An Unclear Message: No Requirement to Sign?

UPDATE 1, August 18: I have now read a communication from an official channel at BU that clarifies that BU faculty and staff are encouraged but not required to sign the electronic form we all received on Friday, August 14. It is unclear why this communication, clearly prepared carefully for a general audience, has not been sent to all of us.

UPDATE 2, August 19: The chairs of some departments circulated to their department members an email that was today sent to chairs and directors that contains the text I was referring to in the update above. Not all faculty have received this communication.

On Friday evening, faculty and staff at Boston University received an official email from the Provost’s Office with the subject line “Faculty and Staff Health Commitments, Expectations, Compliance, and Resources.” In part, the email and the protocol summary document and web pages that it links to fulfill the helpful function of informing us (or reminding us) of what the exact public health protocols that apply to us are, that these are protocols that we must all carefully follow as campus reopens, and that failure to follow these protocols will have consequences for rule breakers.

The email contains a link to a web form behind a firewall, and on this web form a number of conditions are spelled out, there is space for an employee’s name to be entered at the end, and there is a large red “I Agree” button that one is expected to click on after signing the form. The conditions are mostly sensible things such as that one agrees to isolate oneself when one is informed of a positive result from a COVID-19 test (with details provided concerning how long one must do this for, etc.). However, a combination of two clauses on the form has made many people who have read it, including myself, uncomfortable. One clause says “Keep informed and follow all new guidance and protocols. I understand that based on public health circumstances, University guidance and protocols may change, potentially abruptly” (emphasis added). And then at the end of the form, prior to the signature box appears the text, “I understand that failure to meet these commitments will result in corrective action, up to and including the suspension or termination of employment” (emphasis added). It is an implication of these two conditions taken together that one is agreeing to corrective actions that may include one’s own termination of employment in conditions where one fails to follow guidance or protocols that are different than those specified at this time. In other words, it might be said that by signing this form, one is signing a blank check.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting there is a sinister intent behind this, or that the university will actually change the protocols in a sinister fashion (although a colleague has pointed out to me that there could potentially be unexpected changes that are criticizable, e.g. a rule could be added that no classes be held under canopies). I am reluctant, as a matter of principle, to sign a document that contains this combination of clauses.

I and others misunderstood what was happening when we first read all of this. Like many of my colleagues, I was more concerned than I presently am about the above combination of clauses, as well as the mention of the possibility of employment termination, because I thought we might be required to sign this form. The directions in the email specify that “the University asks” us to read and sign the form. It has become apparent that it may be the case that we are not actually required to sign this form at all, and that there will be no penalties for not signing it. Conversations with numerous faculty colleagues have led me to think that this is probably true. A give away sign is the lack of any mention of a date by which the form is supposed to be signed. This prompts the following questions:

(1) How long will we need to wait before the university informs faculty and staff that it is merely optional for us to sign this form (or, alternatively, that we are required to sign it)?
*The present uncertainty, which the university could have easily avoided, is a problem. It may lead to this omission being interpreted as either purposely deceptive, or a sign of incompetence. It has been suggested to me that the administration may wish to avoid it being wrongly thought that the protocols themselves are optional (they are not), but this just means that any statement regarding this matter needs to be framed carefully (e.g. “Although we wish to emphasize that the protocols themselves are not optional, and that there are penalties for not following them, faculty and staff are not actually required to sign…”).

(2) How long will we need to wait before the university informs faculty and staff why this form even exists? What is the rationale for the form?
*It is very unclear what the rationale for the form is supposed to be if, as we now believe, we are not required to sign it. I have some theories about this, but I won’t speculate about this issue at this time. The fact that needs highlighting at this point is that the present uncertainty on the part of faculty and staff about a document that contains mention of the possibility of employment contracts being terminated is clearly undesirable.

Regarding the protocols themselves, let me register my agreement with something that I hope is obvious to all readers: if the university is going to proceed with its plans to reopen the campus for students, it is indeed crucial that there exist widely advertised public health protocols for faculty and staff, just as there are now widely advertised public health protocols for students. Arguably, it is also appropriate that there be penalties attached to non-compliance with these protocols, although what those penalties should be is a subject about which one might have hoped there would have been extensive consultation with faculty and staff (one might have also hoped that students were informed of what the protocols and penalties that apply to them are going to be earlier than they were). As it is, the protocols specify that if employees repeatedly fail to follow the university’s new rules, their employment may be terminated.

In order to solve collective action problems of the kind the university has created by choosing to reopen the campus for students, it is sometimes thought necessary to wave big sticks around, but one does wonder why suspension without pay, say, would not count as a big enough stick for such purposes. It is also very important to build trust and a spirit of cooperation in our community, and bringing up the threat of termination, as well as failing to sufficiently consult faculty in the process of putting together these important requirements, works against that end, as does the uncertainty surrounding the online form discussed above.