EXCLUSIVE: Vaccine policy switch may put doctoral student's future in jeopardy

'Campus Reform' spoke with a doctoral student at Northern Illinois University's whose career may be impacted by the institution's sudden policy change to vaccine requirements.

The student described prevalent intolerance among faculty for those individuals not wishing to be vaccinated.

Northern Illinois University reversed course on its COVID-19 vaccine mandate in June,  after the school asserted in May that it would not impose a mandate.

In February, Matthew Streb, chief of staff to Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman, informed students during a panel event that the school lacked legal authority to enforce a vaccine mandate as long as the shots remained under emergency use authorization. According to an archived version of the school’s COVID-19 vaccine webpage, which was live as late as May 31, Northern Illinois University affirmed that it “cannot require” students to get the shot.

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On June 23, however, the university announced that it would require all students to receive vaccinations; it also opened exemptions for documented health or religious reasons. According to the school’s current COVID-19 webpage, exemptions will only apply “until vaccines transition from emergency use authorization status to full approval by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Daniel Nuccio, a doctoral student at the university, spoke with Campus Reform over concerns that students “will have to choose between vaccination and losing whatever time and money they have invested into their college education.”

Nuccio holds master’s degrees in psychology and biology from Illinois State University and Northern Illinois University, respectively. He has previously completed “neurophysiology, microbiology, and computational biology projects,” making him “uniquely qualified to serve as the lead graduate student on a collaboration between a microbial pathogen lab in [his] department and a behavioral neuroscience lab in the psychology department.”

Any future accomplishments, however, may be limited by Northern Illinois University’s vaccine policy.

“For a period of time, I actually came to take some pride in being able to be involved on this kind of project,” he told Campus Reform. “But following NIU’s vaccine mandate, I have come to realize that I will soon have to step back and assume a lesser role on this project or move on to an unrelated one assuming I am allowed to remain in my program at all.” 

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If not allowed to continue with the doctoral program, “it would be very unlikely that I will be able to operate my own lab at a university in the future given that having a PhD is usually one of the minimum requirements for doing so,” he said. 

Other students share Nuccio’s concerns.

Nuccio  explained, “Their reasons range from having natural immunity after recovering from natural infection, to concerns about the long-term effects of the COVID vaccines, to concerns about having to relinquish a certain amount of bodily and medical autonomy to the university.”

“Within my department, however, I feel there is an immense social pressure to not question or disobey public health guidelines or the science they’re supposedly based on,” Nuccio continued. “Before vaccines were widely available, I heard stories of students being publicly or privately castigated by professors for acknowledging they’d frequented bars or coffee shops. Since they’ve become available, I’ve heard stories of professors scolding students for being reluctant to get vaccinated. I know students personally who think it’s unconscionable to turn down a COVID vaccine.”

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“Overall at this point, I get the impression there just seems to be this assumption that everyone will get their jabs. That being said, I also know students in my department who largely disagree with our school’s policies on COVID in general or the vaccine mandate specifically, but remain silent either because of social pressure or because they don’t want to be seen being insensitive or causing trouble, especially if they’re close to finishing their degree.”

Nuccio observed that beyond Northern Illinois University, there is “little tolerance in our society” over individual medical choices related to COVID-19.

“From a PR or legal standpoint, mandates also give universities some cover in the event of an outbreak,” he described. “Yet, at least early on, many were uncertain whether they had the legal authority to mandate COVID vaccines given their EUA status, and wanted some kind of cover for that too before moving ahead with mandates.”

“Over the last several months, the growing number of major universities mandating COVID vaccination, along with the failure of initial legal challenges to mandates, gave the universities the cover they were looking for.”

Campus Reform reached out to Northern Illinois University for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.