MSU fires staff, suspends students who refused COVID-19 vaccine; UM may follow suit

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The state's two largest universities are sanctioning students and staff who refuse to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Michigan State University has fired at least two employees and suspended 16 students for refusing to get vaccinated. The University of Michigan could soon follow suit. The school has put "less than 10 staff members" on 30-day, unpaid leave, university spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said Tuesday. She wouldn't be more specific.

UM has also placed academic holds on 422 accounts of students who are not vaccinated. Employees who aren't vaccinated or don't receive approval for an exemption by Dec. 8 will be fired, Broekhuizen said, and students with an academic hold cannot register for classes for the next term.

MSU and UM were among the first universities to announce in late July that a COVID- 19 vaccine or an exemption would be required for all students and staff for the fall semester. Both universities set deadlines for compliance at the end of August. MSU and UM's three campuses were among seven of the 15 public universities to require the vaccine, along with Wayne State and Grand Valley State universities.

At MSU, all students, faculty and staff who have refused to be vaccinated, have not received an exemption or do not have an exemption request pending were referred for appropriate discipline, said MSU spokesman Daniel Olsen. The university allows exemptions for religious and medical reasons. It also offers an online exemption, in which students taking classes solely online attest they will not be present on campus or on any school property. MSU has granted 3,508 exemptions to students, faculty and staff.

The university referred students to the dean of students and employees to their unit's human resources departments for appropriate discipline, which may include termination.

The university suspended 16 students for the remainder of the semester and others are making their way through the disciplinary process, Olsen said. Students who are suspended from the university, for any reason, do not receive a refund for their on-campus housing or tuition, he added. They also lose credits since they can't complete their classes.

Olsen also confirmed two employees are no longer with the university but said he could not elaborate on the reasons why. He said he could not immediately provide a total number of employees who have been fired for refusing a vaccine or obtaining an exemption.

Students who were suspended can return to MSU when the spring semester begins in January if they comply with the university's COVID-19 policies by getting vaccinated or obtaining an approved religious, medical or online exemption, Olsen said. Employees who are fired can reapply for positions, but they also must comply with the mandate by either getting vaccinated or obtaining an exemption. 

“COVID-19 vaccines are one of the most powerful and one of the few tools we have to prevent disease, severe illness and death," said Olsen, adding that more than 90% of MSU students, faculty and staff have self-reported they are fully vaccinated.

Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley Jr. and trustee Dianne Byrum speak to the media after the Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 13, 2019. The school has fired at least two employees and suspended 16 students for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The university has "communicated directly with students and employees several times" to remind them of the university's vaccination mandate, he said.

"At this time, MSU is proceeding under the applicable disciplinary procedures for each individual who has not been vaccinated and does not have an exemption," Olsen said. "Individuals that are found to be in violation of the vaccination directive will be subject to discipline, including removal from campus and termination of employment or dismissal from the university, for the health and safety of the MSU community.”

At UM, 98% of students have self-reported as being fully vaccinated and 91% of employees report being fully vaccinated, according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard.

"It’s a very small fraction of our U-M community who are out of compliance with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate," Broekhuizen said.

UM also offers exemptions for religious and medical reasons, and students and staff who obtain an exemption must be tested weekly. The university has issued 757 exemptions to students and 1,668 to employees.

Two MSU employees who were fired for declining to get vaccinated within the last week are Kraig Ehm, a video producer, and D’Ann Rohrer, an educator in the MSU Extension, according to a statement by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties organization.

Ehm, a Laingsburg resident, and Rohrer, who lives in Ludington, on Friday joined a federal lawsuit against MSU filed by NCLA, the organization said in a statement. 

The NCLA filed the lawsuit in August on behalf of 37-year-old Jeanna Norris, an MSU supervisory administrative associate and fiscal officer who works remotely. Norris argued she has natural immunity after contracting COVID-19 late last year and her immunologist said vaccination was medically unnecessary.

Jeanna Norris, an Michigan State University administrative associate and fiscal officer, is suing the university for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

In late August, Western District of Michigan U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney denied a request for a temporary restraining order against MSU's mandate from Norris. In October, Maloney also denied the request for a preliminary injunction challenging MSU's vaccine mandate for employees with naturally acquired immunity to COVID-19.

The NCLA has filed a notice that it will appeal Maloney's decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Jenin Younes, NCLA litigation counsel.

"Like Plaintiff Norris, they pose no threat to the MSU community in light of their naturally acquired immunity," Younes said. "Yet, MSU has chosen to pursue a vindictive path, unsupportable by any science. Thanks to the courageous plaintiffs in this case — along with many other Americans — we will have a chance to challenge this unconstitutional and unscientific approach in a court of law.”