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Summary: I am closing my laboratory, and need to find a new placement for a PhD student who has strong anti-vaccination beliefs. Every professor on campus knows about it. How I can help them find new lab?


One bright, well-performing individual in my group is unvaccinated (against everything, apparently) due to personal beliefs. This individual is not outspoken about these beliefs, but their status as such has been spread not only within our group and department, but to many related groups. Indeed, upon learning this I myself stopped meeting in-person with the individual.

I am closing my laboratory, and seeking new homes for my graduate students (see here if curious). I am having zero luck identifying a new advisor. The student is increasingly frantic; homes have been found for the entire remaining group. It is clear to that student what the problem is, and why no one will engage. I am now hearing comments from them that suggest to me that they will exit and "give up."

My university does not allow sharing of vaccination status, so this cannot be made explicit in any way. I am in the USA, at an R1. They will not get vaccinated, and our program does not allow "unsupervised" students. I would love to pass this matter off to my administration or their counsel, but we have been told to handle this at the departmental level.

How can I resolve this in a more positive way?

Outcome: The student quit.

Happy Update: I have hired her through my new industry position. It is remote work.

Details below.

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    Moderator’s notice: Work with the assumption that the student cannot be convinced to get vaccinated and the asker wants to or has to support this student. If you want to discuss the ethics of the student’s and asker’s choices, how to convince anybody, or the politics of the pandemic, please do so in chat. Any comments, answers or parts thereof going against this will be deleted without warning.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Oct 30 '21 at 7:44
82

Advisor-advisee relationships are not just based on scientific fit, but must also be based on a good personal fit. Nobody is obliged to take on a student, or if they can be obliged to, they can't be forced to be a good advisor (thanks, jakebeal).

If your peers have learned that your student has made some objectionable and unresolved decisions in their past, I see little you can or should do. You specifically mentioned "personal" and not "religious" beliefs, so unless your student is a member of a religious sect with a long-standing opposition to vaccines and wants to start a legal route over religious discrimination, there's not a ton of options for them.

I wouldn't want to supervise a student that doesn't want to help end the pandemic, either. I think there is very little conscientious people owe the willfully unvaccinated at this point.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please use the chat for continued discussion about vaccination / ethics / etc.; comments below this one that continue the debate will be deleted without warning.
    – cag51
    Oct 30 '21 at 19:14
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    My student emailed this evening to resign. I suggested that she give it another week but she was firm. She will drop out of the program, after 4 years. Nov 1 '21 at 3:59
  • An unplanned, happy turn of events: while helping my now former student with letters of recommendation for jobs I sent her a posting for my coming team, for which she successfully applied. Her position will be remote, and her pay is at a level commensurate to her four years of graduate school. I'm happy that one familiar and dependable member of my old team will be helping me in building this new one. I'm also sleeping a bit better at night. Nov 18 '21 at 3:48
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    @ProfessorWind-up Hopefully they make her get vaccinated too. Nov 18 '21 at 4:47
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As the student’s current advisor, you do have some responsibility to help the student find a path forward with their PhD. But that responsibility is not infinite; the student is also responsible for their own decisions and actions, and if they want to continue in the program, it’s their responsibility to make themselves attractive enough that someone else will find the idea of supervising them appealing.

A few things you can do are:

  1. Consider looking for a way to allow the student to transfer to your new department and keep working with you, if this is compatible with your own personal philosophy about what vaccination preferences you’re willing to tolerate in a student, and with the new institution’s covid policies.

  2. Talk to your colleagues and encourage them to take on your student, praising the student’s good qualities as much as you honestly can. If you feel that your lack of ability to mention the student’s vaccination status makes it ethically impossible for you to advocate for the student in such a way, I think a way to resolve this dilemma is to ask the student to give their permission for you to mention their vaccination refusal, waiving the privacy-related constraint. Make it clear that if they will not give you that permission, you will be unable to advocate for them.

  3. If the above advocacy fails, or if the student refuses to waive the privacy restriction, have a heart to heart talk with your student, and explain to them that you did your best to help them find a new advisor, but did not succeed. Explain to them that at that point, as long as they refuse to be vaccinated you do not think they will be successful in continuing with their studies.

After taking these steps, in my opinion you have fulfilled your ethical obligations. It’s up to the student to decide what to do next in such a situation. I don’t see that there is anything else you can or should do.

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    The OP is leaving academia (they have no new department). Oct 30 '21 at 19:30
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    @WoJ if university policy forbids OP from disclosing their student’s vaccination status to other people, I’m sure that would apply to both written and oral communications.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 30 '21 at 20:17
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    @DanRomik: somehow everybody knows he is not vaccinated. This was not formal information so it is not like OP was given confidential information that must not be made public. For some reason, OP wants to be helpful to the student despite putting everyone else in danger. So either his non-vaccination is a normal thing for OP (in which case the whole point is moot), or OP wants to help the student and still have due-diligence informing others what they are getting into. I would be mad if such information was hidden from me (while being known to everybody else).
    – WoJ
    Oct 30 '21 at 20:51
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    My university and state have muzzled faculty in regards to discussing vaccination status. Indeed, the untenable nature of this is one reason I am moving to a more free speech friendly position. I would have ethical issues, in many directions, but this student made their status clear early. Everyone qualified to take them knows. Oct 31 '21 at 0:00
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    @ProfessorWind-up Within the (US) federal and federal contractor community along with many state institutions, inquiring about vaccination status is also a no-no. PII needs to be protected. Good luck finding a more free speech friendly position.
    – doneal24
    Oct 31 '21 at 20:04
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Consider talking to the university's legal counsel if it's because of religious (or other legally protected) reasons.

If this student is refusing vaccination due to genuine religious beliefs, then I would recommend that you talk to the university's legal counsel to figure out what you can do. Discrimination against someone for their religious beliefs is illegal, and that would likely include indirect discrimination as a result of inflexibly applying rules and regulations that have a disparate impact on a protected group. If this is the case, then the university either needs to find him an advisor, or they need to waive the requirement that he has one, in order to protect themselves from a discrimination lawsuit.

If you're in an area where things like political beliefs are legally protected under anti-discrimination legislation, this would also apply if their reason for objecting for vaccination falls under any other legally protected reason.

Additionally, in the comments you've mentioned that the location you live in has a government mandate banning vaccine mandates by private organizations. If your student is unable to find an advisor because of their vaccination status and will be forced to withdraw from their degree as a result, that would amount to a de facto vaccination mandate, and would place the university at a great deal of legal risk if they were to make a complaint to the state government. I would definitely recommend that you speak to the university's legal counsel as a result.

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    The debate on this answer has been moved to chat. Please use the chat for continued discussion/debate; comments below this one should be added only if there is a realistic chance that it could lead to the answer being edited / improved. Additional debate in the comments will be deleted without notice.
    – cag51
    Oct 30 '21 at 19:19
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    This might work; our state does have such legislation, I believe. I am hesitant to pursue options that might end in my fellow faculty, who are individuals I value, being forced into a situation they do not want. If the student goes down that road I would feed ethically unable to help them. I might be legally required to, and the very suspicion that this is true is why I am leaving. Oct 31 '21 at 0:06
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    @ProfessorWind-up This is another reason to talk to the university legal counsel; once you do, you can get them to kick it up the chain and let the university administration handle it.
    – nick012000
    Oct 31 '21 at 0:15
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    @ProfessorWind-up This. The student would most probably not want a supervisor who does not want to be his supervisor but legally forced to. It's a very bad, fustrating, and possibly toxic situation that just sucks for everyone involved, mostly for the student himself. Supervisor-student relations are pretty personal. Suggesting to earn a legally forced supervising againist his will is not a good idea.
    – Neinstein
    Oct 31 '21 at 8:06
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First, I am amazed that they were able to enter a college in the United States while unvaccinated. I didn't know that there were colleges that did not mandate standard vaccines. I could see not mandating HPV or influenza, but I am amazed the situation exists for things like pertussis.

Your ethical obligation is to try; it is not your obligation to succeed. This drama is playing itself out all over the United States right now over a wide range of settings. The problem is that it sounds like there is no way to develop a reasonable accommodation around the student's status.

This is an interesting question that should be answered by the university's legal counsel.

Your institution doesn't require vaccinations so it is accepted as part of the contract that students do not need to be vaccinated to enter programs there. The student needs an advisor and found one, but that advisor is leaving.

I would say that this is not a problem for you, but that the student should engage legal counsel. The institution has a duty to perform, but there is no functional way to force faculty to take on a student.

There is a bizarre contradiction present. The student was admitted with a hidden deficit. That deficit is unrelated to the performance of their duties as a student. The institution entered into a contract with them. The faculty probably do not have to take a student as an advisee but the institution has an obligation to perform.

There may be a legal duty to assign that student to a faculty member. However, the faculty member cannot be made to write letters of recommendation or even to prevent them from recommending against hiring the student.

I would say your ethical duty is complete, but I am not sure the institution's legal duty is complete. Further, I am not sure there could be a path for success for that student even if a faculty member is required to take them on.

If the student leaves, does the institution owe them all the potential lost wages for their time there as well as refund tuition? They entered in good faith. They performed as required. They did not fail to meet the institution's standards.

There are illnesses that prevent vaccination, they are uncommon but they exist. There are also treatments for certain illnesses that eliminate the immunity normally granted by vaccines.

Should those people who either cannot be vaccinated or have been vaccinated but have no immunity be banned from colleges? Generally, colleges grant medical exemptions certified by a health care provider but that isn't what happened here. I would say this is an institutional failure.

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    Your ethical obligation is to try. I do not believe that their ethical obligation is to try to find a place for a student that is a danger to others. Their ethical obligation is to help normal students (something OP apparently did successfully). If this was me, my ethical obligation would be to try as hard as possible to have that person isolated from others.
    – WoJ
    Oct 30 '21 at 21:08
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 1 '21 at 14:00
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One of the ways to defend against Covid-19 is to put on masks. For example, we have only 16,499 cases per 24 million populations in Taiwan so far. The major reason I believe is that most of us (over 99%) put on surgical masks. (Our vaccinated rate is low compare to other countries)

If you cannot convince the student to be vaccinated for whatever reason (be religious belief or not), can you persuade the student to put on the mask?

If the student still refuse to do so, let them go. If the student is willing to put on the mask, then finding a professor to accept them may be easier. If still no one would take them, then you have done your best to keep them.

Good Luck !

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 31 '21 at 19:09
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If you really need to help them, then I suggest that the first step is to get a commitment from them that they will do whatever is necessary to protect those that they work with. Masks, isolation (zoom), whatever. If they are willing to make that a top priority - no excuses, then proceed to the second step, otherwise tell them that you can't help them as it would put others at risk.

The second step is to inform anyone that you recommend them to that they aren't vaccinated and are therefore a potential public health risk, but that they have promised to take all necessary precautions. You may, in some jurisdictions, need their permission to have this conversation with others (IANAL), but if not given and you can't do this, then they are tying your hands from ethical behavior.

If you are in a field in which people need to work closely with one another, such as a lab, then this might actually be impossible. In a field like math it would work, since weekly zoom meetings and electronic communication is both possible and safe. But if people need to huddle over lab equipment then I'd find it hard to come to a solution.

For a belief to be ethical, it must take account of the valid needs of others. If not, it is just selfishness as well as dangerous to public health. And dangerous to public health beyond the bounds of the lab itself, since you have no control over how they interact when away from work. But if they are willing to take responsibility and the physical constraints make it possible, then you can safely (and ethically) work with them.

Furthermore, having a belief and acting on that belief are two different things.

And if you can't work with them, it isn't because you reject their belief. It is because they are a danger to the community.

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    "For a belief to be valid, it must take account of the valid needs of others." This sounds logical and good in theory. In practice, I'm afraid it would invalidate maaaaaany beliefs. Oct 30 '21 at 18:28
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    @EricDuminil, perhaps I should have said "For a belief to be ethical...". At one time in the US, many people believed that slavery was fine.
    – Buffy
    Oct 30 '21 at 18:33
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    a commitment from them that they will do whatever is necessary to protect those that they work with I wonder if there is a situation where this can work. The student thinks that their deity will protect them, or that it is their fate to die if the deity decides to gift them with COVID. I find it hard to believe that they have any incentive at all to protect others (since everything is managed by someone else, up there). You are asking for rational behaviour someone whose behaviour is explicitly and intentionally irrational.
    – WoJ
    Oct 30 '21 at 21:04
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    I miss free speech. It does not exist at my R1 US institution in a way that might allow this. I cannot talk about these things: it is a firing offense. Masks cannot be required or requested. Faculty here lecture in packed rooms, are forced to have office hours, they are levered into service meetings, all with what every statistic tells us are many, many unvaccinated. Our state likely lies about these statistics to make them look more benign. It's bad, mkaes being ethical impossible, and is not what I worked so hard to do with my life. This is why I'm leaving. Oct 31 '21 at 0:19
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    @Ben, unlikely if you have the person's permission.
    – Buffy
    Nov 1 '21 at 11:40
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Check if anyone in the faculty holds the same beliefs. That may be his only chance. If none, go with the university's guidelines. That falls under the jurisdiction of the College Secretary and the university's legal office.

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  • What does the "College Secretary" do? In the universities I'm familiar with (US/Canada) there's no such role. Oct 30 '21 at 19:31
  • @AzorAhai-him- in some Canadian universities, it would be the "Secretariat" which is a department which reports to the President. Oct 30 '21 at 21:38
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    Some description of a Canadian university's secretariat is given here. Briefly: it seems to be the department which reports to the university leadership and is responsible for overseeing the implementing of the policies that the leadership decides on.
    – cag51
    Oct 30 '21 at 22:08
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    This actually has been my strategy for the last couple days. We do have individuals here aligned with the idea that vaccinations are not necessary. However, I have not been successful. One major challenge that has arisen: I am forbidden to talk about vaccination statuses. The individuals I have talked to are the first to bring up this rule. I've already been reported once, and had another (the same, potentially) threaten verbally. I have a lot to do before I leave, and this latest issue just makes me feel tired. Oct 31 '21 at 0:24
  • @cag Thanks for answering my question! Is that the same as the college secretary mentioned in the A? Oct 31 '21 at 4:33
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I agree with other commentators that you should take whatever action is reasonable to find a new place for the student, but their acceptance depends on the decisions of others. Your obligation is to make reasonable efforts to assist the student to find a new place, but you can only do what you can do --- you are not obliged to guarantee successful placement of the student. You have stated that the student is a bright and well-performing student, so presumably you can give a reference that reflects that reality. Aside from helping to identify possible placements and giving a good reference to the student, it is difficult to see what more you can reasonably do.

If you are concerned that vaccination status is having an adverse impact here, I would recommend you seek to have potential laboratory supervisors apply whatever are the operative university rules --- i.e., if there are vaccination mandates at the university then the student should be bound by them, and if there are not then the student should be free to attend a university laboratory without vaccination. You can seek information on university policies and applicable laws from the university legal counsel, and they can also give guidance on whether or not it is legitimate for university personnel to take account of the vaccination status of the student in their decisions. Seeking advice from the university legal counsel would be prudent in any event, since there are also possible legal issues relating to privacy breaches (see below).


Possible privacy violation issue: Notwithstanding the limitation on your own responsibilities, an important issue here is for your institution to ensure that relevant privacy laws/policies are being respected, and take action if there has been any breach of applicable rules. Your post is unclear about the details, but from your description it sounds like the student either did not disclose their vaccination status, or did not disclose it widely. In most jurisdictions, medical information taken from students is subject to privacy laws/polices, and this generally means that the medical status of a student cannot be disclosed except on a "needs to know" basis, and with various privacy protections. The legal situation in the US is complicated, but universities are covered by FERPA in many cases, and this imposes privacy obligations on the university. You also state that your university rules prevent sharing of vaccination status.

Your post states that the student's medical status has been spread around within your group and department and to other related groups. That sounds like it would probably entail a violation of privacy rules in FERPA and in your university rules. If so, that could lead to a complaint against the university and possible legal action either under FERPA or contract law. Since you are closing your laboratory, this is not an issue for you personally, but it is something that you should bring to the attention of the Head of School and possibly also HR/legal counsel at the university.

One of the other answers here suggests that you should encourage the student to waive their privacy obligations in order for you to directly discuss the issue with potential laboratories, and you should tell them you cannot effectively advocate for them if they are unwilling to waive these rights. I would strongly recommend against doing that without first speaking to the university legal counsel. It could raise further legal issues relating to the privacy obligations of the university.

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  • Three comments, which I will leave separately so they can be deleted separately. (1) US institutions don't usually have a "Head of School," there might be a department chair, the dean of a college or school (a collection of related depts in a university) or a university president/chancellor. Which do you refer? Nov 1 '21 at 13:37
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    (2) FERPA covers educational records, not medical ones. Even if vaccination status could be considered an education record (I doubt it), even at my liberal university with a vaccination requirement, professors do not have the ability to look it up, as it isn't deemed "need to know." FERPA does not stop the student or their peers from sharing any information about themselves Nov 1 '21 at 13:40
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    (3) Perhaps it is different in other countries, but medical privacy in the US only extends to covered institutions, i.e. doctors and people that need to know. It is not applicable to medical information that a professor learns about a student. It might be rude, but it is not illegal for someone to share medical information they have learned about someone else unless they are in a provider relationship to begin with. Nov 1 '21 at 13:44
  • Whilst I am not an expert on FERPA, your answer seems to contradict the little I know about it. In particular, immunisation records held by an education provider are considered to be part of the education record at primary and secondary level, and at tertiary level it seems likely that they would also be covered. OP suggests that the vaccination status of the student was spread around by others, not by voluntary disclosure of the student. In any case, it is worth drawing to the attention of university legal counsel so that they can assess the matter.
    – Ben
    Nov 1 '21 at 23:32
  • It seems you are right that vaccination is considered an educational record (studentprivacy.ed.gov/sites/default/files/resource_document/…), so my bad on that. Nonetheless, if OP's university is so cavalier about vaccines to begin with, they may not even be collecting it, in which case it can't be an educational record. But, from a legal perspective, it would still only be illegal for someone to access that record and tell people, it is still irrelevant if the student shared that information herself. Nov 1 '21 at 23:40
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As an uninjected graduate student who won't be compromising on this, it was really a non-issue for me. I did everything online.

In-person was always unnecessary, and I think classes should have been in a distanced format anyway and it was a move backwards to restart in-person classes.

Anyway the point is, unless there is a compelling reason for the person to meet in person their vaccination status should be completely irrelevant.

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    Your answer isn't relevant. If distance were an option, then this wouldn't be a problem. Some doctoral programs do not even have classes, other than a pro forma course in research so there is something to bill for. An unvaccinated graduate student in some fields would be a hazard, such as medicine. Indeed, in practice, in some fields/programs there would be no way for the person to graduate because there would be requirements on external participation such as internships. I would never consider hiring an unvaccinated person. Oct 30 '21 at 20:54
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    As an advisor/mentor of grad students in math in the U.S., I would not want to take on an advisee whose success would a-priori be limited (in my mind) by no personal meetings, no matter what they thought. I feel responsible for at least the short-term success of my people, and would not want to take up such a responsibility with limitations that I think could be fatal, whether or not someone else perceives those limitations as such. (Similarly, after some experience with the whole mess, I don't think "distance" teaching is as good as in-person. It's a "much narrower pipe"... ) Oct 30 '21 at 21:11
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    Indeed, remote is not an option in my field. Oct 31 '21 at 0:26
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    @paulgarrett would you also not be willing to take on a student who was paraplegic and physically unable to meet with you in person? What about a student suffering from an illness that put them at risk of early and sudden death? The logic you are employing seems tailored to justify a particular no-advising decision that conveniently matches your moral disapproval of anti-vaxxers in particular. But as these examples show, it’s a dangerous logic to employ and can justify all kinds of other behavior I’m guessing you won’t condone as enthusiastically.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 31 '21 at 4:40
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    @DanRomik, I guess I can't help but view "refusal to be vaccinated" as a voluntary self-disservice, in which I would hesitate to be complicit.. Involuntary compromises would not involve my complicitness. I suppose the issue that is active in my mind is about voluntary-or-not (about restricting/damaging interaction with advisor/mentor...) Oct 31 '21 at 17:40

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