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Steve O'Kane

Steve O'Kane

The University of Northern Iowa removed Steve O'Kane from the classroom last week and made him ineligible for merit pay for the rest of the academic year.

Previously, the longtime tenured professor of biology had been in good standing at UNI. Now, his dean says his performance "needs improvement," and he's required to complete faculty responsibility training. Further disciplinary action, up to and including termination, is still possible.

O'Kane's offense? Requiring students in his lab-based plant science course to wear masks.

UNI says that O'Kane's policy violates a controversial Iowa Board of Regents policy against mask mandates. The professor says he's just doing what's right, "morally and ethically."

Quick Decision

"My lab is very close, very intimate. I'm hovering over the students at microscopes and they're hovering over each other over specimens and microscopes. And it just came to me that this is untenable, this is not what we should be doing," O'Kane said of his split-second decision to require masks in the lab. "These students could be infecting one another, they could be leaving my lab and infecting another lab, and who knows where the virus ends up."

O'Kane's realization was based, in part, on the fact that not all of his students were wearing masks. "So I went up to the front of the class and gave them what I would call the two-minute version of the biology of viruses," he said. "And I said, 'Because of that, I'm going to institute a policy that if, if you don't have a mask on, you will not receive points on laboratory work on that day.'"

O'Kane said he didn't get much resistance, beyond one student who "kind of balked" at the idea and put the mask on anyway. And it's possible that O'Kane's policy might never have come to administrators' attention, if he hadn't reported himself to his faculty union president, CC'ing his department chair, dean and provost. But he said he wanted to make a difference, beyond his lab.

"I just told my Plant Systematics class that if they don't wear a mask in class they will get no points for the day. I also told them the provost's name and where to find him if they wish to complain. My and my student's health is not worth the risk," O'Kane wrote in his email to the union and his supervisors. "I will resign on the spot if made to recant. Further, I am willing to be a test court case should you need one."

Little came of the letter, at first. Then the local Gazette reported on a resolution that O'Kane introduced to the Faculty Senate, of which he is a member. Similar to recent missives from various Iowa faculty groups to the governing board, O'Kane's resolution supported local control over mask mandates.

"Faculty members, at their own discretion, should manage their own classroom in a way that maximizes their own and their students' health and, by extension, the health of the broader university and local community," his resolution said. "Members should exercise this choice even if disallowed by state law, the Board of Regents, or University of Northern Iowa policy."

Lasting Consequences

The resolution has been tabled, indefinitely. But O'Kane was quoted by the Gazette as saying he'd adopted his own mask rule, and that he'd "made it clear to the administration that I am willing to be terminated for my actions." He added that he'd "immediately sue the university and the Board of Regents if that were to come to pass."

A day after the article appeared, O'Kane was called to a meeting with his dean and department chair, acknowledging that he understood the board policy against mask mandates. He didn't bend, arguing that the mandate wasn't so much about his own safety in the classroom as his students, and whomever they might potentially infect, were they to contract COVID-19 in his lab.

A day after that meeting, O'Kane received a formal notice of disciplinary action from his dean, John Fritch. The letter cites the Gazette article, specifically O'Kane's statement that he'd linked his mask policy to each class meeting's lab grade, and the meeting the day prior.

"Based upon this information, it is apparent you have acted in violation of university and [board] policy by requiring masks of your students," Fritch wrote to O'Kane. "Further, you have violated UNI [policy] regarding your responsibilities to your students by threatening to lower your students' grades should they refuse to comply with your self-imposed mask mandate."

Fritch issued various forms of discipline, including the "needs improvement" status and related merit pay ineligibility. He said that O'Kane was free to continue teaching most of his classes, which were already online, but that another faculty member would have to take over the in-person lab class to ensure its "academic integrity."

"Going forward, you will be expected to comply with all university and [board] policies, including all policies or directives regarding masks or face coverings," Fritch wrote.

O'Kane said it's "diabolical" that the university has responded this way, after 26 years of exemplary teaching, research and service.

"My disciplinary treatment goes at the very heart of me," he said. "They took me out of the classroom, which is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It's what puts a smile on my face, and gives my life that extra little burner. They took that away from me, face-to-face Then I have to take a course on basically being a good university citizen. I call it 'being obedient' class, which is a slap in the face, given how much I've done for the university. My teaching has always been ranked excellent."

While the discipline and lack of merit pay hurt, worst of all is that students in the lab have been punished, too, he said. "I'm trying to work it out to where they won't suffer. That's the real sad piece of this."

Any colleague who steps in for O'Kane -- even willingly -- will also be punished to some degree, in the form of extra work, he added.

In any case, O'Kane said he and his administration remain at an impasse, as he's made it "crystal clear" that he's not changing his mind about masks next semester, either. That's unless the COVID-19 situation in Iowa changes dramatically between now and then.

The university said in a statement that is "deeply committed to the health and safety of our campus community," and that is "strongly encourages" everyone to "get vaccinated and wear masks correctly while in indoor public spaces and use multiple other tools at our disposal -- including testing, reporting and monitoring. The rate of positive COVID-19 cases continues to drop in Iowa, Black Hawk County, and on campus."

Under Board of Regents directives, the statement said, "neither the university nor faculty can mandate that masks be worn on campus, including in classrooms," with the exception of settings such as healthcare operations." UNI has processes in place to address violations of university and board policy and, following an internal review of actions "by a single faculty member, the university has taken appropriate measures to uphold compliance with those policies on campus."

UNI declined further comment on what it called a personnel matter.

Support from Peers, and Seeking More

On Saturday, UNI's faculty union, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, sent a statement to the full faculty and administration, saying that O'Kane had taken "a brave public stand in the name of protecting the health and safety of our UNI family and the Cedar Valley community." Some 85 percent of the faculty expressed support for classroom mask mandates in a fall survey, the union said, and "there are so many things wrong" with the decision to punish O'Kane, "it is hard to know where to start." The United Faculty, the union, said it will nevertheless "pursue each and every issue and will strenuously defend Dr. O'Kane."

The union's particular contentions include a legal argument, made recently by University of Iowa professors and graduate students, that Chapter 20 of the Iowa Code protects the rights of employees to organize for mutual protection, and that the board policy against masking is not a law that could negate this right.

The union also argued that the university violated its own policies in disciplining O'Kane, as faculty members are rated annually on their teaching, not compliance with policy, and how professors grade their students is an explicit part of academic freedom at UNI. None of O'Kane's own students even complained about the mask rule, the union said, and UNI suspended him from teaching before allowing for a faculty panel to review the evidence against him. (O'Kane also argued that he sees masks as part of the standard equipment students must use in a lab.)

Moreover, the union said, "The discipline imposed is a disproportionate unnecessarily disruptive, political show of force that harms O'Kane's students and their learning, and communicates to faculty that UNI [and the board] will not stand up to external threats to our core values like academic freedom, peer review in evaluation, due process and the core mission of transformative education." O'Kane is an "outstanding teacher, scholar, and servant leader" who received the board's own Award of Excellence in 2015, the union continued, and who originally chose to do the lab class in person, not online, this term, because he believed it was the best way to teach that particular content.

O'Kane's "deep commitment to his students, at risk to his own health, makes his removal from the classroom all the more outrageous," the union said. "United Faculty will continue to advocate for increased COVID safety measures like masks and social distancing," including in pursuing its thus-far-unsuccessful complaints about workplace safety with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

O'Kane said he knows that as a senior faculty member with no small children at home that he's better positioned, personally and professionally, to take a stand than most. But saying that it's easier for the university to take action against one faculty member than many, and citing a growing faculty pledge in Georgia to defy mask mandate bans in that state, he encouraged other professors in Iowa to join him.

"I mean it very, very sincerely, I hope that colleagues at the three regent universities, some of them who are able to, might have it in them to join me," he said.

O'Kane added, "I have it on good authority also any number of people are, shall we say, disobeying the directive as well, but their necks aren't on the chopping block as mine is. They haven't put it there. I have because I want to make a difference."

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