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.

International Undergraduate Students, ICE, and University Policies

I am going to comment on two significant news items from yesterday. First, Harvard University announced that a maximum of 40% of their undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will be staying on their campus in the Fall, and confirmed that all courses there will be online courses (six of their graduate and professional schools have also announced they will be entirely online). I think it’s important for those of us working or studying at other universities not to take Harvard as a model. Harvard’s wealth and status puts it in a position to do things that other universities can rightly view as being too costly for them to do. That being said, there are at least three take home lessons here for all of us. The first is summed up nicely in a popular Tweet “If Harvard doesn’t have the resources to make in person education safe in the Fall, do you seriously think anyone else does?” Next, Harvard’s statement says that the 40% figure was based on reasoning by their public health experts concerning health risks, and I think it is sobering to compare that number to the much higher percentage (perhaps 100%, or close to it) many other colleges, such as my own, are trying to tell their university communities is a safe percentage to aim for. The third lesson, I would suggest, is that college students don’t come to campus simply, or even mainly, for in person classes. Amongst other things, they come to be with their peers and establish independence in relation to their families. I’ve been saying this for a month or so (as, I’m sure, have many other people), but Harvard’s policy represents an endorsement of this idea on the part of a leading university, since the students who come to Harvard will be taking all their classes online. We need to bear all these points in mind when considering the policies other universities are adopting or considering adopting.

The second piece of news concerns the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announcement regarding student visas and online courses. Here, I must emphasize that what I will say at this point is speculative. I’m not a lawyer or immigration expert, and students should contact the International Students & Scholars Office (or equivalent) at their college regarding any specific concerns they might have. I am not writing this post to offer advice to students, but rather as part of my continuing efforts to think through university policies and policy options. The announcement begins by indicating, in effect, that the statement is not yet legally binding. This leaves a little room to think that petition signing and lobbying efforts now underfoot may possibly lead to some changes before the regulations become legally binding. On the assumption that no relevant policy changes occur, however, I am inclined to think the following. It appears that whenever colleges offer all courses online only, international students enrolled at these colleges will not be permitted to remain in the US. This means, first, that universities, such as Harvard, that are planning to only be offering courses online will have to either end up reversing their policies, or will be accepting that their international students will only be taking courses from outside of the US. Second, and closer to home, it also means that any college that has adopted a hybrid model* or is planning to hold classes in a face to face mode, and any international student that is contemplating attending such a college, will be very concerned that if the college needs to move online during semester, due to an outbreak of COVID-19, all international students at that college may need to promptly leave the US (unless they are able to go on medical leave, or meet some other excusing condition).

What are the likely implications of this last idea for the policies of colleges following either a hybrid model or holding all classes on campus? Here are two possibilities that are particularly salient to me, although they pull in different directions. First, if we suppose (hypothetically) that some colleges will succeed in attracting many of their overseas students back to campus to attend classes in person, then these colleges will have a new disincentive to provide information regarding infection and hospitalization rates and to declare an emergency of the kind that would require that all classes move online. They already have other disincentives to do this. Russell Powell and I have already called for our own university to set up a thorough, transparent, and independent process for the reporting of all relevant information to the university community and the city where the university resides. Such a move now seems more important than ever. In case any of this talk of disincentives to report information sounds paranoid or conspiratorial, let me be clear: I’m not saying that universities will engage in incomplete or biased reporting; I’m just saying we now need to hear what their information policies are going to be, and we need to think about them carefully.

Second, overseas students who are presently residing overseas will be considering their options now and they are more likely than ever to decide not to return to the US. They are looking at the option of attending college in a country where idiotic public policies and attitudes (let’s not mince words) are ensuring COVID-19 infections are not going to be reduced to small numbers any time soon, and are killing or ruining the lives of a great many people, and where their college may end up moving completely online part way during semester, because of an outbreak, meaning they will need to immediately leave the US. They are comparing this to the option of staying at home for a year, where risk of infection is probably quite a bit lower, and where they can take their courses online and not need to spend money on room and board in the US. Why would such students return to the US? These students are not going to be particularly satisfied with synchronous delivery of courses, such as is required by the Learn from Anywhere model, because of time zone differences. This suggests demand for online only courses will increase. Incidentally, I also expect demand for online only courses will significantly increase once those domestic and international students who do return to campus experience what it is really like to be taught in socially distanced classes by masked teachers (and often using a “platoon” based approach, at least at BU, that involves only some students being allowed to attend each class while other students attend online, due to a shortage of suitable lecture rooms).

There is one good piece of news in the otherwise terrible announcement from ICE that I should now also mention. In schools adopting a hybrid model, students “will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online… [as long as] the student is not taking an entirely online course load.” As I understand it, this frees the relevant colleges up to offer more courses online, as long as they still offer enough face to face (or, let’s be frank, mask to mask) courses to count as following a hybrid model (this is good because the old rule, waived in the Spring, was that only 25% of a course load could be online). BU’s International Students & Scholars office today confirmed this interpretation, saying “Fortunately, this updated guidance appears to continue to allow students to take more online courses than normally allowed by regulation, provided that students continue to take courses in person.” Let us end on this positive note then: online only courses may be thought to be much better options for colleges following a hybrid model to offer from now onwards. Learn from Anywhere/HyFlex may end up dying a natural death.

*Surveys of student preferences generally fail to distinguish between two different hybrid models: (1) some courses are offered online, some are offered in class; (2) all or most courses are offered in class but students may take these classes wholly or partly online, watching and interacting with their teachers from home (the Learn from Anywhere or HyFlex approach). These models are very different in important respects, as teachers at institutions like BU, where the the second model is being forced on us, are only too aware.

[UPDATE, July 8: Legal challenges to the ICE plan have begun, with Harvard and MIT leading the way. Let’s hope they succeed.]