Public Protest Scheduled for Thursday, August 13 at 2pm

The following is a letter from Jason Prentice, Senior Lecturer in the CAS Writing Program at BU, announcing plans for a public protest that I am happy to say I will attend. I encourage everyone reading this to also attend. Make sure to sign up for more information, following the link in bold below.

I hope that you and yours are doing well. I write to ask you to join me — and many of our fellow BU community members, as well as concerned citizens from outside BU — in a public protest against our administration’s reopening plan.  

You may have signed the Star-Powell petition demanding that faculty be permitted to choose to teach in-person, online, or in whatever manner best suits their personal health considerations, their subject matter, and the needs of their students. This protest makes essentially the same demand, along with two others. Here is the core message:  

Campus Health is Community Health   

1) BU must de-densify campus by allowing everyone who can to work remotely.   

2) BU must provide PPE to everyone who needs to be on campus.   

3) BU must share its COVID testing capabilities with the community.   

For months, the administration has failed to answer key questions and concerns raised in Faculty Council, town-hall meetings, and joint labor-management sessions, intent on moving ahead with a plan conceived months ago, behind closed doors, seemingly without regard for voices of key stakeholders or changing circumstances. Yet in recent weeks, more and more institutions of higher education have reversed or drastically cut back plans similar to BU’s, including peer institutions such as USC, University of Miami (Ohio), and Emory, as well as near peers, such as Johns Hopkins. With these reversals, along with the worsening condition of the pandemic nationally and increasing concerns expressed by local government officials, we — a coalition of BU faculty and staff unions, BU graduate student organizations, and citizens from across the region — believe it is necessary and timely to apply renewed pressure on President Brown. 

Therefore, we’ve organized a public protest for Thursday, August 13, at 2:00 p.m., in the form of a simultaneous car caravan, bike rally, and socially distanced march on foot, as well as via social media, in order to accommodate whichever form of protest participants are comfortable with.   

I hope you will consider joining us. We’re running out of time and may not get another chance to prevent things from getting out of control.  

You can sign up here:   

In coming days, participants who register will receive additional information. In the meantime,  please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.  


A Suggestion for Keeping Classes Safe, and Other Issues

I have spent a good deal of time in the last few days trying to figure out how to help my department (and anyone else that asks) buy masks that are safe enough for indoor use during this pandemic. It turns out that it is very difficult to ensure that one is buying KN95 or N95 masks that are not fake. This is why Professor Nathan Phillips thinks the university should be purchasing KN95 masks in bulk for all non-remote teachers at the university, with expert assistance. I would add that I think the university actually has a moral obligation to do this, given that they are imposing significant risks on their own employees by making them teach in classrooms, when, in most cases at least, there is a pedagogically preferable method available (remote teaching). In not providing crucial PPE, the university is diverging from the behavior of employers in other professions and industries.

Professor Phillips has also suggested to me that there is another thing that BU could do to help make classroom teaching safer, and I think that teachers and students should be insisting that they do it. Given the now well-known problems with ventilation in many classrooms in the university, the university should be providing to teachers machines that test for the extent of CO2 build up (wherever CO2 builds up, we can conclude that the airflow situation is dangerous). These devices are apparently not difficult to learn to use, and can be bought for about $200 each. Teachers might bring one to class, run a test, and then tell everyone to leave the class if the CO2 level is too high. Teaching for that class might then transition to being online until the airflow in the room can be improved, or an alternative classroom is located. The university is telling everybody not to worry about the ventilation issue, because the HVAC systems are being improved (even though it admits that a great many university buildings do not have HVAC systems). It should put its money where its mouth is, and provide enough of these devices to our university teachers to enable them to check their classrooms from time to time. Since I think it’s a safe bet that the university administration won’t do this, I recommend that individual departments now buy these devices and have their teachers ready to regularly check the CO2 levels in their classrooms when term starts. [UPDATE added on August 10: A number of experts from elsewhere are also now offering similar advice on Twitter. One expert recommends this $160 device in a useful article.]

Now for a couple of other items of interest. First, here is a question: will the university be telling us what percentage of students have elected to return to campus, based on the student payments that have now arrived? Harvard and MIT have provided this information to the public, but BU has not done so as yet.

I have been meaning for a while now to provide an update concerning the BU graduate student housing problem that I previously reported on, concerning the policy that graduate students are to be housed alongside undergraduate students who may have contracted Covid-19. On July 29, the Provost’s Office sent an official communication to BU Real Estate graduate student tenants clarifying the situation. It indicates that no undergraduate students who have tested positive will be housed in graduate student apartment buildings, but it also says that students who have been identified by contact tracing methods as being at risk and have initially tested negative will be housed in quarantine in private rooms in the graduate student buildings, because private rooms are not available elsewhere. The communication further states that graduate students who who wish to be released from the relevant real estate contracts will not be financially penalized. It is left unclear why BU feels it needs to jeopardize the health of graduate students, rather than, say, use hotel accommodation to temporarily house students, as Northeastern, for instance, is planning to do.

BU’s Mask Policy is Inadequate

This is a guest post by Professor Nathan Phillips, Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University.

In light of national and Massachusetts trends in COVID cases, the wisdom of re-opening BU in three weeks is becoming increasingly questionable. But if BU is going to re-open this fall, among all the safety measures it is taking, it needs to address a big safety gap in its present approach: its mask policy.

To cut to the chase, BU should make a bulk purchase of properly-vetted KN95 masks for the university community, as a key part of a prudent strategy to reduce risk of airborne transmission. Institutionally-vetted KN95 masks are preferable to N95 masks for BU because of a shortage of N95 masks that is due to the need to prioritize the requirements of front-line healthcare workers and first responders.

Our current policy is inadequate because it takes a collective action problem, and views it simply as an individual matter. Choices regarding masks matter for indoor airborne transmission, and leaving this type of decision to tens of thousands of individuals will lead to highly uneven individual choices that will have bad effects on the whole community. Currently, for example, the use of bandanas would be allowed. Bandanas are effective at preventing ballistic transmission, but poor at blocking viral aerosols. Even those who might choose a KN95 mask could easily buy a faulty one by mistake, as this recent report makes clear. BU needs a community-level solution to a community-level problem. Masks must be considered not just PPE, but Community Protective Equipment, and part and parcel of the university’s ventilation strategy.

I appreciate that BU has begun to address concerns about building ventilation in light of mounting evidence of the potential for airborne COVID transmission. While this is laudable, these steps, which include increasing air exchange rates and installing HVAC filters, are missing both the very first and the last lines of ventilation defense: masks. Properly fitted and filtered masks inhibit aerosol transmission both at the source, and at the end point of potential infection. If we are investing time and expense in retrofitting rooms with improved HVAC filters, we should also be considering the quality of facial filters.

A recent Harvard-Illinois IT study of COVID transmission on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship found that, despite good ventilation on this ship, airborne transmission was a likely major route of transmission. A NY Times review of this study states:

But good ventilation is not enough; the Diamond Princess was well ventilated and the air did not recirculate, the researchers noted. So wearing good-quality masks — standard surgical masks, or cloth masks with multiple layers rather than just one — will most likely be needed as well, even in well-ventilated spaces where people are keeping their distance.”

To be sure, the science is not settled and the cited study, a preprint, is one study, but the physical mechanisms posited as being involved make for a highly plausible causal account, and with the health and welfare of tens of thousands of people at BU on the line, as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across greater Boston at risk, use of the precautionary principle is strongly warranted. If a bulk order can procure vetted KN95 at $2/mask, this is well worth an $80,000 university investment in community safety (supposing we need masks for 40,000 people). While there are risks with extended use of respirators like N95, they have been recommended for re-use under conditions of scarcity.  Compliance and enforcement is an important related issue, but due diligence would mean providing at least one properly-vetted KN95 mask to every member of the university community.  

The mask I wear affects you; the mask you wear affects me; the masks we all wear potentially affect everyone in the BU community. We need a community-level solution to this problem.

An Email with Instructions to Faculty

Yesterday (August 3), two undergraduate student journalists independently reported on an email that was sent to CAS faculty on July 29. Grace Ferguson broke the story with an excellent example of journalistic work on WTBU, the student-run university radio station, and Katarzyna Jezak of the Daily Free Press, an independent student newspaper, further reported on it in a great article titled “CAS professors asked to self-censor in communication with students.”

For the record: I didn’t leak this letter, and I have a policy of not posting internal BU documents on my website without permission of their authors. But I am not a journalist. I think it is completely appropriate for journalists to report on university politics, and faculty should feel free to be interviewed by journalists. Fortunately, Provost Jean Morrison is also a defender of free speech rights: ‘Free and unfettered speech is at the core of our mission as a university, and it must be central to who we are as a campus community. This means allowing all voices to be heard and for robust and critical debate of the ideas expressed.’

A link to Grace Ferguson’s radio report and transcript was retweeted widely on Twitter, e.g. by a Boston Globe reporter, and by Carl T. Bergstrom, popular biology professor and author of “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.”

UPDATE: An undergraduate student has written a letter to the author of this email to CAS faculty, and the author has responded to the student. See also this post.

Are Faculty in Colleges other than CAS Concerned about the University’s Plans?

I belong to the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) at Boston University. I have attended meetings in this college where many people have carefully and passionately criticized the university’s plans for the Fall, especially (but not only) the way in which central elements of these plans were put in place with next to no faculty involvement. People are angry and worried, for good reason. Many members of Faculty Council, who come from not just my college, but colleges across the university, are also very concerned; this is clear from the many tough questions they have been asking our university leaders in the last few months.

One of my colleagues in CAS recently asked a few of us an important question: have there been any public objections to the administration’s plans for the Fall from other schools and colleges at BU? It seems, he said, that the letters, petitions, media interviews, articles, etc. have all been coming from or been instigated by people in departments within CAS. He indicated that he is asking this question because if it’s true that all the public expressions of disagreement with the administration are coming from CAS, then this might, at least in part, explain the administration’s hubris and unswerving dedication to their plans. Here is how I answered his question (I am here expanding on the email I sent him):

Yes, CAS has been particularly vocal. We should not pretend otherwise. However, it is important to recognize that in other schools and colleges most or all faculty are not tenured or tenure line. Professors are often on three year or five year contracts. This fact about lack of tenure applies to the College of Fine Arts, the School of Medicine, the School of Public Health, and the College of Communications, for instance (CFA has written a critical letter to the administration, but I haven’t been provided with it because there is a concern about the possible repercussions of making it public; there may well be other such letters). These are all colleges where I’ve heard directly from faculty that they are very worried, and are strongly opposed to the university’s plans, and that they take it that lack of tenure is holding people back from speaking up publicly. (A colleague involved in our recent discussion pointed out that a number of the other colleges are also much smaller than CAS, and are more like large departments, but managed by deans, rather than chairs.)

If I did not have tenure I don’t think I would have done the things I’ve done recently that have involved criticizing BU (writing an open letter, initiating a petition, publishing an article, being interviewed by the media, and writing for this blog). At a time when the university itself has said that lost revenue will lead to people losing their jobs, the personal risks often seem too high for those who don’t have tenure. This clearly makes a huge difference to many people (although it’s worth mentioning in passing that faculty in some other colleges who don’t have tenure are on much higher salaries than those in CAS who do have tenure). This is not to say that there is nobody who does not have tenure that has been brave enough to speak up. We have some good examples of people who don’t have tenure and have still been brave enough to speak up. I’m thinking, in particular, of the several colleagues in the Writing Program who have publicly expressed their views, and, in a couple of cases, made public appearances on NBC News and before the Boston City Council. One also can’t say that possessing tenure guarantees a willingness to speak up when one disagrees with university policies (although it’s important to bear in mind that many people feel helpless to influence policies, a colleague reminds me). In any case, the general incentive structure is clear enough.

Suppose we imagine a version of the university where the tenure system is entrenched in every college to the same (importantly, still incomplete) extent that it is in CAS. I’m a philosophy professor, so I’m drawn to the use of thought experiments like a moth to a flame. Are we entitled to judge that in such a scenario we would see a similar degree of faculty pushback in other colleges that we see in CAS? I think that this is likely, but I can’t be sure. Complex counterfactuals are notoriously difficult to assess. Suppose that my hunch is wrong, and that CAS would still stand out as quite unusual in this respect. What conclusion might we then be entitled to draw? I think we might well conclude that we have encountered (once again) a particularly strong reason to support the humanities: humanities professors and lecturers are particularly well-suited for the task of critically speaking up for moral principles and educational values (including the value of properly respecting and promoting scientific expertise), and for the ongoing relevance and importance of the ideal of faculty governance. This should not come as a surprise.

The ideal of faculty governance is closely tied to the tenure system (or similar guarantees of longterm employment in other countries). A silver lining of our present crisis might be that it demonstrates to us, in a particularly concrete way, how important it is that faculty free speech rights and faculty policy-determining powers be protected, strengthened, and extended. We have seen very clearly that “our” main university publication, BU Today, is not at all interested in representing faculty viewpoints that clash with the public relations story being spun by the university in order to attract student fees. At a time when BU professors are being directed to word their communications to students in ways that smack of PR spin (more on this soon), and when the country is ruled by a leader who cares not a wit for the truth, it is crucial that we all stand up for these crucial aspects of higher education, and our related duties as teachers and researchers. For, as a professor elsewhere recently put it, “Faculty feel… that administrative leaders in general have kind of doubled down on [the] move away from shared governance.”

BU Today and BU Tomorrow

This is a guest post by Jonathan R. Zatlin, Associate Professor of History at Boston University.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of thinking about our future at BU, I invited BU Today to report on a letter to university leaders by the History Department, which you can find here. The letter asked the university president and provost, as well as the dean of CAS to rethink their approach to reopening the campus, and allow instructors at BU the same freedom as our students: the freedom to choose to teach in person or remotely based on each instructor’s own personal situation. To our surprise, we received answers from all three administrators, first from Dean Sclaroff, and then from President Brown and Provost Morrison. As far as I know, these two letters from the upper administration are unique; they have not responded to other letters or petitions from faculty or graduate students. I suspect there are several reasons that we received responses, all of which have to do with aspects of our letter.

Whatever those reasons, we were encouraged that our concerns were officially acknowledged. Given the administration’s reticence to discuss LfA and its perceived shortcomings, I thought it would be useful for the larger BU community to read our letter and the responses to it. To help apprise our colleagues and students, I invited BU Today to report on the letters and what they mean for BU tomorrow. I turned to BU Today because, according to their website, they are a source for “university news” and include “safety” as one of their reporting areas. I recognize, of course, that BU Today is more newsletter than news organization. Any news that conflicts with its mission to enhance BU’s reputation will present a serious challenge to its reporters. That said, I hoped that BU Today’s willingness to print an op-ed by graduate student Emily Chua represented a readiness to report on the actual news: what reopening BU’s campus will actually mean for teachers, students, and staff. One part of that story that needed reporting, I thought, was that History faculty wanted the same choice as is being granted students and the reasons that administrators continue to choose to deny us that choice. 

What I didn’t expect was BU Today’s response. The editor, John O’Rourke, rejected my suggestion that BU Today report on the letters. Worse, he responded by offering a non-solution that is at once telling as it is insulting: “If you wanted to post the letter with a short intro as a comment to the POV that we ran written by Emily Chua, we’d be happy to post the letter in the Comments section of the story.” The story by Emily Chua was published on July 9, and this suggestion was provided on July 20. I wrote, in response, “Placing our letter in the comments section… strikes me as problematic. I’m sure you didn’t intend to suggest it, but your offer … makes me worry that our concerns will simply be swept under the rug, tucked away in comments well after the publication of a different piece. I’d prefer that BU Today report directly on them.” Needless to say, O’Rourke did not take me up on this suggestion. I guess the helpful thing about O’Rourke’s response is that it clarifies BU Today’s institutional position for us: despite sometimes trying to present itself as a journalistic venture, BU Today is not a newspaper, newsletter, or even a newsfeed, for it doesn’t deal in news. Instead, it’s a public relations enterprise, and, as such, it uncritically reflects the views of the BU administration. 

See also these earlier posts on BU Today: On the Response to my Open Letter, An Open Letter to the Editor of BU Today, and Where are you BU Today?

Quarantine Requirements and Compliance Issues

I recently reported that BU was planning to merely recommend that students arriving from out of state enter quarantine for fourteen days, rather than require that they do so. Fortunately, this insufficiently cautious plan has had to change because, on July 24, MA Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order putting in place new quarantine regulations. Now, students arriving from overseas or any state that is not classified as one of the “lower-risk states” (presently only eight states are so qualified) must either quarantine for 14 days, or provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test that was taken no longer than 72 hours before arrival in the state. People who do not comply with this order may be fined $500 per day. The Mayor of Boston, Martin J. Walsh, responded to this news by indicating that although he takes it to be good news, he is still very concerned about the many students that will be descending on the greater Boston area (as many as 170,000, according to the Boston Globe), and that he thinks, ideally, students should quarantine for two weeks at home and then quarantine again for two weeks in Boston, before being tested.

On July 27, the BU President sent faculty and staff a statement regarding testing protocols and compliance issues. It contains a fair amount of information. I will comment on just one important piece of news contained in the statement. President Brown makes it clear that there is a requirement on everyone who returns to campus to follow protocols regarding quarantine, face covering rules, testing, etc. The protocols will be provided in a document that all students will be required to commit themselves to. It is said that they will do so through a “digital agreement.” I take it that such an agreement will involve scrolling to the end of a document and pressing a button that says something like “I agree to abide by these conditions” (much as one does when one installs computer software, although one might hope students will actually read this text more carefully than people usually do when they install software). Unsurprisingly, I am highly skeptical that this and the public campaigns also mentioned will ensure sufficient compliance with the necessary protocols (especially compliance outside of the classroom). Here is an additional concern. I express it with caution, lest I be accused of paranoia. Perhaps this digital agreement or contract, which all students will be required to accept if they wish to remain on campus, will also include text that amounts to a waiver, indemnifying the university from subsequent law suits. I do not say this will happen. As far as I am aware, BU has not so far indicated it will be joining other universities that are asking for waivers to be signed by students.

Comments regarding workplace adjustments have been coming in (please keep submitting them). Many people still haven’t heard whether or not they will be provided with a workplace adjustment. One troubling development on this front is that, for multiple faculty members, medical documentation provided by doctors to BU has gone missing (applicants are required to have doctors fax a form directly to HR). This may mean some people who are in CDC-recognized high-risk categories will have their requests to teach online denied.

In other news, BU Real Estate has declined to reverse course with respect to its plans to house regular graduate students alongside students suspected of being infected with Covid-19, despite the efforts of at least one dean and a representative from the Provost’s office. As a result, graduate students have set up a petition for all who are concerned about this development to sign, and are also undertaking a survey of graduate students.

Request / Invitation to Provide Comments

BU teachers, from full professors to graduate students, are hearing back about their workplace adjustment requests (in general, requests to be able to teach their classes online, rather than follow a hybrid model that involves teaching mask to mask). I’m providing a space for comments here. The point is not simply to give people a way to let off steam, although it’s fine, of course, if that’s your reason for commenting. It would be especially helpful for the BU community if you could let us know if you have had a workplace adjustment request turned down, or have been put under pressure not to carry through on a request. Other comments are also welcome. Follow this link to read or submit comments.

Ventilation Issues and BU Classrooms

This is a guest post by Dr Sarabeth Buckley, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cambridge University. She recently received a PhD from BU’s Earth and Environment Department, where her research focused on ventilation and rooftop gardens.

Towards the beginning of the whole pandemic in early February, there was a story that came out of Hong Kong that was particularly frightening. In a large apartment building, one person on one floor initially tested positive for Covid-19. The virus was still primarily circulating in China at the time. What was scary was that someone ten floors away also then tested positive and that although they did not know each other and had not had any contact, their apartments did share some pipes and there was a leak in the second apartment. This was a very early indication that Covid-19 might be airborne.

WHO denied this, saying that the evidence overall suggested Covid-19 was not airborne. It took five whole months for this article, citing this paper to come out. The article says coronavirus is, in fact, airborne. We all need to take this fact seriously. When anyone coughs they release water droplets of different sizes. Some of these are large and they will fall right to the ground. Others are very tiny, around five μm, which is too tiny to see. Droplets of this size can travel tens of meters away from the person who exhaled them, which is a much longer distance than the length of a normal room, and definitely longer than the length of many of our small BU classrooms. Scientists had hoped that Covid-19 viral particles would not be able to survive in these tiny droplets and might only survive in the bigger droplets that people expel directly, next to themselves. If this had turned out to be the case, it would be enough to just stay out of spitting range of people while sitting inside.

The article states that Covid-19 can survive in these tiny droplets for three hours, which is longer than any of the classes I ever took at BU. This means that if you are in a room where someone who is infected with Covid-19 has been, even if you are on the other side of a large room, you could still catch the virus by breathing in air that someone, perhaps in an earlier class, breathed out a good couple of hours ago. I think about all the classes I took at BU and the little rows of desks a foot or two away. Even if half or more of those desks are removed and the ten people left coming to in-person classes all sit awkwardly, far apart, one person being infected means some portion of the air in the class is going to contain viral particles.

Before the July 4 article, the WHO’s official statement was still that the virus was only airborne in hospitals after medical procedures. It took 239 scientists in 32 countries writing an open letter, explaining the way in which Covid-19 is airborne, for this discovery to be taken seriously. 

Masks certainly help, but they can’t prevent you from breathing in particles. They’re not sealed. When you breathe in while wearing a mask, you can feel the slightly cooler air rushing in through the little areas on the sides of your nose where the mask isn’t quite flush with your skin, and this air hasn’t gone through the cloth. What masks do help with is preventing your own water droplets from being sent off to mingle in the air. Therefore, if everyone wears a mask the entire time they are around other people, then, hypothetically, all of the viral particles infected people breathe out should be caught on the inside of the mask fabric and stop their journey there.

There are a few other things that can be done. Classrooms can be cleaned very frequently with cleaning implements like ultraviolet lights, for example. But one of the most important things that can be done is ensuring that rooms have good ventilation. If potentially contaminated air is being continuously pulled out, recycled air is heavily filtered, and new fresh air without Covid-19 is pushed in at a fast enough rate, this should help get rid of the viral particles twirling about above our heads, threatening to infect us.

This is basically about trying to create a situation reminiscent of an outdoor environment, where the air is moving around so much that it fairly quickly whisks away any viral particles just hanging about (unless you are within direct firing range). This is where some of my work comes in. The recommended ventilation level for removing Covid-19 particles is thirty cubic feet per minute per person (Allen and Macomber, 2020), but how do you know what the current ventilation rate is?

A primary method for testing what ventilation rates actually are is measuring CO2 concentrations in rooms with multiple people in them. This is because, as everyone knows, people are constantly breathing out large amounts of CO2 that build up in confined spaces like classrooms; the more people, the more CO2 builds up. If CO2 concentrations get too high, this indicates that ventilation is not sufficient. Governing bodies set limits for CO2 concentrations in rooms. Generally these are:

5000 ppm – Upper limit of what should ever be found (ACGIH, 1999; OSHA, 1997)

1000 ppm – Suggested limit for classrooms, in particular (ASHRAE, 1989)

800 ppm – Suggested limit in Massachusetts (MADPH, 2020)

As part of my PhD research, I took CO2 measurements in BU classrooms to understand how well ventilation there is working. You can see for yourself how well some of the rooms in the College of Arts and Sciences building did on this test.

Macintosh HD:Users:Sarabeth:Desktop:MY DOCUMENTS:Personal:Activism:Covid19:BU:CAS Classroom CO2.png

Each color is CO2 measurements taken in a different classroom over the course of a week. They obviously go far above the 800 and 1000 ppm limits.

From one perspective, CO2 can affect how well you perform mentally, meaning high concentrations can make you a bit slow and sleepy, and you have probably experienced this first hand. High concentrations are also known to be associated with other pollutants, such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, or, as is critical in this case, biological contaminants. This is usually referred to as Sick Building Syndrome, but in the present context, you might as well just call it Covid-19.

What I found was a sign that current ventilation, at least in CAS classrooms, is far from efficient enough to deal with even normal contaminants, let alone something as contagious and virulent as Covid-19. This is good and bad. It means BU is not ready for normal classes at this point, but it highlights a clear step BU must take in order to make the campus safe in the fall. At this point, BU has said they will be doing “a comprehensive review of all HVAC systems, upgrading filters as needed.” This must include increasing ventilation rates and actively monitoring CO2 concentrations in these rooms, in order to keep tabs on whether or not ventilation is actually functioning at a high enough level. There are even third parties who BU could hire to help them test building ventilation and set up a system that will keep everyone safe. They just need to make this a priority and let us know what their plan is.

– ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists). (2011). TLVs and BEIs. Cincinnati, OH: American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.
– Allen J. and J. Macomber. Healthy Building: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020.
– ASHRAE. 1989. Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality. American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. ANSI/ASHRAE 62-1989.
– MA EOHHS (Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services). (May 8th 2020). Massachusetts Environmental Public Health Tracking: Ventilation.
– OSHA. 1997. Limits for Air Contaminants. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Code of Federal Regulations. 29 C.F.R 1910.1000 Table Z-1-A.

Workplace Adjustment Requests Update, with Invitation to Provide Comments

On Tuesday, July 21, department chairs at Boston University were sent a memo that made a number of them angry. The memo was accompanied by a list of their department members who had filed workplace adjustment requests, indicating whether the HR Work Adjustment Request Team (WART) had decided they met the CDC high-risk category guidelines for Covid-19, or had noted instead that the department member had filed a request that involved entering reasons for wanting an accommodation in the “Other” box provided on the workplace adjustment request form. A clear implication of the memo is that the remote learning option must remain the exception, rather than the rule. The university has said that approval of requests for courses to be taught wholly online, rather than in conformity with the hybrid Learn from Anywhere approach, should be kept to a minimum. The memo asked chairs to talk to all department members asking for workplace adjustments, including those that HR has now determined meet the CDC high-risk criteria, to see if they might be persuaded to teach their courses non-remotely, in conformity with the LfA model. It might be inferred from this memo that the university is concerned that they have received too many workplace adjustment requests (from their perspective). This request to go back to people who have already had their doctors provide medical notes, and who HR have determined are eligible for workplace adjustments, was thought by at least some chairs to be an outrageous request, and some CAS chairs said as much in an unscheduled meeting the next day.

In a subsequent email to chairs that might reasonably be interpreted as involving back-pedaling (sent after the CAS chairs meeting, on July 22), administrators indicated that faculty who HR has confirmed meet CDC guidelines will, in fact, be permitted to teach their courses online. However, it is still unclear what will happen to those applications where faculty provided their reasons for a request in the “Other” box. In the afternoon on July 22, faculty who had requested workplace adjustments received individual email messages from Faculty Actions indicating that WART had confirmed that the faculty member falls in a CDC high-risk category. It appears graduate student teachers have yet to receive any responses, and that their requests will be processed after faculty requests have been processed.

What types of good reasons might have been provided in the “Other” box? Two that are particularly important are concerns with respect to childcare and care of elderly family members, and concerns with respect to anxiety regarding teaching in the classroom during this pandemic. The second communication mentioned above indicates that decisions regarding applicants who cite childcare concerns are to be dealt with at some point down the road.

I am opening the comments here, and intend to leave them open for quite some time. They will be lightly moderated, and anonymous comments (submitted using pseudonyms) will be allowed. The primary reason I am providing this space for comments is to provide a public forum for people who have their requests turned down. If you are commenting for this reason, please indicate what the nature of your request was, and what you were told about why it was turned down. Other comments are also welcome.

Troubling Developments at BU (to be continued)

I’d like to be reporting right now on what appears to be an extremely troubling development at BU when it comes to the workplace adjustment application process and the exceptions to in-class teaching BU is meant to be providing to many BU teachers at this juncture. I’ve heard enough from four department chairs (indirectly in two cases) to know it is an extremely troubling development, but I have not yet seen the relevant internal communication to department chairs for myself. I feel I must wait to comment on this matter. If anyone has anything they’d like to share with me regarding this troubling development, please email me at

There is no shortage of other troubling developments. For a start, a BU graduate student recently wrote to me (thank you!) regarding an extraordinary decision made by BU Real Estate, which is responsible for renting out many rooms to both undergraduate and graduate students. The student writes:

BU Real Estate is turning vacant rooms in some BU graduate housing into quarantine rooms for suspected cases of Covid-19. BU Real Estate wanted us to know that confirmed cases will be in a separate building. The [particular] graduate housing will be only used for quarantining of suspected cases. Although it is only for suspected cases… [there are] a myriad of health concerns and logistical uncertainties. … The plan [is] to turn vacant units into quarantine rooms … They essentially confirmed that, according to the current plan, most graduate students in this graduate housing in the fall will be exposed to a constant flow of suspected Covid-infected students. The most alarming of it all is that they currently have no plans to disclose this information to all of their current residents. I understand that it might be difficult to push them to change their whole plan but I strongly believe that BU Real Estate should at least disclose this information to current residents so that students can make informed decisions about their own living environments. BU Real Estate [has] compared themselves to other property managers around Boston and [has] argued for their lack of legal obligation to inform their residents. They [have] argued that if we lived in a random apartment building in Allston or Brighton, property managers/landlords would not notify us if our next door neighbor was suspected or confirmed of Covid-19. I believe this is a flawed comparison, as BU Real Estate is deliberately bringing suspected Covid cases into the building.”

Seriously, BU?

In other news, BU journalism and political science student Grace Ferguson has been doing some great work tracking recent developments, troubling and otherwise, at BU. After reporting on poor ventilation in BU classrooms and the heightened risks of infection that holding classes in these rooms will lead to (we will have more on this topic soon), Grace has in recent days been providing regular reports on Twitter regarding online town hall meetings BU has been organizing with students, in anticipation of students arriving on campus from the middle of August onwards. From Grace’s reporting of these meetings we have learnt, amongst other things, that the university will not be providing a quantitative threshold in advance (with respect to number of people infected, etc.) indicating when they will be prepared to close the campus. We have also learnt that students coming to Boston from elsewhere, including from virus hotspots, will not be required to enter quarantine; they will merely have it recommended to them that they enter quarantine.

BU Today, BU Letters, and an AAUP Statement

I have received an email response to my open letter to the editor from the editor of BU Today, John O’Rourke. He does not deny that there haven’t been any articles by BU faculty or links to pieces by faculty that are about faculty opposition to the BU administration’s plans for the Fall. Nor does he deny any of the facts regarding BU Today’s decision to cancel their plans to run a piece presenting faculty opinions that I laid out in my letter, or the account of how Russell Powell and I were treated by the BU Today team. He does not offer to publish my letter to the editor, and I do not expect it to be published. He asks if I saw the op-ed by Emily Chua, a BU PhD student. I was not only aware of this op-ed, but I linked to it previously here. In any case, the publication of this piece is irrelevant to my point that no critical pieces by faculty have been published (nor, for that matter, have journalistic investigations concerning faculty unrest of the kind published in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the New York Times, or elsewhere been published in BU Today). Although O’Rourke forthrightly denies that there is any policy of this kind in place, I continue to believe it’s important to appreciate that BU Today has allowed at least a little space for pieces on critical student views, while at the same time providing no space at all for critical faculty views. An earlier BU Today article presented a collection of student views, much as it is clear that BU Today was originally planning to present a collection of faculty views. Given that this was initially the plan (as our emails reveal, and as O’Rourke does not deny), one might speculate that this plan was squashed either in response to communications from BU’s leaders, or because of fear as to how these leaders would react if a piece of this kind were published. However the cancellation of that article came about, there has been a failure on the part of BU Today to represent the interests and viewpoints of university faculty on an extremely important and timely topic. That much is very clear.

Recall that, amongst the many other things BU Today has failed to adequately report on, there have been several letters to BU leaders written by various employees, students, and departments at BU, calling on the university to change its policies for the Fall, especially with respect to providing faculty with a choice regarding whether or not they teach online in the fall (without requiring them to request a workplace accommodation that involves revealing personal information and providing medical documentation). There is the letter by Russell Powell and myself, a letter from the English department, a subsequent letter from the graduate students (and faculty) of the English department, a letter from the Department of History of Art and Architecture, a letter from the History department, a letter from the graduate students (and faculty) of the Philosophy department, and letters from the Writing Program. Letters have also been sent to the Boston City Council (from Russell Powell and myself, as well as from Jason Prentice). And, let us not forget, the letter from Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, which, as well as addressing the concerns of PhD students, also called for BU faculty to be provided with proper choices. These are just the letters that I am presently aware of. There have also been multiple petitions (including the petitions first mentioned here).

Not unrelatedly, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently issued a statement, Principles of Academic Governance during the COVID-19 Pandemic, in which it says, ‘In response to growing concern over unilateral actions taken by governing boards and administrations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee on College and University Governance affirms that the fundamental principles and standards of academic governance remain applicable even in the current crisis. These principles are set forth in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, formulated in cooperation with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education. The Statement on Government famously recommends “adequate communication” and “joint planning and effort” (commonly referred to as “shared governance”) among governing board, administration, faculty, and students. A key principle articulated in the Statement on Government is that, within the context of shared governance, the faculty has “primary responsibility” for decisions related to academic matters, including “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.’ (emphasis added)

Two favorite recent reads are After Cruise Ships and Nursing Homes, Will Universities Be the Next COVID-19 Tinderboxes? and USS University. Expressing thoughts much like those that have been expressed by myself and Russell Powell (here and here), the first article says, “[Colleges and universities] need to be honest about the trade-offs. They should publish their estimates of the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths that re-opening will cause. That will allow students, instructors, parents, and the wider community to better understand how much suffering must be endured, and by whom, as the price for the benefits of reopening. These institutions should also state clearly what level of illness will trigger another shutdown.” Michael Otsuka’s recent discussion of this article brought it to my attention. There Professor Otsuka writes, “Why haven’t employers published their estimates of the expected harms of re-opening under the plans they’ve adopted? If it’s because they haven’t done the research, modeling and calculations necessary to underpin such estimates, then they have no business re-opening their campuses to in-person teaching… If it’s because they have done the research, modeling and calculations, but they’re unwilling to share their estimates of harm with students and faculty, then, once again, they have no business re-opening their campuses to in-person teaching.”

An Open Letter to the Editor of BU Today

Dear BU Today Editor (John O’Rourke),

I am a BU faculty member, and this is an open letter. As a member of the BU community that BU Today at times appears to wish to represent, I have a question to ask about the present editorial policy of your publication. Is it the policy or practice of BU Today, at this important time, to not publish or link to articles or opinion pieces written by BU faculty members that criticize or raise highly critical questions about the university’s policies regarding the Fall? 

I offer the following as evidence that this appears to be your policy or practice. If you wish to claim that it is not your policy or practice to prevent critical faculty views of plans for the Fall from being aired on your website, you may wish to explain why the following choices were made by your team at BU Today. And you may wish to start publishing or linking to pieces written by faculty that you have so far declined to publish or link to.

First, Professor Neta C. Crawford, chair of Political Science at BU, recently published Ethical Challenges Loom Over Decisions to Resume In-Person College Classes in The Conversation. My understanding is that The Conversation receives support from the university, and articles from this publication are regularly linked to in your Voices & Opinions section. However, BU Today chose not to feature or link to Professor Crawford’s excellent and thought provoking piece. Why?

The second example has more of a story behind it. Before we had finished writing our much publicized open letter to our BU leaders at the beginning of June, my department colleague Russell Powell and I were informed by one of the people on your team that BU Today might be interested in publishing it. We sent it to BU Today on June 2, and received a reply that told us that it had been decided that the letter was not going to be published as is, but that, if we were to shorten it considerably, it would be published in one week’s time, as part of a collection of short opinion pieces by faculty. It was surprising to us that BU Today was planning to wait a week before publishing a collection of faculty opinions, as we thought many faculty members might like to have these opinions made available to them to consider during the period in which they were completing the faculty survey sent to us by the Provost’s office. Still, we dutifully shortened our letter to produce a document less than half the length of the original (but very similar in content), and immediately sent it back to BU Today on June 3. More than a week passed and the promised compilation of faculty opinions had still not been published. We asked BU Today for an update on June 11. BU Today responded the same day, saying that they had now decided not to use our text, as it was still too long (even though they had previously said that that its length was fine), and that they would instead use some select quotes from it, alongside quotes from other faculty (“…abbreviating the statements of contributors in ways that are faithful to the originals. That process was completed last night. I intend to run all quotes by all contributors…”). We politely told BU Today that this would be fine, not wishing to complain or provide any excuse for the quotes not to be published. More than a month later, we have not heard anything more from BU Today. No article collecting faculty opinions has been published (although an article focusing on the Provost responding to faculty concerns was published). Again, why is this the case?

A third example: back in May, BU Today asked Russell Powell if he could check with Inside Higher Education whether they would provide permission to reprint The Misguided Rush to Reopen Universities, an article Russell coathored with Irina Mikhalevich (who is also a professor, although not at BU). Russell subsequently informed you that IHE was willing to allow you to reprint this article. He has since heard nothing more from you about this. I wonder why.

As far as I am aware, there has been no piece published by a faculty member that is critical of BU policies regarding university plans for the Fall, despite considerable faculty unrest at this time. Also, as far as I am aware, there have been no stories in BU Today reporting on criticisms of BU’s policies that have been discussed by journalists elsewhere, such as in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and, just a few days ago, NBC News. 

In case you are interested in featuring or adding a link to a recent article by Russell Powell and myself, loosely based on our original open letter, we hereby submit to you our Colleges Must Not Compel People to Teach In Person During this Pandemic . Medium allows authors to freely reprint articles elsewhere, so you should feel free to reprint it in full.

Yours sincerely,

Excellent News for International Students, as well as, perhaps, BU Teachers

As the reader is no doubt already aware, the Trump administration has backed down from their plan to implement a new set of ICE guidelines for international students which would have meant overseas students would not have been able to attend colleges that are going online in the Fall, and that they would have needed to leave the US if attending a college that does not start the semester online but suddenly pivots to teaching in online mode at some point during semester due to public health concerns. This decision was announced just before Harvard and MIT were about to begin presenting their lawsuit in a federal court in Boston. It is being reported that the administration will now return to the policy put in place in March of this year, which permits international students to take as many of their courses online as they wish (unlike earlier visa requirements, which required that no more than 25% of a normal course load consist of online classes).

One of the main reasons BU has been forcing the hybrid Learn from Anywhere teaching approach on its generally highly reluctant teachers is because of the large number of international students that they were hoping would provide much needed revenue to the university by attending BU in the Fall and, it was thought, would need to be able to take most of their courses in person, rather than online (roughly 24% of BU students are international students). The decision by ICE to return to the policy put in place in March frees up BU and other similar colleges to offer more courses online. Let us hope we will now finally see BU demonstrating that they care about their faculty by providing them with a genuine option to teach their courses online (without needing to provide private medical details). This option is already provided by many other colleges.

NBC News has published University Professors Fear Returning to Campus as Coronavirus Cases Surge Nationwide, and BU is one of the universities that features in this article. I am quoted as saying, “It would be nice to see BU taking the moral [high] ground and defending their people and faculty,” and Melanie Smith, of the CAS Writing Program, is quoted as saying, “I don’t know if BU administrators realize they have done significant damage to faculty trust.” BU is quoted as saying, “Boston University’s decisions are… not related to those of other institutions of higher education.” This last quote makes me want to ask: shouldn’t BU be trying to work out what is best practice at other universities at this time? It reminds me of the failure of university leaders to appropriately deal with questions about what other colleges are doing when these questions were presented at an earlier Faculty Council meeting. In any case, the university also asked the NBC journalists to modify the first published version of their article to include a claim that BU professors can “request” to work remotely (see the Correction note at the end of the present version of the article). To simply say that we can request to work remotely is somewhat misleading, however, as the university’s process for such requests is one that requires employees to ask for a workplace adjustment on health risk or age grounds (as is also noted in the body of the article). BU did add an “Other” box to the Workplace Adjustment form, but it is presently very unclear what reasons will in fact be recognized by the HR department as legitimate reasons to choose to teach online.

Next week, I intend to open up a comments box on this blog and invite all BU employees who have their workplace adjustment requests rejected to anonymously provide details of what the nature of their request was. It will be interesting to see what the results of the university process are.

A City Council Meeting and Critical Letters and Articles

Yesterday, the Boston City Council Committee on Public Health met to discuss university reopening plans. Jason Prentice, of BU’s College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, presented live testimony, and submitted a letter corresponding to his testimony. I recommend that members of the Boston University community read this letter, as well as a letter and set of documents prepared by the Writing Program as part of an effort to have this program exempted from needing to conform with the Learn from Anywhere model. Jason and his colleagues present a compelling case against the university’s particular hybrid model, drawing on their expert knowledge concerning pedagogy, as well as safety concerns. The five hour meeting is available to watch on YouTube. Russell Powell and I also submitted this letter as testimony (previously posted here) to the City Council committee. We look forward to hearing more about the findings and recommendations of the committee.

In other news, BU Provost Jean Morrison and Vice President and Associate Provost Willis G. Wang yesterday labelled the proposed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines regarding international students “damaging… xenophobic, and malicious,” and announced that BU will join an amicus brief in support of Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit. Amongst other things, they interpret the news from ICE as meaning that international students will be able to take courses online from outside of the US, and that international students who come to Boston to attend classes will need to leave the US if the university finds it must move all courses online next semester (this is all on the assumption the legal challenges underway do not succeed). I have argued that this means we will, or at least should, see many more courses offered as online only courses, although clearly not beyond a point where the university would still count as following a hybrid model (again, this is all on the assumption, which I fervently hope is not correct, that legal challenges to ICE’s plans do not succeed). Of course, many of the reasons that we should see more courses offered in an online only mode are completely independent of these considerations regarding ICE’s plan regarding international students. In particular, this might also be a result of properly respecting BU teachers by allowing them genuine options.

Speaking of offering courses online, BU PhD candidate Emily Chua has published an excellent opinion piece in BU Today, BU Should Go Fully Online This Fall. BU Today deserves credit for publishing this piece, but, it must be said, it is peculiar that they seem to follow a policy of publishing pieces that are critical of BU policies only when they are written by students, and not when they are written by faculty. Our evidence for this is, in part, provided by my account of a broken promise, and also by the fact that they normally feature pieces fed to them by The Conversation (which is provided with funding from BU, as well as other universities), but they decided not to do so when Professor Neta C. Crawford, Chair of the Department of Political Science at BU, recently published Ethical Challenges Loom Over Decisions to Resume In-Person College Classes.

Also published today in BU Today is a piece summarizing BU’s policy regarding university staff and when they do and do not need to return to work. Like university teachers (including graduate student teachers), they will be able to apply for workplace adjustments. And all staff members who can do their work successfully at home will be permitted to work from home. Make no mistake: This is as it should be. Still, this rather gives the lie to criticisms I have received from some quarters that teachers are asking for something that is wholly unavailable to staff or that we are being elitist. The moral principle that the university is implicitly putting to work here is not being applied to teachers, for we too can effectively do our work from home (in fact we can do it more effectively at home than in the classroom, since teaching mask to mask is inferior to teaching online, pedagogically speaking). And, as we have argued repeatedly (see our Medium article), reducing the number of total employees and students on campus reduces the risks to all that remain on campus. We have also called for staff who are required to remain on campus to be provided with hazard pay. The BU Today story also reports that 84% of almost 3000 staff surveyed were concerned or very concerned about returning to campus. So they, and all of us, should be.

Finally, let me say why I think yesterday’s guest post here from Professor Otsuka is important. With respect to workplace adjustment requests at BU and elsewhere, employers claim that 65 and over is the crucial age-based risk group, but when the CDC recently revised its guidelines it removed the reference to 65 and over, and Otsuka demonstrates that the science now tells us that if you are 45 or over, you are more at risk than other groups that are properly recognized by the CDC and our employers as risk groups. This reveals a gross inconsistency in present university policy regarding workplace adjustments. There may be legal ramifications here.