other words, vaccination rates lag behind in the areas where vaccinations are needed most. And vaccinations are needed everywhere—including college campuses, which have functioned as incubators for community spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Oddly, Pennsylvania does not conform to the model mapped out above. Penn State, the university where I have taught for almost 25 years, is a massive state school with nearly 90,000 students. Since the start of the pandemic, the university has reported more than 9,000 cases of COVID-19, ranking it in the top five nationally among colleges. As of now, Penn State is not one of the eight schools in the Big Ten Conference with a vaccine mandate—despite the fact that at least two Penn State students have died from COVID-19 complications. Though Penn State is not alone, it sometimes feels that way to members of the Penn State community.

The pandemic guidance that faculty, staff, and students have received from the administration has been arbitrary, capricious, and contradictory, at best. On August 3, the university president convened a “town hall” to present the fall plan and to inform us that he’s “looking forward to seeing our campuses bustling with activity.” The plan encourages, implores, beseeches—but does not require—students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated. All of us are asked to voluntarily share our vaccination status with the university. But none of us is obligated to get the shot—an administrative decision that puts our entire community at risk.

It’s a patchwork system. Unvaccinated students living on campus will be tested before being permitted to move into the dorms next week and will be subjected to weekly COVID-19 testing thereafter. All unvaccinated students (on campus and off) will undergo “regular testing throughout the fall semester,” though the school has provided scant specifics on that process. Penn State’s main campus, in University Park, Pennsylvania, in the borough of State College, enrolls 46,000 undergrad and graduate students. But only 14,500 of them actually live on campus. The remaining 34,500 are largely left to their own devices when it comes to navigating COVID-19. Even if the university were to require all on-campus residents to get vaccinated, it currently lacks a mechanism to keep unvaccinated off-campus students from coming to class and infecting their peers.

Additionally, as far as I can determine, the university has not implemented a testing plan for vaccinated students (other than the honor system), but it has said that all students who test positive will be “referred to isolation.” Meanwhile, unvaccinated students identified as close contacts of students who test positive will be “referred to quarantine.” The university hasn’t announced whether it will initiate a new contact-tracing system or continue relying on the debacle-fueled process it had in place last year. Many students will continue to be confused about the difference between isolation and quarantine—seeing no need to differentiate between the two, as they consider both to be indefinite sentences in solitary confinement. To resolve their dissonance, they ignore all official emails from the university. When students reveal this to me during Zoom conferences, they seem proud to have established plausible deniability.

As confusing as the university’s vaccination and testing policies are, they’re unambiguously clear when compared with its masking policies. Penn State has 24 campuses spread across the commonwealth, and the mask requirements for each branch vary depending on a given Pennsylvania county’s virus-transmission rate as determined by the CDC. At the time of the university’s town hall, the transmission rate in Centre County, home to the main campus, registered as “moderate,” meaning unvaccinated people must wear masks when indoors on campus, but vaccinated people need not. Nowhere do the guidelines state who is charged with enforcing the mask rule. Nor do they say how the rule can be enforced when no one is required to reveal their vaccination status and faculty are forbidden to ask students about it.

Just one day after the town hall, Centre County’s transmission rate climbed from “moderate” to “substantial,” meaning that now everyone is required to wear a mask when inside on all Penn State campuses—regardless of their vaccination status. Although some people might find mask wearing inconvenient or an affront to their personal liberty (as if we have an unalienable right to pose a threat to public health), universal masking seems the simplest, fairest, and most prudent mask policy. No one is singled out for wearing (or not wearing) a mask. And we’re all on equal footing—with garbled speech and fogged-up glasses.

Given the university’s unequivocal endorsement of voluntary COVID-19 vaccinations, I’m perplexed that Penn State won’t take the next logical step. A mandate is the most direct path to universal vaccination, and support for required vaccinations grows every day. The Department of Defense will soon require all active-duty members of the armed forces to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The country’s military academies are poised to follow suit. This is a wise strategy, one that adheres to the guidance of medical science. It’s why so many universities and major corporations are implementing vaccination mandates. It’s why some cities now require proof of vaccination to dine indoors. It’s why entertainment venues—notwithstanding those that wish to book Eric Clapton—limit attendance to individuals who have been vaccinated. Vaccines work. But they work on a societal level only when a critical mass of the citizenry has been vaccinated.

For a major research university such as Penn State, requiring vaccines should be a no-brainer. In the spring, the student government voted overwhelmingly in support of a vaccination mandate. And the faculty senate passed a similar resolution with the approval of 78.5 percent of its members. More recently, the local borough council unanimously endorsed a letter calling for the university to impose mandatory vaccinations for students, faculty, and staff. Meanwhile, an independent faculty group circulated an open letter voicing collective concerns about Penn State’s handling of the pandemic. The letter, which garnered 2,300 signatures in its first 48 hours, urges the university to require vaccinations.

Last year, students in isolation and quarantine could still attend remote classes. That won’t be possible this year; the administration insists that most classes meet in person, leaving infected students to make up their work on their own. Yet the virulence of Delta and other variants ensures that some of our students will be placed in isolation, and some may end up in the hospital—especially if no university-wide vaccination mandate is put in place. Perhaps some members of the Penn State community will join the growing chorus of COVID-19 patients expressing regret for not taking the virus seriously enough to get vaccinated. I hope that this doesn’t happen. But it seems inevitable unless the university I love can demonstrate that it cares about the community it purports to serve.

To whom exactly is the administration listening? I don’t think it’s listening to the parents of children too young to be vaccinated, who worry about carrying the virus home to their loved ones; or to employees who also care for elderly parents; or to immunocompromised students who are unable to get vaccinated, who must rely on the rest of us for protection against the virus. And I don’t believe it’s listening to the local community members who watched the numbers spike last fall, when students returned to campus; who watched the virus spread beyond campus.

So where is the resistance to a university-wide vaccination mandate coming from? Penn State hasn’t been forthcoming with its reasoning. Speculation says that responsibility lies with the board of trustees. Might someone be trying to placate conservatives in the state legislature? Does the board fear that our state representatives have no compunction about scoring political points at the expense of their constituents’ health and well-being? I reached out to Penn State for comment on these issues. Among my questions: Is the university receiving outside pressure—from state legislators, donors, or others—regarding vaccinations? Wyatt DuBois, the assistant director of university public relations, said in a statement: “University leadership hears from many different constituencies regarding their views on the fall health and safety plan and they run the gamut. The University’s decisions reflect the considerations we have articulated previously.”

When asked why the university president would recommend vaccination without going the additional step of requiring it, as Penn State does for mumps, measles, and rubella, DuBois directed me to the school’s coronavirus FAQ webpage.

James Carville famously referred to Pennsylvania as two large cities with Alabama in between. Although some blue dots fleck the state—among them State College, home to Penn State—they exist amid a deep-red sea. Pennsylvania flipped for Joe Biden in 2020 (though some in the state legislature would have us believe otherwise), and it has a high vaccination rate. Republicans currently dominate both houses of the legislature. Since the onset of the pandemic, they’ve pledged to oppose everything the Democratic governor supports—even at the expense of public health. I have some sympathy for my university’s leaders, who must try to appease the legislature if they wish to receive some crumbs of ever-shrinking funding from the state. But my sympathy has its limits. And when it comes to protecting the health of our students, our colleagues, our families, our communities, and ourselves, we must draw the line.

When I arrived in Happy Valley, in 1996, I had no idea how long I’d stay, but Penn State has become my home. It’s where I met my wife, and it’s where I found my place. Although I appreciate the beauty of the landscape, it’s the people that make Penn State special: my colleagues at the university, my friends in the community, and the students who have passed through my classroom. Students sometimes frustrate me, but they rarely fail to inspire me with their energy, ingenuity, and insight. And that’s why I find the university’s response to the pandemic so disappointing.

School pride is the core of the Penn State brand, a brand built on a foundation that fosters a sense of community, a community that revolves around the university. Anyone who has ever set foot on campus, or simply watched Nittany Lions football on TV, is familiar with the battle cry “WE ARE,” followed by an even more boisterous “PENN STATE.” It’s a mantra that’s shouted with religious fervor—at prospective students touring the campus, by drunken undergrads marauding the downtown streets late at night, and in countless situations in between. The message flashes day and night on the LED sign outside the sports arena, and it’s spelled out in a stainless-steel sculpture beside the intramural building. Long after alumni leave Happy Valley, they still proudly proclaim “We are,” and even the most cynical professors take pride in the scholarship conducted at our university. But we’ve grown dismayed with an administration that’s turned its back on the community it claims to nurture; an administration apparently unconcerned with the health and well-being of its students, faculty, and staff; an administration that seems to ignore the misgivings of its constituents. As faculty, we’re left to wonder whether the present tense remains appropriate in our unifying chant. How much longer can we honestly claim “We are”?