North Dakota College Presidents To Decide On Vaccine Mandate

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Board of Higher Education said Thursday that university presidents and system leaders should have the flexibility to decide what to do about President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The board voted to support the idea after a 90-minute discussion that included pleas from presidents of the state's two research institutions who said they could lose tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts if they didn't comply with Biden's requirements. A couple of board members wanted to table the resolution because they thought it was too broad.

The vaccine mandate covers people who work with federal contractors and their subcontractors, as well as support staff in areas such as billing, human resources and custodial services, according to board attorney Eric Olson, who issued an 11-page memorandum on the potential impact of the mandate.

Biden's order has convinced colleges across the country to announce vaccine requirements. Some have interpreted the directive as a campus-wide mandate, while Olson said the new rules apply to some student employees but not students in general.

Most people who participated in the virtual board meeting, including Olson, agreed there are a lot of unanswered questions about the federal mandate. However, campus leaders said the resolution was urgent in order to meet Biden's Dec. 8 deadline, in part because of the time it takes for people to become fully vaccinated.

Then there's the money. University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost said the Grand Forks college is at risk of losing from $11 to $20 million. The dean of UND's medical school, Dr. Joshua Wynne, said the prospect of losing funds “is very real.” Olson added that UND has already received an inquiry from a federal contractor.

Nick Hacker and fellow board member Danita Bye voted against the resolution. Hacker said “with the goalposts so far apart and so much uncertainty” he believed it was a good idea to await further developments, including legal action by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, whose spokeswoman had no comment Thursday.

“I think it could have been written in a much more narrower scope with more of a minimalist approach than a broad blanket approach that this resolution takes,” Hacker said.

Wynne said the resolution was “intentionally ambiguous” to allow presidents flexibility “to be as surgical as need be, depending upon their circumstances.” He said it doesn't “command them” to do anything.