It seems that the university will do just about anything to convince students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — short of mandating that students get the jab.
UT held a series of prize drawings for vaccinated students the first week of classes, and students won a variety of enticing prizes, including tickets to football games, concert tickets, priority class registration for spring 2022, electronics and even a lunch with the chancellor. Another prize drawing was held on Sept. 1, and students who registered in person that day at the Student Union were entitled to their choice of UT-branded merchandise, including Bluetooth speakers and hammocks.
This is a continuation of the school’s policy of incentivizing students to participate in public health measures against COVID-19. In Spring 2021, UT offered incentives to students who submitted saliva samples and completed daily health screenings. The school also offered group incentives to students living on-campus, and residence halls and Greek houses that had the highest participation were able to win an $8,500 residence makeover, a Chick-Fil-A biscuit breakfast or t-shirts for every resident.
Starting in the spring, the school has also held public vaccine clinics on campus with exclusive offers, including at Neyland Stadium. An event held in August enticed the community by offering behind-the-scenes access to the stadium, even allowing participants to see into the football team locker rooms.
What is not offered is extra credit. Professors are not allowed to offer extra credit or any other preferential treatment to vaccinated students. This policy is in place to protect students who may not be able to get the vaccine due to medical or religious exemptions.
Professors and TAs are also not allowed to restrict in-person office hours to vaccinated students. They are, however, allowed to require masks to meetings outside of class-times as long as they also offer online office hours.
“I never ask the vaccination status of a student who comes to my office,” said Erin Hardin, professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Department of Psychology. “As long as they are wearing a mask appropriately, they are welcome.”
Professors and TAs are actually not allowed to demand to know their students’ vaccination statuses. Students are allowed to volunteer the information to their teachers, but they are not obligated to share their status. Similarly, educators do not have to disclose their own vaccination status to their students.
Besides students willingly divulging information, educators have no way to accurately gauge what proportion of their students have been vaccinated. They must make do with general estimations.
Savannah Collins-Key, a graduate TA and doctoral student at the Department of Geography, said that faculty and staff were provided with only pre-semester estimates.
“We attended meetings at the beginning of the semester where this general estimated percentage was given,” Collins-Key said. “Although, for Tennessee, it is estimated that only 5–10% of people between the ages of 18–25 are vaccinated, and epidemiologist experts at the university estimated that around 50% of the undergraduate student population at UT is vaccinated.”
While they cannot personally incentivize their students to get vaccinated, professors are allowed to talk about vaccinations during their lectures and encourage their classes to get vaccinated.
“I know some faculty are sharing information with their classes from the CDC and elsewhere to dispute common misperceptions and myths and make sure students have accurate information with which to make decisions,” Hardin said.
“We are permitted to actively encourage vaccination, as long as we do not ask (individual students) about their vaccination status,” Collins-Key added.
It is unclear where these policies come from. It is believed that they may be initially drawn up by central administration, such as the Chancellor and the Provost, before being handed down to deans and department heads to clarify and interpret for teachers.
It is equally unclear if educators play much of a role — if any — in policy-making decisions.
“I know quite a few instructors (tenure line, non-tenure line, graduate students) have shared feedback and suggestions with the Chancellor’s office, but it is not clear to me how that information is used,” Hardin said.
“All departments are made to follow the same policies that are put out by the university, which comes from the university (administration) level,” Collins-Key said. “The department, professors and TAs are just the ones that have to enforce the policies.”
Neither the Chancellor’s Office nor the Office of the Provost responded to email requests for comment.
The university’s COVID-19 policies continue to draw criticism from the community. It is especially apparent on social media. On one particularly active post on the university’s subreddit, students expressed frustration and apprehension with the policies.
“University is holding us in person for money, and that's combined with a bunch of students who don't care about the risk,” wrote one Redditor. “Almost nobody is doing what they responsibly should be and it's infuriating to watch.”
“We've seen very clearly that making it the students' responsibility doesn't work, even if it should, so if we're taking things as they are then it's time for UT to pack it in and send us home, but they won't take responsibility either.”
Hardin offered some insight on these perceptions.
“I think the Chancellor’s office is in a no-win situation, trying to keep students, staff and faculty safe in a political climate that limits some of their options, and with parents and students and staff and faculty who all seem to have their own very clear — and often conflicting — priorities, all in the face of changing information from the CDC and elsewhere.”
There are currently no further public vaccine clinics or prize drawing planned at this time, but those interested are encouraged to check the COVID-19 events calendar regularly.