BISMARCK -- The State Board of Higher Education approved a broad measure allowing university and college presidents to decide how to proceed with a federal coronavirus vaccine mandate, as the deadline requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to receive those shots draws near.

It took board members nearly an hour and a half of discussion at the SBHE’s meeting on Thursday, Oct. 29, to approve the measure, with two of the board’s eight members voting against it. Presidents and senior administrators of state universities and colleges appeared united in asking for the measure to be passed, as they face the possibility of losing out on millions of dollars of federal contracts should some employees not get vaccinated.

The deadline for requiring the shots is Dec. 8, meaning people who get two-shot vaccinations need to begin the process soon, as they require an interval of three weeks between each shot.

University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost said his university receives about $81 million in federal contracts per year, of which between $11 million and $20 million would be in jeopardy, should the board not pass the motion.

“The loss of that money means the loss of employees, the loss of research projects and the loss of opportunities for students to be engaged in that kind of creative work,” Armacost said.

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The vaccine mandate, issued by President Joe Biden on Sept. 9, and its subsequent federal guidance, requires employees of federal contractors and subcontractors to be vaccinated unless they are eligible for a religious or medical exemption. North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani noted that the procedure to claim a religious exemption requires much more effort than simply trying to claim it.

Bresciani also said the implications of not allowing state universities and colleges the ability to comply with the mandate go beyond the loss of money, and could permanently damage schools’ relationships with federal granting agencies.

“(It) has huge consequences to our state’s, in particular (our) state’s research universities, but the other universities and colleges as well,” Bresciani said.

Voting against the measure were board members Danita Bye and Nick Hacker, who were concerned the measure was too broad, and gave university presidents too much authority in deciding who must get a vaccine.

“The other side of this is that the way that this resolution is written is carte blanche authority to any president instituting a campus-wide mandate,” Hacker said.

Eric Olson, an attorney for the North Dakota University System said students generally are not included in the mandate, though some graduate students who work on federal grants may be required to get the shots.

Some members discussed the possibility of waiting to see how petitions against the mandate, and at least one lawsuit against it filed in Arizona, would pan out. Hacker noted that North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has concerns over the federal mandate, and his office is contemplating its response to it.

In light of the timeline, members ultimately voted against a motion to table the measure for a later meeting.

Specifically, the measure gives university presidents the authority to “take all reasonable and appropriate steps to comply with federal rules and regulations related to COVID-19 in order to continue to mitigate the spread of the virus and ensure that NDUS institutions remain financially sound.”

Some presidents and board members said they had not seen the measure before the meeting, and it was not included on the board's website.

It remains unclear how many people would need to get the vaccinations system wide, and how many federal contracts in total could be affected.