UT System working to appease federal, state governments on vaccine mandates

Sonali Menon, Kevin Vu, News Reporters

The UT System is working to appease conflicting state and federal COVID-19 vaccine policies following the Sept. 9 executive order that forces some entities with federal contracts to mandate vaccinations.

With President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring all agencies with federal government contracts of $250,000 or more to mandate vaccines by Jan. 4, Texas universities are finding ways to protect the money granted to them since Gov. Greg Abbott banned mandatory vaccinations last month. The federal government awarded UT over $82 million in contracts this year, with over $26 million granted this current quarter alone, according to USASpending.

“It’s a really murky time for universities right now,” said Steven Pedigo, a professor of practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Government agencies support research, investigation, project development and professional services through federal contracts signed to universities, Pedigo said. If the UT System’s Board of Regents, to whom Abbott appoints members, blocks the federal mandate, the System could risk termination of their contract with the federal government, according to the UT System website.

Randall Erben, an adjunct professor at the UT School of Law, said the courts are going to have to decide whether federal vaccine mandates take precedence over Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates.

“The bottom line is that until you get some resolution at a federal court level, I just think it’s going to be a very uncertain landscape for the University,” Erben said.

Karen Adler, UT System’s spokesperson, said in an email that the system is trying to appease both state and federal leaders.

“We will endeavor to comply with federal vaccine requirements for specific, covered individuals to protect these investments in our state,” Adler said in a statement. “We will make every effort to accommodate employees’ personal situations.”

The UT System will provide exemptions for people with religious purposes, health issues or disabilities preventing them from getting the vaccine, Adler said. These people are also exempt under Biden’s order.

UT spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email Adler’s comment stands for the University as well.

“It’s important to support students, faculty and staff,” Pedigo said. “But those federal research dollars that come into the University (are) one of the things that make us into a research institution.”

If the University chooses to comply with the federal vaccine mandate, Erben said the threat of repealed state contracts is not large, as the state only supplies about 13% of UT’s funds. According to a UT budget analysis, the state’s general revenue accounted for 10% of the University’s budget in 2020-2021.

The U.S. Department of Defense is the top awarding agency to the University and provides about 98% of the total federal contracts, according to USA Spending. This money is part of a contract implemented in 2017 for the DOD to use the University’s research laboratories.

“The other thing to keep in mind is that the University of Texas … (is) a state agency,” Pedigo said. “What is not clear is what does (the federal mandate) mean for public agencies, particularly state agencies?”