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Faculty Say Concerns Were Ignored in Penn State's Reopening Plan

by and on June 16, 2020 4:20 PM

Hundreds of Penn State faculty members say their concerns were left unaddressed when the university announced plans for students and employees to return to campus for the fall semester.

Penn State President Eric Barron announced on Sunday night that the university would resume on-campus classes on Aug. 24 and convert to remote online instruction after Thanksgiving for the remainder of the fall semester.

Two days earlier, an open letter was delivered to Penn State administrators outlining a range of issues related to the fall semester and the university's response to COVID-19, including calls for faculty autonomy in deciding how to deliver classes, guarantees for staff and non-tenure faculty job security, specific safety measures and transparency and faculty governance in decision-making.

The letter has been signed by more than 850 faculty members and more than 300 graduate students and staff. It was addressed to Barron, Provost Nick Jones and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Kathy Bieschke.

Faculty members wrote on Tuesday that the university ignored their concerns.

“President Barron’s statement doesn’t address any of the concerns we expressed in our open letter," Sarah Townsend, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, said in a statement. "It offers no guarantee that faculty will be able to take the measures needed to protect their own safety, along with the safety of their students, staff and the broader community. Right now many people are worried about whether they’ll have a job in the fall, and yet his statement says nothing about job security for non-tenure track faculty and staff, and the critical need for funding our graduate students.”

Townsend and other faculty members said on Tuesday that there has been "a lack of transparency and faculty involvement in ongoing decision-making processes."

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email that faculty, staff and students have been  engaged in a variety of ways since the planning process began three months ago, and will continue to be.

"Penn State President Eric Barron has taken a phased approach involving active information gathering, planning, consultation, engagement and transparent communication in the University’s decision making throughout this crisis," Powers said.

She cited Barron's multiple updates to the community about health priorities, fiscal situations, scenarios and planning; four town hall meetings with Barron and other university leaders; regular coverage in the university's daily email newsletter and a dedicated website; engagement of Faculty Senate and outreach to students and other community members; surveys of students, faculty and staff used to inform planning; and 16 task groups charged with developing plans for returning to work and classes, which Powers said involved more than 300 faculty and staff across the university.   

Faculty members wrote on Tuesday that fewer than 20 of the task group members were faculty, and most of those hold administrative title.

“Despite the educational mission of the university, faculty haven’t been consulted on the return to instruction in any meaningful way," Joshua Wede, a non-tenure track teaching professor of psychology said in a statement. "Take a look at the task forces — out of 250+ individuals listed, faculty make up far less than 10%. And teaching faculty, who are the driving force behind the educational mission of the university, make up less than 2% of individuals involved in the process (despite making up more than half of the full-time faculty). If the university wants to get the most out of the upcoming semester, the administration needs input from those on the front-lines.”

The faculty letter called for the university to commit to several formalized policies, including:

- Implementation of "a rigorous system of free, widespread COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and isolation for faculty, staff and students. The university also would provide all necessary personal protective equipment, and cover all costs related to COVID-19 treatment.

- Outlining procedures "for addressing violations of social distancing, the wearing of masks, and other safety protocols," and giving faculty "the right to bar non-compliant students from their in-person classes," to protect themselves and other students.

- Giving instructors autonomy "in deciding whether to teach classes, attend meetings, and hold office hours remotely, in-person, or in some hybrid mode," as well as allowing staff to work remotely.

"If the university is committed to the health and safety of the entire community, then all instructors/faculty on and off the tenure track as well as graduate student instructors must be able to determine for themselves how best to conduct their classes," Michael Bérubé, professor of literature and a former Faculty Senate chair, said in a statement. "According to the American Association of University Professors, this is an essential aspect of academic freedom. I don't see how any other option is plausible or defensible." 

Barron's announcement included a variety of public health safety measures the university plans to employ, including social distancing regulations, masking, modifications to indoor spaces, and holding classes of more than 250 students online only. 

Decisions for how to deliver smaller classes will be left to individual academic units and campuses.

Barron also said the university would have a "robust testing and contact-tracing program" and would hire additional staff members for contact tracing. Penn State plans to "enhance access to early health-care consultation and treatment," and is "building capacity to isolate and quarantine impacted individuals, including support for isolated persons, to facilitate proper medical care. "

As far as students who do not comply with safety protocols, the university said students will be encouraged to follow guidelines and will be asked to sign a pledge that they will, but there was no mention of sanctions for non-compliance.

Citing Penn State’s “significant liquid assets,” faculty members asked the university to commit to:

- Extending fixed-term faculty contracts through the 2020-2021 academic year at a salary equal to or exceeding faculty members’ 2019-2020 contracts

- Maintaining full employment, pay, raises, and benefits for all faculty and staff

- Maintaining or raising all pre-pandemic levels of funding for graduate employees and guarantee a yearlong extension of funding to current grad students whose “progress has been impacted”

- Implementing hiring initiatives to ensure its workforce remains strong and diverse while advancing current faculty, especially underrepresented groups

- Committing to using financial resources to “ensure the maintenance of programs and positions” across Penn State’s campuses

In April, Penn State announced it was furloughing about 2,000 employees at 50 percent pay. Though Sunday's announcement indicated some workers are being brought back in phases, the university has not specified how many are returning and when.

The letter asked Penn State to ensure faculty play a “central role” in making decisions moving forward, going beyond a few individuals on task forces, town hall meetings, and online surveys. They also implored Penn State to create a “clear and effective system of liaisons” to quickly and efficiently share plans for the fall and financial information.

“Despite the challenges, we look forward to collaborating and contributing our collective knowledge to this endeavor so that rather than simply weathering the crisis, Penn State will emerge as a more equitable and spirited place of learning for all,” they wrote.

Some faculty members said they believe that by having their concerns ignored, they are being put at risk.

“Faculty feel that their concerns about personal and public health are being ignored or downplayed by administrators and that they are being subjected to a dangerous, potentially deadly experiment — without their informed consent,” Esther Prins, professor of education, wrote.

Michael J. Bernstein, a professor of psychology at Penn State Abington, said the university also needs to take into account that the pandemic is affecting different regions and communities in different ways.

“This decision [to return to campus] disproportionately affects the very populations Penn State Abington serves," he said. "Our students are mostly non-white persons of color, lower socioeconomic status, first-generation college students who use public transit and live in multigenerational homes. I hope we can take these regional differences into account.”

Faculty members said they had yet to receive a response to the open letter as of Tuesday morning.

Powers said students, faculty and staff will continue to be a part of the process going forward.

"As we move forward, our plans will be shaped by new and continued collaborations, as we look forward to continuing to actively engage faculty, staff and students," she said. "Their voices are an important part of these efforts."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.


Matt DiSanto is a Penn State student and writer for Onward State.
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