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?

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,

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.

A Policy Shift / Clarification

Originally published June 23, 2020

We have been given only one week to complete and submit the online workplace adjustment form. At the beginning of the week in question (Thursday June 18) we were provided with a form that many took to be mainly for use by those with medical or age concerns, due to earlier communications, which specified non-medical, pedagogical requests would be considered separately. Near the top of the form is a restricted list of conditions and it initially appeared to many of us as though one must tick one of the boxes for one of these conditions. On Monday, after people starting filling in the form, the Provost made use of BU Today to broadcast (echoing a paragraph that was overlooked by many in her earlier memo and that was not expected): ‘For those faculty and teaching fellows who have concerns about returning to campus for reasons other than the conditions described above, Morrison said, the administration would like to collect more information to understand the scope of those concerns. Those seeking a workplace adjustment who have a nonmedical concern are asked to complete and submit the same form and to use the “Other” box at the end of the form to provide details about their situation. “After we gather this information,” Morrison wrote, “we will determine whether or not there are ameliorative steps we might take.” ’

While we think it is a very good thing that the Provost is recommending that the form be used for any and all non-medical requests, Russell Powell and I are extremely concerned that the policy regarding use of the workplace adjustment forms has not been more clearly communicated to the faculty (to be clear: faculty were earlier led to believe the form was only to be used for medical and age based exemptions). The Provost does often send out email messages to the whole of the faculty, so it would be easy to send a reminder of the policy shift (perhaps along with a reminder of the due date). For us, there is no way to email all of the faculty (this has very much limited our ability to inform people about our petition). We are also concerned that it is possible a great many requests for accommodations will be rejected; we don’t know that they will be, of course, but the success or failure of this process will turn, not just on clearer, repeated communications of the new directive to faculty concerning use of the form, but on actual outcomes at the end of this process. Let us hope that our requests will be dealt with in a charitable, preference respecting fashion.

Where are you BU Today?

Originally published June 22, 2020

Before we had finished writing our open letter to our BU leaders, Russell Powell and I were informed by BU Today that they might be interested in publishing an open letter to the BU community that we were writing. We sent it to them on June 2. We received a reply that said that they had decided that they were not going to publish our letter as is, but that, if we were to shorten it considerably, they would publish it in one week’s time, as part of a collection of short opinion pieces by faculty. We were surprised that they were planning to wait a week, as we thought faculty should have these opinions to consider during the period in which they were completing the survey sent to us all by the Provost. Still, we dutifully shortened our letter to produce a document less than half the length of the original (but extremely similar in content) and immediately sent it back to BU Today on June 3. We waited to hear further news. More than a week passed and we started to wonder when the promised compilation of Faculty opinions was going to appear. We asked BU Today for an update on June 11. They responded the same day, saying that they had now decided not to use our text, as it was still too long and that they would instead use some select quotes from it (“…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 them that this would be fine. We didn’t want to complain because we didn’t want to give them any excuse to not publish the quotes. We have not heard anything more from them since, nineteen days after we provided a shortened piece, and eleven days after our last correspondence. No article collecting faculty opinions has been published. And there have been no stories reporting the many criticisms of BU that have been reported by good journalists elsewhere. 

We understand that BU Today is, in essence, a public relations outlet for BU and not a genuine local news site. What we find odd is that BU Today appears at times to aspire to be a news site, that it claims to represent the BU community, and that it employs writers with journalistic credentials. We don’t mean to condemn all of the pieces that BU Today publishes or the work of journalists. We highly value good journalism (we might even be said to be aspiring to do a little of it ourselves at the moment). We have a suggestion. Don’t pretend to be a genuine news site or disguise your public relations remit. Be explicit about the fact – proud of it, if you like – that you represent the interests of the leaders of Boston University, and not the interests of Boston University students and faculty.

If you don’t like that suggestion, here is a different one. Split BU Today into two very different websites, one for the press releases (no longer masquerading as journalism) and one for genuine journalistic pieces, with an editor who has genuine editorial authority that is independent of BU leadership. This proposal has an advantage to it that it recognizes your  employees may not all be of one mind.

Let me end my again noting that student journalists have been leading the way on the unfolding story of BU faculty discontent. BU students Chloe Liu and Grace Ferguson put BU Today to shame.

Final Note: As I was posting this story on my website in the early morning I thought I best check BU Today today. I see they have now, finally, posted an article discussing faculty discontent, referring, amongst other things, to our petition (this web page was also, I should add,  linked to indirectly in an earlier article about student, rather than faculty, perspectives). The framing in the latest article is that the university administration is being responsive to faculty concerns (predictably, I still don’t believe it is being properly responsive). Too little, too late, BU Today!