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.”

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.]

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

Dear Boston City Council members,

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,
Russell Powell
Daniel Star

A Tale of Two Letters

Two letters. The first is a letter from the graduate students and faculty of the BU English department, expressing solidarity between graduate students and faculty, in opposition to the Provost’s Memo of June 19 regarding PhD students and the “opaque process that has been poorly explained” surrounding possible exemptions. Amongst other things (including the disproportional impact on black and brown communities when it comes to the impact of COVID-19), the letter highlights the separate standards implied by the memo when it comes to domestic and foreign students. Many foreign students have already been financially penalized because they had to stay in Boston without work for part of the summer (student visa conditions prevent them from working outside of the university). Now, graduate students who teach and who have returned to their home countries face having their stipends cancelled if they can’t re-enter the country due to entry restrictions or difficulties booking flights.

Well done, English! There is still no public clarificatory or ameliorative statement from the university regarding PhD students, despite the huge outcry on Twitter and elsewhere regarding the Provost’s memo, and the internal claims I reported on five days ago to the effect that some of the policies may end up being more relaxed than they appear in the document. If certain policies will be more relaxed, one would think the university would publicly confirm this, if only for PR-related reasons.

The second letter I wish to respond to is today’s letter to the university community from the BU President. Ostensibly an exercise in transparently sharing information about the financial state and plans of the university before asserting that 250 employees will be laid off or furloughed, and that searches for 200 open and unfilled positions will be delayed or cancelled, it is, in fact, an exercise in faux transparency. Aggregate budget numbers and shortfalls are reported (based on facts we already know about freezing salary increases, and removing a year of university contributions to retirement plans, etc.), but the email does not break down “undesignated reserves and budget contingencies” in any detail, let alone consider other ways in which money might be saved. Perhaps there are reasons why recently acquired real estate cannot be sold, or certain building programs cannot be halted, for instance, but we’re not told anything about these reasons, and probably never will be. There is no discussion of the larger mission of the university, or any mention of the widespread concerns of university teachers regarding the way Learn from Anywhere will be forcing many of us to return to teach with masks on in our poorly ventilated classrooms in the Fall, when we would much prefer not to be risking our lives for such a pedagogically unsound approach to educating students.

I have heard rumors of letters to our university leaders from other BU departments, and I hope to post more soon.

Faculty Council Meeting, Workplace Adjustment Forms, and Teaching Rooms

Originally published June 19, 2020

Four days after a snapshot of our petition was provided to our university leaders  (it remains open), I can report that a great many things have occurred at BU. Still, in the wake of emergency university meetings early in the week, one thing is very clear: the university has further hardened and further specified aspects of its policy that we must all teach on campus in the Fall, with exceptions to be kept to an absolute minimum.  At the Faculty Council meeting on Monday, faculty asked difficult questions, and our university leaders failed to adequately respond to faculty concerns (as the minutes demonstrate). One of many difficult questions asked of university leaders concerned the particulars of other comparable peer and “peer plus” universities’ plans (NYU was used as an example). The answer received was “we do not know the particulars of others’ plans and how they are deciding what classes to offer in-person and what to put online.” This is not encouraging, to put things mildly, because one might have hoped such momentous decisions were being made in consultation with other universities. If NYU and Duke can offer faculty the freedom to teach online,  and say to their students that there will be a mix of online and on campus classes, why can’t BU? I have subsequently had many Zoom meetings and email conversations with faculty who have been pooling ideas for things we can do to continue applying pressure on our university leaders in order to get them to take faculty preferences and perspectives seriously. There are many excellent ideas being shared. Russell Powell and I have a particular proposal that we’re developing, but we’re not quite ready to unveil it. 

For faculty who would like to seek teaching accommodations, this form became available on June 18. Faculty who are contemplating asking for special teaching accommodations have been provided with just 5 working days to submit the form. A day after this form became available, information about the rooms we will be teaching in during the Fall was also provided to chairs, in the form of a giant spreadsheet that at least some chairs have shared with their department members. As far as I understand, no new room assignments have been provided. We have been told we have until the beginning of July to request room changes. Note that this means that people considering whether or not to apply for a health or age based accommodation will not know, before the deadline for such requests, which room they will be teaching in if they don’t apply for an accommodation.  

​There is a great deal of information to be interpreted concerning the particular rooms we’ve been assigned for classes. I’d be very interested to hear what people have to say about room assignment matters (dnlstr@gmail.com) and what they reveal about whether or not the university is doing an adequate job of providing rooms that will be safe for classes. I have serious doubts on this score. In my own case,  my classes are still scheduled for two small rooms with poor ventilation (this happens to be my first teaching semester at BU where I haven’t been scheduled to teach at least one large freshman course). One room I’ve been assigned can fit 11 people in it if they are all 6 feet apart from each other, and the other room can fit 3 people in it if they are all 6 feet away from each other (a column in the scheduling spreadsheet provides this type of calculation for all rooms). Knowing the rooms in question, the calculations sounds like they might be right. But here is one really crucial question: why should we think that 6 feet distancing is sufficient in cases where multiple people are in one room for a long time, with many or all of these people talking (in many small courses, like mine, students must actively participate in discussions)? BU seems to be focusing only on ways to make the large classes safer, but small classes may be particularly dangerous. We have heard that some small classes may be cancelled altogether in the coming semester (teachers will need to make up for cancelled classes by teaching other classes either in the Fall or the Spring). In any case, graduate student teaching fellows will still, as far as I know, need to teach discussion classes, and they and faculty should be very concerned that many of these classes may be in small rooms. With respect to classes that are not cancelled, another important question can be asked: if all students in the class prefer to hold the class online, rather than on campus, may the class be held online? To answer ‘No’ to this question during this pandemic, when teaching in class means everyone must wear masks and take significant risks to their wellbeing, is absurdYet, so far as we are aware, BU leaders have not provided an answer to this question.

Finally, Russell Powell and I feature in an excellent new radio story by a BU student. We also have an Op Ed we hope to publish soon.

Where are you BU Today?

Petition Delivered with 1063 Signatures, a Faculty Council Meeting, and English Department Letter

Originally published June 15, 2020

This morning we forwarded our petition as it was at 9am to our university leaders (with 1063 signatures after repeat entries were removed).  If anyone would like a copy of the spreadsheet and the open email we sent, please let me know. Thank you very much to everyone who has signed it so far! The petition remains open and continues to attract signatures. Please do sign it if you agree with it. I heard that at the meeting of the Faculty Council this afternoon (I’m not a member), a leader of the university claimed that an assumption of our original letter was incorrect because the university will be considering making some exceptions to Learn from Anywhere for medical reasons. This didn’t seem to us to be on the cards when we wrote our letter, and it is no reason at all to dismiss everything else we say in the letter, which doesn’t depend at all on this assumption. We argued that every professor or instructor should have the option of teaching online, and not just those who are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. An official BU spokesperson recently said, “It’s important to note that the University has not yet made any final decisions about faculty returning to the classroom, and there is no requirement in place for all faculty to teach in-person this fall.” That’s “misleading at best,” as Russell Powell put it in an understated way in an interview where he was asked about the spokesperson’s comment (see the CommonWealth article linked to below for these quotes). As I have said before, faculty have been sent emails internally that direct Deans to keep exceptions to an absolute minimum and for professors to make all such appeals, which must go for approval to a Dean, “pedagogically-driven.” Of course, we will welcome any positive changes​ to university policy, but it is not true to say there is no policy or no requirement in place. Finally, at the end of the day, we received a wonderful open letter to our leaders from the members of the English department. 

The Petitions

Originally published June 10, 2020

Yesterday, the university told students, “LfA [Learn from Anywhere] will give our students the option to either be in the classroom in-person or participate remotely from a dorm room or off-campus home. Students may exercise the remote option for a period of time or for the entire semester. The decision to learn remotely may be driven by a travel restriction or illness that is temporary or simply by a student’s desire to continue extreme social distancing” (Letter to Students, June 9, emphasis added at the end).

We are hoping the university will extend the same degree of respect to professors and other teachers. We’re all in this together. Recognizing this fact, BU students today surprised us (there was no coordination) when they set up a petition for students to sign saying that we should not have to teach in the classroom if they don’t have to learn in the classroom  (Russell Powell and I call this Teach from Anywhere). We are very grateful to the students who set up this petition (whoever they are), and all the students signing it. If you are a BU student, please sign that petition. If you are a BU professor or instructor, or just wish to show support for BU professors and instructors , please sign the BU teachers petition.  An automatically updated list of those that have already signed this petition is also available.

Faculty Survey and Clarifications

Originally published June 9, 2020

On June 2, our university administration sent a multiple choice online survey form out to all faculty. The deadline for the survey was June 8. On June 7, one day before the survey deadline, university leaders sent out a letter and guidance instructions to all deans and department chairs, instructing them to pursue a policy of minimizing the provision of exceptions to Learn from Anywhere of a kind that might allow professors to teach online. It is left rather unclear what kinds of exceptions might be granted (at least one subsequent email sent by a dean to all faculty in a college specifies they must be “pedagogically-driven”), but it is not left unclear that there should be very few exceptions made. At no point are high risk groups, older faculty, or faculty with children mentioned, let alone is there any suggestion that belonging to some such group might provide grounds for exceptions to the policy requiring that all classes be taught in person. It is unfortunate that the university policy was further specified before the faculty survey was completed and feedback from BU faculty could be taken into account. So far BU faculty have received no general communications to the university community as a whole from our university leaders that seriously address faculty concerns regarding the welfare and preferences of faculty with respect to in-class teaching and COVID-19. Less importantly, we have received no substantive response from university leadership to the letter below (a signed version of which was sent directly by email to our upper university administration on June 2), although we have received many very supportive email messages from individual faculty members, for which we are grateful. 

We would like to clarify some things about our letter in response to comments we have received, and briefly report on developments at BU. We wanted this letter to be highly focused and not overly long. Still, we now think we should have made it clear that our concerns to do with the interests of BU employees are concerns with teaching employees in general (“faculty” in a broad sense, if you like), including full-time and part-time lecturers, teaching fellows, etc. We very much would not wish to see the university moving the in-class teaching burden to teachers outside of the tenure system; we think that would be unjust. Regarding other BU employees (e.g. cleaners, cafeteria workers, grounds and facilities management), it’s important to recognize that it may be the case that some jobs cannot be done from home (unlike teaching, for many courses). We genuinely sympathize with employees in positions where they do not have the option of working at home. That being said, the fact that some employees cannot work from home is not a good reason to prevent other employees from working from home. Furthermore, lowering the population density of both students and teachers on campus and traveling through campus, by allowing many courses to be taught online, would significantly decrease the health risks for all university employees (as well as students) that remain on campus.

Open Letter

Open Letter to BU Leaders and the University Community of  June 2, 2020
Russell Powell and Daniel Star

BU’s plan for the fall of 2020 remains very much in flux. At the moment, however, the university appears wedded to the idea that not only should all students who are well and able take up residence on campus, but also that all or most courses be taught in person using a “Learn from Anywhere” approach that would allow students to attend classes either in person or remotely. Students would be permitted to make this decision based on their personal medical condition, family circumstances, travel burdens, and willingness to assume the health risks and potential anxieties that in-person attendance entails. We will not opine here on the practical or moral wisdom of bringing students to campus in the fall, a decision that many peer universities (for good or for ill) have also made. What is unusual about BU’s approach as compared to peer universities, and in our view raises serious moral misgivings, is that the university’s policy as it stands does not carve out a similar sphere of liberty for BU faculty. 

The Fall Plan

As of early June, BU faculty are being given no choice but to teach in person in the fall, even though this is a deeply personal decision—one that is no less than a matter of life and death—for faculty members and their families. Like the students they teach and mentor, faculty members find themselves in diverse medical, familial, and geographic circumstances and have very different tolerances for risk. A blanket requirement that faculty teach in person without regard to their medical and family situations would be an unconscionable breach of the university’s moral fiduciary duties to faculty members, one that places the overwhelming weight of the health burden of this once-in-a-century pandemic on important and vulnerable stakeholders.

The notion that faculty members could choose to take a paid sick leave in lieu of teaching, as suggested to us by some in the university administration, is woefully inadequate for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that a paid sick leave would not (as presently configured) cover situations wherein one’s family members are in high-risk categories, such as if one’s partner is pregnant or if one cares for elderly parents. Furthermore, many faculty members are parents of young children and cannot risk being quarantined from their family for 14 days at a time with each exposure (or worse, if they become infected with COVID-19), leaving them unable to properly care for their children. As it stands, the only recourse for a faculty member who finds themselves in such circumstances would be to take an unpaid leave, which for obvious reasons is not a satisfactory option. There is no doubt that a policy that allows professors, lecturers, and graduate students that fall into certain risk classes to teach online would be considerably better than a blanket policy that admits of no exceptions. If the university chooses to go in this direction, we would strongly urge them to also include faculty who are responsible for the care of young children or elderly family members. 

However, we strongly favor a policy that would give every faculty member the option of teaching their classes wholly online. This would allow all faculty members to exercise their autonomy over a fundamental life decision in light of their own personal circumstances and in consultation with their own values and priorities—just as the university has done for students. There are several reasons why this is the morally best policy. 

First, and most obviously, it is morally wrong to demand that professors risk their health and that of their family members, given the online teaching alternative. In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to open universities in an even remotely safe manner is to have robust testing, contact-tracing teams, supportive quarantine for those exposed, and full PPE gear for faculty in place by the time the fall semester begins. Given the dire national shortages of these things, to say this is a tall order would be an understatement. Creating a reasonably safe environment must go well beyond “security theatre” (such as temperature taking, hallway segregation, classroom spacing, etc.), which risks creating a false sense of security. There will also be major hurdles to adequately enforcing the required conditions, as some students will (e.g.) refuse to wear masks for any number of reasons, including political ones (and we have heard from the university administration that the campus police will not be in the enforcement business). Even if these conditions could be miraculously met and all protocols abided to, many students, faculty, staff, and people in the surrounding Boston community will inevitably get infected, some will be irreparably harmed, and some will die. It is far from clear that this would be a morally acceptable outcome even if the only alternative were to shut down the university for the fall; but it is patently immoral given the remote teaching alternative. 

We fear that despite assurances from the university and the good-faith efforts presently underway to physically reshape parts of the campus, the population density on campus will be too high at certain times to allow for adequate social distancing measures if all courses are taught in person. A mixed approach that allows some courses to be offered online only would considerably lower the population density on campus at critical times.

Ethical Tradeoffs

In defending the urgent need to bring students back to campus, universities have stressed the value of in-person teaching and the limits of teaching remotely, despite the advent of what only a decade ago would have seemed like miraculous communication technology. It is far from obvious that lecturing while dressed in full PPE gear, including masks, goggles, visors, gloves, and gowns, would be in any way optimal for anyone—as opposed, say, to carrying on these same activities from the safety and psychological comfort of one’s own home. Moreover, it is likely that many classes, if not the entire university, will be forced to switch to fully remote learning mid-semester as outbreaks flare up and students and faculty get exposed to the virus. In any case, it seems rather obvious to us that optimal pedagogy cannot conceivably justify significant risks to the health of faculty members, staff and their families, to say nothing of the wider Boston community. 

The only conceivable justification for in-person teaching under pandemic circumstances is that without it many students will choose not to enroll for the fall—and as a result, the economic impact on the university will be so devastating that many faculty members and staff will have to be furloughed or laid off. We are skeptical that this is the forced choice universities are confronted with, especially for institutions with vast real estate holdings and large endowments invested in a stock market that is booming irrespective of national unemployment rates. However, it is incumbent upon BU and any other universities to make this moral case explicitly and transparently, so that its stakeholders can meaningfully evaluate and contribute their voices to decisions that may have a profound effect on their health, their lives, and their livelihoods. 

Sending a Moral Message

What sort of a message are we sending to students if we encourage them to return to campus because their own health is not dramatically at risk, when they are likely to asymptomatically spread the virus to older and more vulnerable university populations? We are telling them that they should not care (or should not care very much) about taking risks that might seriously harm or kill other people. We are telling them that BU faculty do not deserve the same rights as students. We are saying that faculty are here to serve students at any cost—to provide supposedly optimal teaching environments at the expense of their own lives and the lives of those they love, rather than to work collaboratively with students in their development as responsible citizens of our community and stewards of our planet.

Crucially, universities should not take student preferences for how campus life should be conducted in the fall as a fixed point. Instead, they should make the moral case to students that we are all in this together and that we have an obligation to keep one another safe and to support the institution and community we have chosen to be part of. One of us (Powell) co-wrote an opinion piece on the science and ethics of reopening universities that was published in Inside Higher Ed. Since then, the article has been assigned in summer ethics classes, and it turns out that students embrace and appreciate the strength of the arguments therein. Many prospective and current students, who are not themselves at great medical risk, have yet to think through the moral ramifications of attending class in person (an obvious but important one of which is that teachers in the classroom will need to wear masks and screens, whereas online teaching requires no such impediments to teaching well). But they are receptive to reasons. The university must make the case that not only should these students join or continue with BU in the fall, but also that they should do so in ways that do not put others in grave danger. 

Are we, or these other ethicists, saying that it’s never permissible for the university to engineer an environment in which its members risk being harmed or harming others? No. We are simply asking that the seriousness of the policy being proposed be acknowledged and the costs and benefits transparently discussed. At the very least, professors and students should, where possible, have the option of teaching and learning online. If, knowing there are serious risks, professors choose to teach in the classroom, and students choose to return to the classroom, that is a decision they should be allowed to make in a way that respects their autonomy, weighing these considerations for themselves.

Faculty, not physical spaces, are the life blood of the university. Compelling faculty members, at the pain of their jobs, to risk their lives for putatively preferable pedagogy or unclear economic benefits is to cut off the university’s nose to spite its face.