A Letter to the Boston City Council, for a Meeting on July 9

Dear Boston City Council members,

We are sending this open letter to you about Boston University’s plans for the Fall in anticipation of your upcoming meeting on July 9 to discuss these plans. We are two ethics professors at BU responsible for starting a petition, which presently contains over 1500 signatures, calling on BU to permit all of its university teachers (including not only tenure-line faculty, but also graduate student teachers, adjuncts, and lecturers) to be afforded the option of teaching their courses online, without needing to apply for and receive a work place adjustment, and without penalty. The complicated workplace adjustment procedure will have uncertain but necessarily limited outcomes and requires faculty to disclose personal medical information about themselves and their families. BU should meet the same standards of respecting teacher choice and privacy that UMass Boston, MIT, Harvard, and Northeastern are planning to meet

Offering a range of courses, some completely online and some classroom based, rather than requiring faculty to teach both online and in the class at the same time (as per the current policy) is crucial for protecting the health of BU’s teachers and their families, since many will not be eligible for workplace adjustments according to the narrow criteria being employed. Moreover, providing for faculty choice will help protect the health of all BU employees and students, as well as all people in the greater Boston area, by reducing the number of people both on campus and on public transportation traveling to and from campusThere is a serious risk that if BU does not change this policy, it will be responsible for the occurrence of major outbreaks in the Boston area due to its specific, and in our view reckless, policy choices. Such outbreaks would not only be bad in themselves, but could also significantly affect BU’s long-term financial viability.

We would also like to register a concern about transparency in how COVID-related information will be handled by the university. Very few public details have emerged thus far regarding BU’s pandemic information policy (we have only been told that there will be some kind of “dashboard”). We urge the university to establish a thorough, transparent, and independent public reporting process. In particular, the public must have constantly updated information about: (1) the testing and contact tracing protocols being used; (2) the false positive and false negative rates of the particular tests the university is producing or buying; (3) to what extent, if at all, the university is providing supportive quarantine so that infected individuals do not pose a risk to their families at home; (4) how many students and employees have tested positive, how many are in quarantine, how many are in the hospital (including in ICUs, as a separate data item), and how many have died. It is important that this information be collected at arm’s length from the university administration, given the financial incentives that universities have when it comes to controlling such information. The city and the BU community will then be in a good position to make decisions regarding whether or not to keep the campus open. We also recommend that the university be asked to specify publicly, ahead of time, their chosen threshold for the maximum level of known infections at which they would close the campus.

Yours sincerely,
Russell Powell
Daniel Star