London

Why won't Western adopt a campus-wide vaccine policy?

After a number of Western professors threaten to pull the plug on in-person teaching this fall without a campus-wide vaccine mandate, the administration has responded saying it does not have the authority to make the COVID vaccine mandatory.

The university says a mandatory vaccine would be outside the contract it has with employees and students

An 11th hour tentative agreement has averted a strike at Western University that would have impacted more than 32,000 full-time students. The university says it will be classes as usual Tuesday. (Robert Krbavac/CBC News)

After a number of Western professors threatened to pull the plug on in-person teaching this fall without a campus-wide vaccine mandate, the school's administration has responded by saying it does not have the authority to make the COVID vaccine mandatory.

"There are students and staff who have been accepted at Western as students or have come to work at Western as employees," said Western's acting provost and vice president (academic) Sarah Prichard. "That has not been a condition of their employment to this point in time."

It was never part of their contract, she said. Plus, Ontario's chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, does not support mandatory vaccines, Prichard pointed out.

Sarah Prichard is Western's Acting Provost & Vice-President (Academic) (Western University)

However for students living on campus, the vaccine will be mandatory. 

"For those coming into residence we were able to make it part of their contract in anticipation of coming to Western, that there be a vaccination," she said. "It's a separate contract to live in residence."

The university's housing guide says unvaccinated students will be allowed to move in, so long as they receive their first dose within 14 days of arrival. 

It also says students in residence are required to receive a second dose no later than Oct. 22. A vaccination and testing clinic has been setup on campus. There's a strong recommendation that students be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before their move-in date. 

We believe that the vaccination rates are sufficiently high, that the campus will be safe.- Sarah Prichard, Acting Prevost and Vice President (academic)

"The contract argument is dangerous for the university," said law professor Jacob Shelley who holds a joint appointment with Western's faculty of law and the school of health studies. "I get there are issues, but contractually they are also required to keep me safe."

When the university first revealed last month that it wouldn't be making vaccines mandatory, Western President Alan Shepard said, "We've gone as far as we can go, legally," though he didn't elaborate.

Shelley assumes the university was worried about Charter of Rights claims, and Prichard admitted litigation is always a concern.

"What better institution to take that on than universities where vaccines have been advanced through the science and the teaching and the research," said Shelley.

"The threat of litigation should not be the reason why universities fail to act here."

Jacob Shelley holds a joint appointment with Western's Faculty of Law and the School of Health Studies in the Faculty of Health Sciences. (Western University)

Seneca College, with campuses in Toronto, York Region and Peterborough, is the only post-secondary institution in Canada to have made the vaccine a condition of attending classes in person.

Western is now conducting a voluntary survey of all staff, faculty and students, to learn more about vaccination rates on campus, although Prichard said she already believes the uptake is sufficiently high and that campus will be safe.

Western is continuing to require students to wear masks.

"We do continue to listen to the experts," Prichard said. "We will continue to evolve our decision making."

And if professors are uneasy coming onto campus, she said the university will come up with solutions.

"People can apply and get accommodation based on their particular needs," she said. "We also have collective agreements that outline provisions for our staff."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna. Contact Rebecca at rebecca.zandbergen@cbc.ca or follow @rebeccazandberg on Twitter.

now