With just over three weeks until the faculty contract period begins for the 2020-21 academic year, and with the prevalence of COVID-19 cases rising, there is great uncertainty and concern among faculty about the reopening of the university for classes for the upcoming academic year.
We are well aware that the health landscape that will determine how we move forward is evolving; we recognize that this makes planning difficult. However, with three weeks to go before the contract period begins, faculty still do not have clear information on the in-person and remote course array, the process to ask for flexibility in their return to campus, or how to get answers to questions or concerns they have.
The “Smart Restart” website contains a great deal of information, but like much in the “self-service” university, the assumption seems to be that faculty can find all the information they need to make intelligent choices about their return to work, and its effects on their health, on the site if only they read carefully. Much of the information they are receiving from their departments, and their schools and colleges, is inconsistent, unspecific, and changes frequently. A lot of information is simply not making its way from the working groups down to the units and rank-and-file faculty.
The university’s faculty is comprised of smart, curious, and caring people; they want up-to-date, clear, accurate, detailed, and consistent information. Faculty also want answers to their genuine concerns, many of which have been further compounded because they don’t feel as though they have been consulted or given a chance to voice those concerns as equal partners to those making policy. Our colleagues at other major public research universities have attended town-hall meetings where information has been provided and concerns have been solicited and addressed; where working groups have reached out to faculty and staff; and where information is disseminated in clear and consistent ways from trusted sources in a timely and regular way. We are concerned that with three weeks to go before the beginning of the semester and five weeks before classes start, faculty have many unanswered questions, and that we are far behind the curve when it comes to addressing significant issues having to do with the health, well-being and safety of the faculty.
We urge leadership to take the following steps immediately:
• Hold frequent virtual town-hall meetings for faculty and staff that solicit and address concerns about restarting the university;
• Make available to all faculty the contact information for all re-start working groups so that they can address their questions directly to those working on policy;
• Ensure that school/college leadership disseminates information to their departments in a clear and consistent manner, and designates a person to answer questions from chairs and from faculty;
• Offer a clear statement on how faculty can arrange alternative teaching assignments and/or other non-teaching assignments in cases where they fear for their health and safety or who have home situations that preclude their ability to teach or fulfill their other duties as faculty, and ensure that the flexibilities offered are non-punitive, and do not force them to reveal sensitive and/or health-related information;
• Make clear how decisions about a return to teaching and research are determined, and the extent to which those decisions are made with reference to (a) available space, (b) teaching best practices, (c) health and safety. Faculty want to be assured that decisions made at the local level, decisions made with care and with health and educational outcomes in mind, are not overridden at the last minute.