Q&A: Dean of students talks vaccine mandate ahead of winter semester


Nicole Morsfield

Dean of Students Michael Wadsworth.

Dean of Students Michael Wadsworth sat down with me Wednesday afternoon to discuss the roll out of the university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate during the last few months, and provide some clarity on what to expect heading into the winter semester. Here is the full Q&A of our conversation.

Jeff Thomas: I imagine it’s been a really interesting few months for everyone here at the Dean Students Office. What can you tell me about the roll out of the vaccine mandate?

Mike Wadsworth: It’s been like a roller coaster since day one with all the stuff we’ve had to do. I would say that we had sort of a practice run in the summer with university housing, with[the mandate for residents] being announced prior to the all-campus mandate. So we worked together to create a process to gain compliance of the mandate with university housing. [Then] we created a medical committee while we reviewed [religious and medical exemptions], then [vaccine mandate compliance] or the uploads. Obviously, from day one, it’s been a team effort. [It] hasn’t just been our office. The committee that reviewed exemptions was made up of faculty and staff from different areas, with expertise in different areas to help us review. So we did a lot of that over the summer with university housing. Then as we approached the start of the school year, when the all-campus mandate was announced, we really had to shift that process into a high gear because [we went] from, I don’t recall what the total numbers in housing were this year, but [we went] from worrying about a couple thousand students to 17,000, or whatever enrollment is. So the amount of information that came into our office at that point was just overwhelming. I mean, it was enormous amounts. Since that time, we have done something with the mandate every day. We’re either reviewing exemptions, reaching out to people for non-compliance, meeting with students [or] taking phone calls.

JT: What do you see as the biggest obstacles that your office has faced so far with the vaccine mandate?

MW: Once the mandate was announced for the entire campus so close to the school year, it was really hard to keep up with the amount of phone calls and submissions coming to our office. We were automatically behind, right. And we really pride ourselves in this office on getting back to students ASAP. We had to have a more informed voicemail, because we just couldn’t keep up with the phone calls. And so we put some things on our voicemail so that students, or parents or whoever was calling could get information. If we weren’t able to answer the phone, we would get back to those people that we may not have gotten back to that day. So that was really, I would say the biggest obstacle was just the deluge of information right away. Once we got through that initial deluge, then the next obstacle was sifting through all the data, so that we knew who had uploaded, who had exemptions. Since then, it’s been all the follow up with students. And so I would say, an obstacle, but it was our job this semester.

JT: What are you most proud of with how your office has responded?

MW: I’m most proud of the fact that we have [a] 96% compliance rate. If you had asked me before the school year, I would have laughed if you would have told me we would have got to that. Because I just couldn’t fathom the sheer numbers, right? Yes, we are the Dean of Students Office of a large, pretty decent sized school. But to get that rate in one semester, I just think it’s pretty amazing. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve worked with so many people to do it. As I mentioned, the committee had faculty and staff on it. We’ve worked with the Provost’s Office on information on courses that are online, but aren’t [maybe] registered that way, but may have went online. We’ve had to interact with just so many people across campus, including the Graham Health Center and all the work they have done with the uploads in the patient portal. So I’m just really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in those regards.

JT: What do you think students really need to know about the mandate right now?

MW: When students were submitting their exemptions, a lot of them would submit one for the fall then submit one for the winter. We were reminding them that if you have an approved exemption or you’ve uploaded, you are good through the academic year. The academic year in my head is through summer. And so you don’t have to submit every semester. And I say the academic year, because I have no idea what COVID is going to look like come summertime as we prepare for next school year. I have no idea what we might do. Right. But it’s important for students to know that if they have an approved exemption, or they’ve uploaded their vaccine record, that whatever you’ve done is good for the school year, meaning through the end of summer. And then, I would assume, depending on what’s happening with COVID, by summertime we’ll be making announcements, hopefully, for the next school year.

JT: When we spoke in September ahead of the Oct. 8 deadline, you elaborated on how the vaccine mandate was being enforced to the Student Code of Conduct. That for those who were non-compliant, there’d be hearings on a case-by-case basis. As of this morning, there were 673 students who are coming to campus for class who are still non-compliant. Have there been any hearings for non-compliance this fall?

MW: There have been some hearings for non-compliance. And so non-compliance could be you don’t have your vaccine card uploaded, or you don’t have an approved exemption on file or you haven’t participated in the required testing as a result of having an approved exemption. So there have been some student conduct hearings on those, there have been students who, through that process have become compliant, were sanctioned and are potentially still students, but are now compliant as well. I think the thing that’s important for people to know, is the Dean of Students Office authority is the Student Code of Conduct. That’s what we can enforce, and so everything we do has to be related or run through that process.

JT: Has there been any disenrollment of students for non-compliance with the mandate?

MW: I’ll say a few things. So I talked to some students at the beginning of the semester, who chose to disenroll before the 100% tuition [due date] because of the mandate. So I know some students made that choice because of the mandate, or [at least] that’s what they stated to me when I spoke to them on the phone or to other staff members in our office. I do not disenroll anyone, right, it has to be through the Student Code of Conduct. And so the hearings that we have had have resulted in students being sanctioned, and they have also complied, but they’ve been sanctioned at the same time. But none of those hearings resulted in a student being disenrolled. So the result of a student conduct process could be suspension, which would be the same I guess, as disenrollment. But luckily, the students that we’ve interacted with in that process, we have been able to gain compliance. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sanctioned or penalized for not being compliant for a certain period, but we’ve been able to gain compliance. The thing that I want to stress is that the last thing our office wants to do is separate a student from the university. Sometimes students do things that are so heinous that they have to be, but our goal is always to help students be successful. So whatever we can do to help students be compliant, stay here and be successful is what we’re going to try to do.

JT: I wanted to ask about the medical and religious exemptions. This morning the total number of students coming to campus with exemptions was 9% of all students currently coming to campus. So 1,263 students who are coming to campus for a class, and have received exemptions from uploading their vaccination status. It’s my understanding that those students are required to be enrolled in a testing program. Is that correct?

MW: Yeah. So anyone, faculty, staff or students, that has an approved exemption on file is also required to participate in testing.

JT: How does that testing work?

MW: The university has contracted with an outside company, Helix, to perform the testing. The exact wording is on the Graham Health Center website. So if I got tested today, then my next test would have to be at least five days out, but not more than nine days out. I think that’s what the wording says on there. And then, depending on exposures, or positive tests, things like that, where somebody contracts COVID, there are other stipulations, as far as you know, when they can test again. So if somebody does go through the testing program and is positive, then the Graham health Center is directing what they’re supposed to do. But then, I believe when somebody tests positive, then they’re not tested again that next week. There’s more different time periods and that kind of stuff.

JT: I have received concerns from staff and students that the testing process, with so many people having exemptions, is maybe not as thorough as it could be. Can you speak to those concerns?

MW: I would say that the concerns that I’ve received in this office are the opposite. The concerns we got more are, you know, “why do you keep sending me this follow up for testing?” and stuff like that. So when somebody misses, they get a follow up. So we get complaints from time to time that “I got tested last week on this date, I was going to get tested here, but I missed it. And now, the next day, you sent me an email that says, ‘hey, you failed the test last week, what’s going on?’” And they’re like, I missed my class or something like that, but they’ve rescheduled. So I would say, the concerns and the complaints we get are that we’re being too stringent. And too, I don’t know what the word is, but too forceful on making sure that people are testing. There were people who submitted exemptions from the get go that we’re not wanting to test. A lot of the phone calls that we took early in the semester were from people who said, “Well yeah, I’ll get this. I’m gonna [get] my exemption, but I want to be exempt from testing.” We said, “Well, there is no exemption from testing.” I’m not a medical expert, by any means, but there’s been at least one thing out online about the [COVID-19 testing swabs] causing cancer and we had so many phone calls on it [that] I looked it up online. Reputable news firms seemed to show that it was disinformation. So we spent a lot of time fielding phone calls telling people that our testing process is safe. We had many people who didn’t want to do the testing in the nasal cavity right. So we made sure that our testing provider could also offer a swab test. I would say that people, I think many people comply, and they go there once a week and everything’s fine. But there’s always a small group that doesn’t want to, and we have to keep following up to make sure they do that kind of stuff.

JT: What are the consequences for not complying with the testing program?

MW: All of our goals in this process is to gain compliance. We’ve had conduct meetings with students who failed to test on a regular basis. And so a student could be sanctioned for anything, but our goal in that meeting is to figure out how they are going to comply. Our goal when we go into the process is never to get rid of the student or to remove them. Our goal is to gain compliance. I know there was a few students who may have been put on probation, because they fail to test on a regular basis. But it wasn’t like, “Okay, you’re on probation just go.” It was, “Okay, you’re on probation, and you’ve agreed to test” and if they came back to our office, then we would have to look at another sanction. If they came back, it would mean that they hadn’t complied like they agreed to. There’s a lot of students who don’t come to campus at all that are taking online classes right now. There were some students who were in that category who were also in some club sports. Their club sports weren’t taking place on campus, so they thought they didn’t have to test. The wording that I used with students was, “The mandate is for students who are coming to campus, whether you’re coming to campus for class or coming to campus for anything, you have to comply with the mandate.” And so these students, they weren’t coming to campus for anything, but they were participating in an OU sponsored activity with other students. And so that was another group that we had to have some meetings with to make sure we got the compliance as well.

JT: I’ve been impressed with the updates to the COVID-19 dashboard since we talked in September. One of the things that stuck out to me is that now you guys seem to have the exact information for the number of students who are taking classes entirely online during the fall semester but haven’t uploaded their vaccine information. There are 1,301 of those students. Do you know how many of them may be coming to campus for classes in the winter?

MW: Any of those students that we communicated with in the fall, that we made sure that “Well, in this semester if you’re remaining online, then you’re good, but if you have any classes on campus in the winter, then you have to comply with a mandate.” I’ve seen some of those come through. And so I know that some of those students got that and as we start the [winter] semester we have to start fleshing out those. Leo Debiaggi, who’s in the Student Technology Center downstairs, has done amazing work in fleshing out all these numbers [of students in online courses]. I would also add that the Provost Office did an incredible amount of work. I don’t even know what all they had to do. But they did an incredible amount of work because we had so many students telling us “Well, I don’t have to be compliant, I’m not coming to campus.” We’d look up their class, and it would say, in-person lecture or something like that. And they’d [tell us], “My professor made these arrangements [to go online].” I remember one student saying, “The professor let us vote.” The Provost Office did an incredible amount of work. I was working with Amy Tulley and she was reaching out and getting all that information for the unofficial online classes. We were able to find a lot of students through that, who were compliant, but it didn’t look like it on their class schedules. We’ve learned a lot this semester. First time we’ve ever had to do this, right. So we’ve learned a lot about our communication through the semester. And we will continue to use that to make sure that we can communicate with them to say, “Hey, are you remaining fully online? Are you gonna have some classes on campus? If some are on campus, here’s what it means.” Then we will, it’s not like we start anew in January, but essentially we’ll be looking at a new data set come the winter semester for compliance. Obviously, a lot of it won’t be like the fall with overwhelming numbers, because it’s a lot less students starting new in the winter, but we do have to kind of regain those numbers for the online as well.

JT: Via social media this weekend, there was an announcement of a deadline for December 13, for compliance with the vaccine mandate for the winter semester. What will be the consequences of not uploading before December 13?

MW: The major goal of that deadline was for new students coming to the school. So you have students who are applying and starting here in the winter. It was important to give them a deadline. If you’re going to be a new [ student during the] winter semester, it’ll be the same process we’ve done all [fall] semester. We’ll reach out to those students as we approach the deadline. We’ll start communicating with students to say, “Hey, we don’t have this information yet, just a reminder, it’s coming up.” We did the same thing back in October. And then we’ll keep doing that to try to gain compliance. Then we will probably have some more conduct meetings, try to gain compliance with those students. But again, the whole goal is to get as many of these students here in compliance as we can. And so basically if [you’ve] already done what [you’re] supposed to in the fall, the Dec. 13 date means nothing because [you’ve] already done it and it’s carrying over. It really was targeted at the new students, [or potentially] returning students who [weren’t] here in the fall.

JT: As of this morning, there are 673 non-compliant students that are currently coming to campus for courses. So if those students are a mix of part-time and full-time students going into the winter semester, in tuition dollars, the low end is approximately $3 million and the high end would be approximately $5 million in what they’re paying in tuition. This semester the university has repeatedly made a point about a deficit in tuition dollars coming into the school because of COVID-19. Is the university willing to lose $3 to $5 million in tuition to enforce this mandate in the winter?

MW: Luckily, that’s not my decision. I’m not the person responsible for final enrollment or final budget numbers. All I can tell you is that [our office] will do everything we can to help those students be compliant so that they can stay here. And it doesn’t mean that those students don’t face consequences under the code of conduct, but we will do everything we can to keep those students here.

JT: Where should students go for more information on the mandate?

MW: There’s information on the Dean of Students website. There’s a button for exempt forms if they want too. I believe the university still has up the general COVID-19 information page, that’s where you have a lot more information about the mandate in general, for not just students, but faculty and staff as well.