Mounting Faculty Concerns About the Fall Semester

Professors across institutions increasingly wave red flags about the private and public health implications of default face-to-face instruction come fall, along with a lack of shared decision making in staffing and teaching decisions.

June 30, 2020
 
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Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, an early advocate of reopening campuses for the fall, has become a de facto spokesperson for the movement. The role comes with attendant criticism, including from within his institution.

During an interview on CNN, for example, Daniels was asked about a previous comment Alice Pawley, associate professor of engineering education and president of the main Purdue campus’s American Association of University Professors chapter, made to Inside Higher Ed: “I don’t want to think about face-to-face teaching the hordes of students I usually teach until there is a vaccine.”

Daniels told CNN that Pawley represented a “very tiny minority” of the Purdue faculty and that she was “frankly, not from the most scientifically credible corner of our very STEM-based campus.”

Pawley’s three engineering degrees (engineering being the “E” in STEM) notwithstanding, Daniels added, “No one is compelled to work or teach at Purdue, but let’s give that person the benefit of the doubt.”

Daniels has since walked back the comment, and he plans to meet with Pawley this week. He also said that he didn’t know if Pawley realized his vision for fall is professors teaching behind Plexiglas, with students wearing face masks.

Whatever his intent was, the effect of Daniels’s words was to paint Pawley and her concerns as fringe.

Mainstream Objections

They are not. In the month since Daniels’s CNN interview -- since the end of the blur that was the spring semester -- faculty concerns about the fall at Purdue and beyond have only crystallized and multiplied. The growing number of COVID-19 cases nationwide and emerging new virus hot spots do nothing to quiet them.

A recent survey completed by more than 7,000 Purdue faculty and staff members and graduate students, for example, found that 53 percent felt unsafe about returning to campus for in-person fall classes. Sixty-two percent of respondents felt at least somewhat unsafe teaching or interacting with students, and 92 percent lacked confidence that students would socially distance outside the classroom setting.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents worried that students wouldn’t regularly wear masks, as required. And while the university puts much stock in its new honor code-like Protect Purdue Pledge to follow pandemic-related safety guidance, 67 percent of survey respondents had doubts that the pledge would be effective.

Purdue’s fall plan -- like many other campuses -- relies on faculty members, among other employees, to enforce student behavior. But only one-third of respondents said they would be willing to “confront and educate” others in violation of the pledge.

Beyond Purdue, faculty members at dozens of institutions have completed similar surveys, launched petitions, published op-eds and sent letters of concern to their administrations and governing boards about the fall. Some have even appealed to local labor boards. They say they’re desperate for a real voice in these conversations.

Many professors are worried about the private and public health implications of having students return to campus and expectations about who will teach them face-to-face. If there is any consensus, it is that instructors should not be forced to teach in person, and that teaching remotely shouldn’t require any special medical exemption.

Some institutions have stated that they’ll allow reasonable accommodations as required under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But professors are pushing back, saying that those guidelines are too narrow for a pandemic that has been known to sicken even young people without pre-existing conditions.

Some professors are equally concerned about immediate college and university plans to lay off or furlough faculty members, as in many places it remains unclear whether fall will look like a typical economic downturn in terms of enrollment -- with numbers increasing due to limited work opportunities -- or something different.

More generally, professors feel that they’re being left out the decision-making process, especially where it concerns the classroom, virtual or otherwise.

Amid and in response to these objections, some institutions -- Purdue included -- have held town hall series for faculty members, graduate students and their staffs.

‘Nagging Question’

Few of these events have led to significant policy shifts regarding the fall, however.

Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, last week wrote a column for EdSurge about his borderline “obsessive” study of fall plans and the committees behind them. Too few involve faculty expertise, especially in the areas of public health and medicine, he said. And despite the “catchy names like ‘Smart Restart’ and ‘Forward to Fall,’ I’m left with a nagging question.”

During a global pandemic that has killed “more than 120,000 people and counting in the U.S. alone,” McClure said, “what is the responsibility of higher education institutions? The answer I would like to see from college leaders is that we have a duty more profound than institutional budgets or student preferences.”

McClure said in an interview that “faculty members are almost perennially dissatisfied with their level of involvement in major decisions.” Yet institutions err when they exclude faculty members from subcommittees of import, assume that a dean or other administrator will automatically represent the interests of faculty members in decisions, or survey professors on their opinions but don’t act on the results.

Henry Stoever, CEO of the Association of Governing Boards, said that boards “should seek input from a range of sources and stakeholders,” including faculty members, even when they don’t have a designated seat.

That said, Stoever continued, “It is the responsibility of boards and presidents to make the final decision on if or when to reopen campuses. Institutions with strong support for the principles of shared governance will likely have the added benefit of a more informed faculty perspective with which to make this important decision.”

As the clock ticks toward fall, some professional associations are weighing in. The American Anthropological Association, borrowing language from the Accessible Campus Action Alliance, last week called for remote instruction to be the default teaching mode.

Citing COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on underrepresented minority communities and the high share of asymptomatic carriers, the association said that “making online teaching the default, rather than the exception, especially for larger classes, would reduce the uncertainties accompanying hybrid and in-person teaching and learning in the fall.”

This more limited approach to campus reopening “would free on-campus space for students to maintain social distance if they do not have safe off-campus housing, and would still allow for a limited amount of teaching and learning that require on-campus work,” the association said.

The American Association of University Professors’ Committee on College and University Governance also affirmed a statement on protecting academic freedom and shared governance during crises “in response to growing concern over unilateral actions taken by governing boards and administrations during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Teaching Autonomy

Some 600 faculty members and graduate student instructors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have called on their administration to ensure that no instructor will be required to teach in person or disclose personal health concerns. They also want everyone on campus to be required to wear masks and practice social distancing, and to be tested for COVID-19.

The faculty petition was designed to outline minimum requirements for an on-campus fall, but questions remain about returning to campus at all, said María DeGuzmán, Eugene H. Falk Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Chapel Hill.

“When we shut down in March, there were 25 people in the hospital” in North Carolina with coronavirus, she said. “Now in our state 890 people are in the hospital for COVID-19, so why are we trying to return people to campus with surging cases?”

North Carolina recently hit a peak for coronavirus hospitalizations, as states including Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Arizona are seeing increases in cases.

DeGuzmán said that with only six weeks remaining before the fall semester, now is the time to “be asking very hard questions of the people managing the university and the [governing] board.”

While there is an obvious financial case for bringing students -- and their room and board dollars -- back to Chapel Hill, DeGuzmán asked how much a fall outbreak would cost the university, for example. Only some institutions have warned students they may not get housing refunds in the event of another campus closure. College and university indemnity from COVID-19-related lawsuits is still being debated, meanwhile.

Over all, DeGuzmán said, “We are all people who love higher education and thrive on teaching, but we don’t want to see our institution founder. We don’t want to see people die and people get very sick.”

Chapel Hill said in a statement that it understands faculty and staff members “must factor in personal needs as they consider transitioning back to work and the university has outlined steps faculty can take to secure flexible work arrangements when possible.” Both formal and informal processes were intentionally designed with privacy in mind and do not require disclosure of the reason for the request, the university said.

Still, some see the university’s promise of “flexibility” with respect to teaching accommodations as too vague, and as putting too much ethical responsibility on department chairs who much field professors’ accommodation requests. Chapel Hill’s nonmedical policy on flexible work conditions encourages employees to “work with managers, supervisors and department chairs to identify solutions that balance individual needs with those of their respective schools and units, and the university as a whole.”

Within the Pennsylvania State University system, more than 1,000 professors and graduate students signed an open letter to their administration asking for assurances of instructional autonomy, clear safety measures, job security for fixed-term faculty and much greater faculty member involvement in decisions that affect them.

“Now is the time for Penn State to put people first, to engage in an open discussion about what our priorities as a university should be, and for the faculty to play a central role in making decisions about how to respond to this crisis,” reads the petition.

Wyatt DuBois, university spokesperson, said stringent safety protocols are being worked out over the summer, with the "active involvement" of faculty, staff and students. On teaching, "Penn State will make adjustments for individuals who are immunocompromised, live with someone who is immunocompromised or have some other special circumstance that should be considered. Safety is our first priority."

Faculty members "who are able to teach will return to the classroom as part of a flexible approach to in-class instruction that will include remote learning, too," DuBois said, "in order to lower density and create physical distancing. We are asking faculty members to develop their teaching plans for doing this in the fall, and to discuss them with their unit and department leads."

Plexiglas Classroom

Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at the University Park campus, said, “This issue is picking up momentum nationwide as people realize a) how bad the pandemic is going to be in the fall and b) how awful the in-class experience is going to be for a lot of students.”

Take this example: Bérubé said a friend of his recently calculated that University Park’s largest classroom holds 700 students but has a social distancing capacity of 130. As of now, Penn State plans to put courses with over 250 students online. So what about classes with enrollments between 130 and 250, Bérubé asked.

“Are they to be held in the performing arts center, the hockey arena, the basketball stadium?”

That doesn’t begin to address concerns social distancing in and around Penn State’s commuter campuses, Bérubé said. Yet the “broader problem is that faculty didn't have a chance to raise questions about the actual logistics of in-person instruction in the first place.”

And “don't get me started on the thing about professors standing behind a Plexiglas-shielded lectern,” he added. “That would work if faculty were like cashiers socially distancing from their customers. But there are any number of disciplines in which that pedagogical model makes no sense.”

At Purdue, Pawley said recently that professors are being asked whether they want to teach online -- generally interpreted to be asynchronous -- or in person. That doesn’t cover a host of instructional methods, however, she said, including flipped classrooms or remote, synchronous instruction.

Pawley said it probably makes the most sense to concentrate efforts and expenses on putting Plexiglas in the most hands-on courses where remote instruction will be difficult if not impossible. But she hasn’t exactly been asked.

Watching Kids and Protecting Families

At Florida State University, employees were informed last week that they won’t be allowed to teach at home and watch children at the same time, come fall. The university says this is an existing telework policy that was suspended at the beginning of the pandemic, which will take effect again in August, in anticipation of public schools reopening.

Coronavirus cases in Florida are rising, casting some doubt on whether schools will actually open in August and whether all parents will be willing to send their children every day. The matter appears to be in flux. Eric Chicken, a professor of statistics and president of the Florida State Faculty Senate, said Monday that faculty members won't be subject to the policy while working remotely.

"We are keeping an eye on this and other issues carefully since the pandemic situation in Florida seems to be getting worse rather than better," Chicken said.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, some faculty members had already secured alternative work accommodations from their department chairs for the fall, only to see them upended last week. That’s when the university announced that those accommodations would have to be reapproved through a formal human relations-based process prioritizing “high-risk” employees for remote instruction.

Outcomes won’t be announced until mid-July. These new guidelines are also individual, meaning that professors with high-risk family members they’re trying to protect may see their accommodation requests denied.

The Georgia Board of Regents continues to encourage mask wearing in classrooms, rather than making it mandatory.

Alexandra Edwards, Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in literature, media and communication at Georgia Tech, said she’s hoping for a remote accommodation due to a disability. More than in-person classes this fall, Edwards said the “scariest thing to me” about the new policy “is the level of data collection they are attempting to conduct -- asking us to consent to HR talking directly to our doctors, compiling spreadsheets that list our medical conditions -- with no information on how such information will be stored, protected or used or not used in the future.” Edwards noted that Georgia Tech had a data breach involving 1.3 million people's personal information last year.

In one rare faculty victory, Texas Christian University was pursuing a similar, ADA-based policy for remote accommodations for the fall. Faculty members complained, including Jason Helms, an associate professor of English. While Helms was not high risk, he said he needed an accommodation to avoid infecting his young daughter, who suffers from a rare heart condition.

Late last week, following a contentious Faculty Senate meeting and negative media attention, Texas Christian announced a new, more flexible policy based on instructor choice.

Andrew Ledbetter, professor of communication studies at Texas Christian, said that while “many issues remain for the faculty and administration to work through,” he’s “grateful that the administration listened to the voice of the faculty regarding the medium for fall 2020 instruction.”

Ledbetter understands the administration’s view “that many students prefer face-to-face teaching, as I do myself. I look forward to when we can return to the physical classroom safely.”

With COVID-19 cases “spiking in Texas and in Fort Worth, this was a reasonable and prudent move by the administration," he said.

Finances and Staffing

Cases are spiking in Arizona, too, and faculty members at the University of Arizona have voiced their own objections to plans for an on-campus fall. But professors there are also concerned about the institution’s plan to furlough employees making $44,500 or more, starting this week. The university says the furloughs are necessary to offset a projected budget shortfall of $250 million due to the pandemic. But many professors want Arizona to wait until September to furlough professors, when it’s clear that enrollments will actually suffer due to the pandemic. Already, some 200 employees have been laid off or not renewed.

Last week, some 89 percent of nearly 1,500 participating faculty members voted to delay the furloughs. The vote, arranged by the Coalition for Academic Justice, a group of professors, graduate students and staff members, was symbolic. But the coalition has also proposed an alternative furlough plan, concentrating the effects of the budget measure on those employees making $200,000 or more.

The university says its furlough plan will save about $95 million.

Celeste Gonzáles de Bustamante, professor of journalism at Arizona, said coalition research has identified hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve funds, apart from the university’s endowment, that could be tapped to avoid the furloughs.

“These are for catastrophic and emergency events,” she said. “If we’re not using them during a pandemic, what are they for?” She added, “Why put all the burden on faculty, staff and other university employees when you have other options?”

At the one-time center of the U.S. epidemic, New York City, professors within the City University of New York system are fighting the non-reappoinmentment of more than 400 adjuncts at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and possibly many more. Numerous CUNY colleges and universities have warned of possible non-reappointments of their own, as CUNY faces both city and state budget cuts. The extended deadline for non-reappointments is this week. Some 422 adjuncts systemwide have lost their health insurance due to non-reappointment or reduced teaching hours, affecting their eligibility for coverage.

CUNY's union, the Professional Staff Congress, has urged the university to resist normalizing more cuts to an already underfunded, majority-minority institution, especially during a pandemic and a social justice movement. Resisting includes lobbying and digging deep into unspent federal CARES Act funds, the union says.

Bianca Johnson, an adjunct at Queens College, teaches classes in the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge program for underprepared college students. Typically, SEEK’s summer program is a month, she said, while this summer, due to COVID-19-related budget cuts, it’s just eight days.

Johnson has a spinal cord injury and is recovering from what was likely COVID-19. Beyond what she stands to lose personally in terms of a job and health insurance, Johnson said cutting adjuncts means cutting students’ options.

“If you take away the instructors, you are taking away the class offerings, meaning it could take longer for students to graduate. That means they might have to take out more loans,” Johnson said. “CUNY should not be a place to cut. It produces teachers at all levels and people who pursue all different careers. It’s affordable and allows for a lot of New Yorkers to have flexible educations and not be in so much debt.”

Frank Sobrino, a spokesperson for CUNY, said that the university isn’t immune to the challenges and uncertainties engendered by COVID-19, “and in the absence of federal funding to support New York State and New York City through this crisis, our fiscal outlook is dim and uncertain.”

Ticking Clock

Colleges are informing a large number of adjunct professors that their reappointment for fall can’t be guaranteed, he said, but if the federal government “acts as it should, and the fiscal outlook improves, many could be rehired to teach in the fall.”

Kiernan Mathews, executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, said he recently talked to a series of provosts about COVID-19 and other issues -- including what Mathews called “intergenerational mistrust” between older and younger faculty members. Such mistrust showed itself in different ways prior to the pandemic, he said, but it’s especially apparent now.

“This virus is being called not a great leveler, but a great revealer,” Mathews said. “When it comes time to talk about who is going to teach in person and who is not, older faculty are saying, ‘Don’t expect me to put my life at risk.’ So younger faculty and graduate assistants are saying, ‘What, we have to bear the burden of teaching in person, just because of our age?’”

Adjuncts may also feel this kind of pressure, since their future employment is not secure.

Other provosts are doubtful about returning to campus at all, Mathews also said.

Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at Georgia Tech who is currently working on COVID-19 modeling, said that “a broad set of policies -- from mask wearing, testing strategies, to rules undermining the ability of faculty to decide how to teach -- are likely to put students, staff and faculty at Georgia Tech at greater risk.”

Many in the campus community have advocated for “more aggressive, public-health driven approaches to prepare for the fall term,” Weitz said.

Now, he continued, “we have approximately six weeks left before the start of the fall term, and these next few weeks will be crucial to change course.”

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