Students are Staying Away from University Classrooms

Our university leaders, I have now heard, are very worried about the fact that most students are staying away from university classrooms and opting to attend classes remotely (as predicted). BU Today has not reported on the fact that students enrolled in hybrid classes are opting to attend their classes remotely, but The Daily Free Press has recently published at least two relevant articles, here and here.

It is not exactly clear why our university leaders are worried about students choosing to stay away from physical classrooms – after all, this presumably helps BU keep COVID-19 infection numbers down (although the administration hasn’t publicly said as much), and the whole raison d’être of Learn from Anywhere was meant to be that it provides students with freedom (which they may legitimately exercise by choosing to stay away from classrooms). Perhaps BU’s leaders are worried that dissatisfied students may accuse them of false advertising. It has been suggested to me that they may be concerned about the possibility of the university being the target of further legal suits. But I must confess that I am uncertain as to why they are worried.

I have also heard that our university leaders were recently informed by a group of professors that instructors are finding that they can either cater to the students who are in the physical classroom, or cater to the students at home, but that it is extremely difficult to do both of these things properly at the same time (as was predicted by pedagogical experts, e.g. by Jason Prentice and his colleagues in the Writing Program). Nonetheless, planning for Learn from Anywhere to be the default mode for the delivery of classes in the Spring is continuing apace.

The Future of Learn from Anywhere, and the Dashboard

It was made explicit in a meeting of department chairs this week that when it comes to planning for the Spring semester, BU is presently assuming that instructors who have not successfully applied for workplace adjustments that permit them to teach remotely will continue to follow the LfA hybrid model and teach on campus. This is not surprising news, but one hopes that reliable survey data will be systematically gathered from professors and other instructors, as well as students, regarding the success or otherwise of LfA classes, before any final decision to continue with LfA is made. My sense is that LfA has, in general, been something of a disaster, both for instructors and for students. However, I fully admit that the evidence for this that is new this semester (let’s not forget we had relevant evidence from pedagogical experts before the semester began) has so far been anecdotal in nature (see here, here, and here, for instance). Amongst other things, we need to know:
What percentage of classes are operating in the hybrid mode (this percentage may drop further as semester progresses, as courses move online, if that’s what students want)?
– In the classes that are operating in the hybrid mode, what percentage of students are attending in person?
– What percentage of instructors that are teaching their classes in the hybrid mode think they could provide a better learning environment for students if they were to instead teach remotely next semester (something that most are not presently permitted to do)?

Of course, even if a university administered survey is provided at some point, we know from experience that the survey may not be taken seriously by BU’s leaders. In any case, cognizant of the fact that the university has not yet systematically surveyed the BU community, the BU PhD Student Coalition has decided to take the lead by setting up a survey, and I particularly recommend that students and instructors who have direct experiences with LfA complete this survey.

The second BU Weekly COVID-19 Report has been published online. It contains responses to some of the concerns that have been raised regarding the Dashboard. It includes the following news: “Now that the University-wide coronavirus surveillance plan has been in place for more than six weeks, and students, faculty, and staff have settled into on-campus or remote learning, BU plans to share the number of people in its testing population … ‘we’re going to put that number in the dashboard.’” This is a response to a concern that I and others raised in August. We are told that the number of people that have been tested will be posted somewhere on the Dashboard, but we are not told that we will see the data regarding percentages of people that have tested positive recast so that number of people tested is used as a denominator, rather than the highly misleading number of tests (it’s telling that the word “denominator” is not used anywhere in the report, and percentages are not mentioned in this context). We are also not told why it was thought necessary to wait more than six weeks to start reporting the number of people tested. The idea of waiting for people to be fully settled is mentioned as if it is a reason for waiting to report on the number of people tested, but it doesn’t seem like a good reason at all to postpone moving to a much less misleading denominator.

Is the Dashboard being provided for public relations reasons, or for public health reasons? It seems that public relations concerns have to a certain extent been driving the way the data is being presented on the Dashboard, rather than what should be happening, which is that public relations concerns take a back seat to public health concerns.

Regarding the fact that invalid test numbers were previously being provided on the Dashboard, but suddenly stopped being provided, no attempt is made to address the issue, raised in my last post, that moving to a process that significantly reduces the time it takes to receive the results of tests may have also led to a significant increase in the percentage of tests that are invalid. Instead of addressing this concern, the report simply says “The daily and cumulative numbers of invalid tests were removed from the dashboard… because an invalid result requires that person come back for repeat testing within 24 hours.” This information about retesting being required within 24 hours is helpful for us all to receive, and at least this change to the Dashboard was addressed in the report. Still, being provided with more information, of a kind that was already being reported, seems better than being provided with less information.

Show us the Information

It’s been a couple of weeks since I and others started pointing out that there are serious problems with BU’s Dashboard that are due to the fact that the denominator being used for BU data throughout is number of tests (a number that keeps going up and up, as students are tested twice a week, and in-person instructors are tested once a week), rather than number of people tested (a much lower number that will have more or less hit a ceiling a week ago). Since then the Dashboard design has been changed, with some information being added, and some being removed. We were told in August that the data for number of people tested would be available on September 6, but no attempt has been to even add percentages that use number of people tested, let alone to move away from an emphasis on data that relies on number of tests as a denominator. This means BU is continuing to leave itself open to the charge of aiming to mislead people when it comes to comparing positive test percentages across BU and the wider community.

Employee data has now been added, and this is a good thing, but there has been no attempt to address the serious problem just mentioned, and the new Dashboard has even been made worse in one way. Prior to the recent changes to the Dashboard, data was being reported on the number and percentage of tests that are invalid. Now this data is not being reported at all. Why remove these updates? We have not been provided with any justification for doing so. We have, however, been told that the testing process has changed, with a new type of swab kit being used, in order to speed up the process of returning results to people after they are tested. Last week we were seeing average sample processing times in the high 30s (e.g. an average of 39.5 hours for results received on September 3, and an average of 38.9 hours for results received on September 6). This was not the promised 24 hours average waiting time. The numbers have now come down (e.g. 25.6 hours for September 10). These facts might lead one to ask: given that the reporting of invalid test numbers on the Dashboard was stopped at the time that the testing process changed in order to speed up that process, was the decision to stop reporting invalid test numbers made because of an expectation that we would see invalid test numbers rise significantly as a result of these changes?

Let me be clear: I am not saying that if the percentage of invalid tests has now increased that this invalidates the move to using tests that can be processed more quickly. Increasing turn around times is clearly important for efforts to keep the infection rate down. The tradeoff here may well be worth it. What I am saying is that there is no good reason to hide information about invalid tests. BU should continue to provide that information at the same time as explaining to us why the tradeoff in question is worth making, if there has been a tradeoff (and if the hypothesis suggested by the above question is false, BU should go back to publishing invalid test numbers, anyway, in order to build trust, which public health experts tell us is a very valuable resource in a pandemic).

As far as I am aware, we haven’t at BU received a single general communication providing details concerning false positive and false negative rates, and invalid tests. We remain completely in the dark on these issues. Again, let me emphasize that I’m not saying that if these rates were properly discussed we would see that something terrible has been going on; on the contrary, I think trust in the testing program would increase. The basic problem is one of disrespect. Students and faculty deserve to be treated as intelligent adults, and kept fully informed. It is odd that this even needs to be said when talking about a university, but, sadly, there is so much PR spin to be found in higher education these days that I guess it does need to be said.

Credit where credit is due. BU has now started issuing weekly COVID-19 bulletins. This is in line with a recommendation that I made a few weeks ago, after referring to the public health literature on the importance of possessing a good information policy in a pandemic with the invaluable assistance of Professor Michael Siegel. The first of these bulletins contains too little useful information, but hopefully we’ll learn much more as time goes by. I’m happy to see that people are asking questions and pressing for much needed improvements in the comments on the bulletin. We have also now been provided with data regarding student non-compliance.

Higher ed reporter Kirk Carapezza has produced an excellent WGBH Radio piece on BU’s mistaken decision to not inform in-person instructors when students in their classes test positive. It includes interviews with Northeastern Distinguished University Professor of Law, Wendy Parmet (Parmet is a public health law expert, and she asserts that there is no good legal justification for this policy choice), Professor Michael Siegel, and myself. I also recommend keeping up with Michael Siegel’s new blog. Recent posts include “The LfA Marketing Scheme Revisited: Two Weeks In, It is Clear that this was a Hoax to Lure in Tuition Dollars” and “New Data from Boston Public Schools Demonstrates How BUSPH Learn from Anywhere Approach is a Racist Policy,” as well as a guest post by John Sherman, an attorney and senior program fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

UPDATE, September 15: As discussed previously here (near the bottom of the page), in August, BU Information Services and Technology provided student LfA moderators with a sexist and culturally insensitive dress code. The relevant set of instructions was fairly quickly withdrawn, and I have now been informed that Professor Kecia Ali (Religion) and Professor Cati Connell (Director, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies) have worked together with Tracy Schroeder, Vice President of Information Services and Technology to produce a revised IS&T Code of Conduct that is no longer problematic in the relevant respects. To Tracy Schroeder and IS&T’s further credit, these recent changes, the rationale for them, and the process by which they were made have also been been openly discussed in an email provided to student moderators (and elsewhere, no doubt).

Chaos on Campus

It’s the first day of classes here at BU. Let me begin by wishing everyone a safe semester. One thing we can all agree on is that the less suffering there is this semester, the better. As a BU faculty member, I can also say that we all want students to enjoy the classes they will be taking. I am excited about the classes that I designed to teach online (they start tomorrow), and very much hope my students find them exciting as well.

I am hearing a great many complaints about classrooms. I am providing a space for comments below. From a BU staff member, I have heard this: “As of Monday, there were still 300 classes that did not have space to teach, the LfA equipment had not fully arrived yet, and, as folks are finding the air circulators to be too loud, they are now ordering Bluetooth headsets…” This follows a report of an independent and earlier communication to faculty in one college that said, “Rooms without an effective HVAC system have been outfitted with giant air circulators.  They are working on outfitting them with mufflers because they are quite loud. Not all of them will have these mufflers, so BU is working on getting Bluetooth headsets for faculty to use. … If you’re affected, you will get a notification about Bluetooth headsets.

So, in many cases, classrooms have not yet been assigned to courses. I know of one department (not my own), where this has led to a decision to move multiple courses online. I have also received multiple, independent reports of instructors being assigned small, badly ventilated, windowless rooms. Instructors may request to have a new classroom assigned, but there is, as I have already indicated, a serious backlog, and instructors may need to wait weeks for a new room to be assigned.

How have in-person classes that have rooms assigned to them been going so far? James Uden, an Associate Professor in Classical Studies, writes, “First class complete in the hybrid approach. I had 4 show up in person, 92 on Zoom. Unfortunately, it looks like the camera was trained on my increasingly sweaty armpit the entire time, and my tech ‘moderator’ never even arrived, but at least my voice was audible and the slides were visible, so far as I know. All in all, it was a strange experience. With your attention divided between students behind masks, and students behind blank Zoom screens, it’s hard to feel as though you’re ‘teaching’ at all.”

It’s very interesting to hear that only four students turned up to this class, while ninety two attended on Zoom. Knowing Professor Uden, I would say that if anyone can make a large LfA class work, he can (which isn’t to say he should have been put in this position). It’s possible that at this point a number of students are in quarantine. It’s too early to say for sure whether my prediction as to what is going to happen to LfA this semester is indeed going to happen. I certainly don’t regret writing, “Bear in mind that it will soon become apparent to students that if everyone opts to stay away from the classroom, instructors will be able to remove their masks, and the online alternative will then be more straightforward and relaxed. Indeed, instructors can and probably should begin the semester by pointing this out to students.

It’s also interesting to hear that student moderators might be deciding not to turn up to work (see comments on Reddit that suggest this is happening: here, here, here, and here).

Let me make one thing clear. Ordinary staff members are not to be blamed for the problems that are occurring. They are overworked and sometimes directed to do impossible, or near impossible tasks. When we encounter problems or delays, those of us who are not staff should always communicate with staff members politely, and never forget that the buck stops at a place far above their pay scale.

There is more I could report. Let me instead open comments here. I’d love to hear from instructors, students, and staff. What are some of the problems you have been encountering? Comments are moderated by just myself, so there may be delays before they are posted. Feel free to keep your comments anonymous by not entering your real name.

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UPDATE, September 3: I am hearing that Bluetooth headsets began to be distributed to all that need them on Tuesday, September 1, and that there may no longer be a shortage of them (see also this report, which was published after my post). I have taken out some of the words in quotes above that might have conveyed a false impression. I continue to hear about cases where classroom monitors have simply not turned up to classes, without instructors being informed that there would be a problem. Also, I’m hearing reports of a significant scheduling issue that I did not address in my post: students are finding they don’t have enough time to get back to their dorm rooms to participate in online classes after finishing “in person” classes.

Michael Siegel of the BU School of Public Health

This guest post is by Professor Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health. The text was also provided in an open letter to the Dean of SPH.

This is perhaps the most difficult note I have written in my career. It comes out of a deep love for the School of Public Health, a love that has been engendered by 25 years (as of six days ago) of being a part of an institution with a singular mission to use scientific principles and methods to think about public health problems, to teach our students principles to go out and improve the world, and to demonstrate our commitment to public health and social justice by doing – that is, implementing these principles in our own actions and policies as a school.

It is based on a careful analysis of these principles that I have reached the conclusion that led me to convey this message:

It is essential that we rescind the decision to hold in-person/hybrid classes and transition immediately to online-only classes, not merely to protect the health of the community and the public, but to restore our ability to carry out our mission as a school of public health. 

Our decision to hold in-person/hybrid classes was made in late April, long before any reasonable public health institution would commit to such a policy, given that the pandemic was raging at the time and we had no idea of the status of COVID-19 infection in the fall. From the start, we were violating the principles of public health that we teach our students: make decisions based on the facts and only after a careful weighing of potential costs and benefits. The decision was made for financial reasons only.

It is critical to acknowledge that the Learn from Anywhere (LfA) theme was merely a post-hoc justification for a decision that had already been made for financial reasons. The idea was to propagandize the illusion that BU’s primary concern was fashioning an educational system marked by choice: each student could choose the educational mode that serves them best.

However, the reality is that LfA is about anything other than choice. It is about providing separate and unequal education to two groups of students, those who are most advantaged and those who are disadvantaged, under the guise of providing improved pedagogy. But the reality is—and I think I have the expertise to state this based on being a student of didactics and someone who has been recognized for my teaching over the past 25 years—that in the current environment, the hybrid model is far inferior to simply holding online-only classes.

The hybrid approach places the community at serious risk of health harm and offers no pedagogical advantages. I have made some difficult public health decisions over the course of my career, but this one seems simple: option A has no pedagogical advantages and potentially serious public health harms; option B has pedagogical advantages compared to option A and avoids those public health harms. 

This is why our colleagues at both other institutions of public health in Boston decided early on to provide online-only education. Both of those school’s wrote letters to their students explaining that the health of the community must come above other concerns.

Harvard wrote: “What is clear is that the safety of the Harvard Chan School community is paramount, that we cannot ensure a safe return to in-person instruction in a way that would facilitate learning, and that, when the right time comes, we will bring our students and instructors together back on campus in carefully planned phases. Our students—U.S. and international—must be able to continue their education without fear for their health, and many have expressed wanting to avoid unsafe travel and the need to care for family members. Our actions cannot worsen the public health crisis.”

Tufts wrote“The School of Medicine has determined that all MPH coursework offered in fall 2020 will be delivered remotely. This decision was made after extensive research and consideration of many different options. As a program which requires no on-campus clinical training, the MPH program has the ability to take advantage of remote delivery without compromising course quality. By moving to remote instruction, we hope to provide you with the flexibility to decide when and how to relocate to Boston without compromising your health or your budgets. Since we are located in the heart of an urban center, this decision also allows for more effective social distancing and will contribute to city-wide efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and to protecting the health of the Tufts community.”

To be clear, at BU, it was financial concerns that over-rode public health considerations. Our letter was not: “We are going to protect the health of our community.” Instead, it was: “Look – we’re still offering in-person classes next fall. So there’s no need for you to take a year off or to enroll at a different school.”

Along the way to that decision, a number of basic public health principles were violated:

1. In public health, we don’t provide protection only to the least vulnerable.

One of the principles of public health practice is that when we develop policies to protect the population (whether it be a state, city, school, etc.) from recognized health hazards, we do not just protect the people who are least vulnerable to the hazard. We protect the entire population, including and especially those who are most vulnerable to the hazard.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the opposite of what BUSPH is doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The School is basically saying: “We are going to protect only the members of our community who are not especially vulnerable to this infection. They will be able to attend classes in person. But the members of the community who are especially vulnerable to this infection can choose to attend classes online.” This is, in fact, precisely what we are doing. Let each person decide based on how vulnerable they are.

Make no mistake about it. LfA is not about giving students the choice to pick the educational mode that serves them best. At its root, it is about separating out students who are more vulnerable to respiratory disease and more anxious about it and those who are less vulnerable and less anxious.

This is not public health! In public health, we either offer a safe working and learning environment for our community, or we don’t. And if we can’t offer it, then we don’t offer it to some and not to others. In particular, we do not offer a safe working environment to the less vulnerable and force the vulnerable out of the workplace/classroom. 

2. In public health, we don’t provide separate and unequal services for different groups, especially in a way that is disproportionately associated with race. We don’t implement racist policies.

It’s unfortunate for us not to appreciate that many students have medical conditions, are taking care of vulnerable family members, or can’t afford to avoid public transportation options that would put them at risk. These students don’t really have a choice to learn from “anywhere.” So instead, we are providing them with separate and unequal services, depriving them of the opportunity to interact in person with their professors, for example. 

How is this different from deciding that because of severe financial problems, we will not be able to fix the elevator in Talbot, so we are implemented a Learn from Anywhere approach for Talbot classes? Students can choose the option that best meets their educational needs. If you are advantaged enough to be able to walk up the stairs, then you are welcome to join us in person. If you are disabled, then don’t worry – there is still the online option for you.

This policy is inherently discriminatory. And because we know that students of color are more likely to have all three of the above concerns (medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and sickle cell anemia), vulnerable family members they need to take care of, and fewer financial resources), this now becomes a racist policy.

Implementing a Learn from Anywhere system of education this fall will disproportionately endanger the lives of Black and Brown people in our community — both the BU community and the larger South End community. As a school of public health, we should be doing everything we can to minimize the burden of COVID-19 in the South End and Roxbury communities with which we share our neighborhood. In the last two weeks, there were 691 cases in Boston, an increase from the prior two-week period. However, instead of doing our part by not bringing hundreds of students onto campus, we insisted on doing so, based on a decision that we forced upon ourselves way back in April.

Instead of speaking out throughout the summer to urge other colleges and universities to hold online classes instead of returning hundreds of thousands of college students back to campus, we remained silent because our hands were tied: we had already committed to bringing our own students back. 

In doing so, we required maintenance staff – also disproportionately employees of color – to put themselves in harm’s way by doing the meticulous, time-consuming, and exhausting cleaning work to make it possible for our students to attend classes in person. 

And finally, we implemented a racially discriminatory hiring policy for teaching assistants by which in order to be hired, you needed to be able to go into the classroom all semester, something that is not possible for those who are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 (i.e., BIPOC). 

We can do all the self-reflection and self-learning that we want, but if we remain silent while the School implements a racist policy that threatens the health of neighborhoods made up predominantly of people of color, what good is that self-reflection doing? If the School mandates diversity and inclusion training on the one hand, but on the other hand, implements a racist policy that disproportionately disadvantages people of color, what good is that training doing?

“So basically what the school is saying through this policy – not intentionally obviously – but what we’re saying is that having racial justice in our classroom is not worth paying $250,000 for, that’s what they’re saying, they’re putting a price tag on racial justice so it makes us hypocritical right because on the one hand we’re going out there and saying, “Hey, this is a school that prides itself on social justice. This is what we do. This is our theme. This is what makes us special. This is what makes us different from other schools.” Except if it costs us more than $250,000. Then forget about that, we forget the racial justice, never mind. Right. That’s essentially what we’re saying.” (excerpt from my talk to the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps)

3. We don’t put financial interests above health

Given the decision that the School of Public Health made back in April to hold in-person classes using a hybrid format, the safety and health of the full community is clearly not the priority. Nor is the priority to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all BU faculty, staff, and students.

Were that the case, the School would have either: (1) waited until later in the summer when it had a clearer idea what the situation would be in the fall to make any decision; or (2) followed the lead of both Tufts and Harvard’s MPH programs which announced in June that they would be online-only in order to most effectively protect the health of their entire communities.

I would respect the decision a lot more if we were simply honest with ourselves and admitted that it was made for financial reasons. But deceiving ourselves into thinking that this was first and foremost a public health decision is a disservice to our entire community. And it teaches just the wrong lesson to our incoming students.

The reality is that we made a decision to place our finances above the health of the community. In doing so, it undermined the basis for our credibility in encouraging others to take actions that promote public health. In almost every public health issue, it comes down to a trade-off between financial concerns and health concerns. How can we as a School or members of this School community now go out into the field and tell other institutions that they have to place health above financial concerns when we ourselves have done the opposite?

The bottom line is that the decision to hold in-person classes this fall not only undermines public health principles, but it also takes us far from our mission as a School and makes it impossible to have credibility when trying to carry out this mission.

4. We don’t make decisions without knowing the facts

Public health decisions should be evidence-based. That is, they should be based on the best available scientific evidence. It also seems to me that public health experts agree that decisions regarding the opening of facilities during the pandemic should not be made based on the idea of setting a fixed schedule in advance, but should instead be real-time decisions that are made separately for each phase of opening at the appropriate time and based on actual parameters of the spread of disease, rate of change in new cases, trends in percentage of positive test results, hospital and ICU capacity, and so on. 

However, the School of Public Health made a decision last April to commit to having in-person classes this fall. I view this to be an irresponsible decision because we did not have the necessary evidence available to be able to make such a decision. At the time the decision was made, we had no idea how widespread the pandemic would be in September and no idea what any of the actual parameters would be. Without that information, how could we commit ourselves to holding in-person classes?

As soon as the marketing for the School of Public Health’s new Learn from Anywhere (LfA) system came out, it was already apparent to me that this was simply a post-hoc justification for a decision that had already been made.

The decision to offer hybrid classes, made before even considering the implications and ramifications (including the cost and use of resources) of implementing in-person classes this fall, was clearly made first, with the LfA propaganda coming second in an attempt to justify what was obviously a premature and irresponsible public health decision.

5. We don’t sacrifice our public health mission.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary mission of the School of Public Health (SPH) should be to try to minimize the morbidity and mortality from this disease. However, the decision to hold hybrid (“learn from anywhere”) classes this fall does exactly the opposite. 

Of the choices available to the School (which were only two: hybrid or online-only), this choice maximizes the potential exposure of the SPH community. But it goes far beyond that. It also maximizes the potential exposure of everyone we come in close contact with, including our families, friends, and the general public. Given the tremendous toll that COVID-19 has already taken (more than 180,000 deaths in less than six months) and the extremely high level of risk that there will be a second surge of cases this fall, it is unconscionable that we would choose the option that maximizes the potential impact on morbidity and mortality in both the SPH and the overall community.

It is for this reason that I believe this decision forsakes the School’s primary mission, which is to save lives. Right now, the single most important thing we can do as a School to save lives is to minimize exposure to the virus to the greatest extent possible. With respect to exposure in the classroom, the only option that is consistent with the School’s mission would have been to move to online-only classes for the fall semester. 

Sacrificing your mission is substantial, so to what did we make this sacrifice? 

The answer is quite simple: money.

The only benefit of announcing back in the late spring that we were going to have hybrid classes this fall was a financial one. There was a concern that if admitted students believed that we were going to have online classes, many of them would have deferred their admission or chosen to attend a different school. It was the potential loss of these tuition dollars that the School’s mission was weighed against. And the decision came down clearly on the side of our financial interests, rather than on the side of being true to our mission and protecting the public’s health.

There is a second way in which the decision essentially forced us to abandon our mission. Because we had committed to opening our classrooms in September, we could not be a credible voice warning about schools opening up too soon in the fall. How could we be taken seriously if we emphasized the importance of delaying the decision to reopen schools until certain parameters were met when we had already committed to opening our own classrooms?

Where is the School of Public Health in countering the president’s message that schools must open, unconditionally, in the fall? We were nowhere to be seen because our own premature decision to open our classrooms forced us to abdicate our public health mission.

6. We don’t force people to put their health at risk.

A core principle of public health is that we create conditions under which people have the agency to make their own informed and voluntary decisions about what substantial health risks to take. While we certainly provided that option to students, we did not provide it to faculty members and certain staff, including maintenance workers and teaching assistants. Teaching assistants who indicated that they did not want to take the risk of exposing themselves to a potentially serious or even deadly infection were told that they were not eligible for the position.

7. We don’t make the absence of health conditions a prerequisite for employment.

This stems from #6 above. Teaching assistants who indicated that they did not want to take the risk of exposing themselves to a potentially serious or even deadly infection were told that they were not eligible for the position. Essentially, this means that teaching assistants with medical conditions that put them at high risk of COVID complications were systematically excluded from employment as TA’s this semester.

Conclusion

Fortunately, there is an easy way to correct all of the above. There is still time to announce a transition to virtual classes at SPH.

(For more detailed commentaries on many of the above issues, please feel free to go to my blog, entitled “Sacrificing Our Principles: Public Health and Social Justice Give Way to Money and Marketing.”)

A Misleading and Negligent Policy Statement

UPDATE, August 27: An email campaign has been started to object to BU’s policy choice to refuse to notify faculty and other instructors if a student in their class tests positive. Email messages to President Brown, Provost Morrison, and the Board of Trustees are easy to send using the provided form.


Boston University yesterday issued what is arguably a misleading and negligent policy statement concerning contact tracing, and BU Today this morning followed up with a public relations article that provides a few more details regarding the policy decision.

The statement is misleading because at least one of the main reasons for the decision to not inform in-person instructors when a student in their class tests positive is not mentioned. That reason is simple: the university is concerned that there will be too many cases where instructors respond to such news by (justifiably) taking their classes online and entering quarantine for two weeks. Here is an epidemiologist at BU making this point, in response to my own reaction (this is a different BU public health expert from the one who anonymously contributed to my last post):

Learn from Anywhere is a decaying structure that was never an attractive option to faculty, since we’ve known for months that it is pedagogically inferior to teaching online during a pandemic (for most courses, at least, and when it involves teaching mask to mask). It is appropriate to describe it as decaying because many of us have now been granted the right to teach our classes online. At this point, I suspect the university is worried LfA may completely fall apart if they were to provide information to instructors that would lead them to do the morally right thing when a student in their class tests positive, and take their classes online for a period.

This policy choice is also negligent, because it attempts to prevent instructors from taking a course of action that is now widely recognized to be morally required by appropriately evolving public health standards. A number of US states require certain businesses (such as restaurants) to keep the contact details of customers who visit, in order to aid in later contact tracing efforts. Such measures actually predate recognition of the growing body of evidence we now possess that spending time with others indoors for extended periods of time is a significant risk when it comes to the transmission of Covid-19, and that the six-foot spacing rule is both insufficient and can provide a false sense of security indoors. The university claims in this statement to be following “best practices,” but it is doing no such thing (what it really means to be saying is that it is making the same policy choice as some other universities that are making similarly bad choices). Our leaders pride themselves on promoting excellent science when it suits them (as with our testing program), but not when it is inconvenient to do so.

What about privacy law? This is a red herring. None of us wish to know which particular students have tested positive. And I’m hearing from legal experts that there would be no violation of privacy law if instructors are contacted with a general claim about numbers when students in their in-person classes test positive (an example; and another [second example added on August 26]). We can be sure that the university consulted lawyers, and that if the advice they received had been that it is very clear that the much better contact tracing policy option being rejected would involve a privacy violation according to the law, the university most certainly would have said that in their statement. Why would they hold that back? Instead, we get one short and purposely vague reference to reviewing the law.

The university’s argument concerning the need to protect privacy fails to take account of the fact that classes are being offered in a hybrid format that already allows for, and in some cases requires (when ‘platoons’ are used), a number of students to be attending classes online. This fact, as well as the more mundane fact that students can miss classes for any number of reasons, and can provide whatever excuses they like for missing classes (even before the pandemic, we were directed not to ask for proof of reported reasons for needing to miss class), ensure that no particular individuals would be identified in the morally required contact tracing approach that is being rejected.

The BU Today article reports: ‘College of Arts & Sciences faculty “advocated strongly for notification,” [Prof. O’Keefe] says, while instructors at other schools have told her they’re less concerned.’ It may well be that pushback on Faculty Council has been coming more from CAS faculty than others (perhaps because many faculty in other colleges do not have tenure). That shouldn’t be taken as revealing the true views of faculty at large. Here is a constructive proposal: provide a single question, anonymous survey to all instructors who will be teaching their classes in person. Simply ask everyone, “Do you think you should be notified by the university whenever someone tests positive in your class, with no student names ever being provided?” If such a survey were to be provided, I predict that an overwhelmingly high percentage of instructors would respond that they do think they should be notified in this way in such circumstances. That’s what I’m hearing from many people in other colleges today.


UPDATE, August 26: There are other important implications of BU’s negligent policy choice that I could have mentioned in my post, and it has been helpful to read people drawing out some of these implications in the comments section that follows the BU Today article, and elsewhere. Here are a couple of implications particularly worth mentioning. Although undergraduate students are required to be tested twice a week, instructors will only be tested once a week. This means that if an instructor is infected on a Monday after being tested (say), they may not know until the Tuesday of the following week (eight days later; I am including an extra day because it takes a day to find out the results of a test) that they have been infected. During that period there will have been many opportunities for them to spread the virus to their family members and other people they have come into contact with. A second, related implication is that since most instructors teach two classes, undergraduate students who an instructor goes on to teach in their other class, or meets with during office hours, may well become infected as well. This is an implication not lost on a worried undergraduate student who left a comment after the BU Today article indicating that BU students have not been informed by email that this reckless policy is in place.

Penalizing Faculty who will be Teaching Remotely

BU faculty have been assigned testing categories. Those of us who successfully applied for workplace adjustments, in order to be able to teach remotely, were initially informed that this meant that, by default, we would be in Category 4, and that we would therefore not be receiving any testing at BU and would not be able to visit our offices. We were told “if a faculty member has been approved for a workplace adjustment that is fully remote teaching, then that faculty member is not permitted to return to campus for any reason this fall, including performing research.” This seemed unnecessary, unjustified (at least, no justification has been provided), bad for teaching and research at the university, and possibly retaliatory. We did not know this would happen when we applied for workplace adjustments. We are not only teachers, but also researchers who use offices for our work (often because we have children at home), but now it seemed we would be excluded from doing research on campus for no good reason.

Last week, chairs were asked to consult with individual faculty members regarding which category they would be assigned, and to report the categories to the deans. In some cases at least, chairs were providing faculty teaching remotely with the option to be assigned to category 3. At the end of the week (August 14), an email was sent from the CAS Dean’s office that contained questions and answers, including “Can testing categories be changed at a later date? Yes, categories may be updated as circumstances change.

More informally, we were told last week that it would be possible to later change to Category 3 if we wished, through asking one’s department chair for a change to be made. Some chairs were last week accepting requests to be placed in Category 3 from people who will be teaching remotely, but many people figured that they would only need to use their offices in a way that does not involve coming into contact with others, so they remained in Category 4. Also, the instructions for Category 3 online specify that, for people in this category, “job duties require very limited contact with students,” and some took this to mean that they are not eligible for Category 3 (because they will not even have limited contact with students). In any case, because we were told a change would be easy to make, many people didn’t worry too much about the fact that they were placed in Category 4 by default.

Today (August 20), an email was sent to all CAS chairs from the CAS Dean’s office that repeats the quotation “if a faculty member has been approved for a workplace adjustment that is fully remote teaching, then that faculty member is not permitted to return to campus for any reason this fall, including performing research,” and states that the Provost will allow a “limited number of exceptions” (I assume there will be similar messages sent out in other colleges). In order to apply for one of these limited number of exceptions, one must prepare a plan that provides details of what one plans to do on campus and a justification for why one needs to be on campus, and one must submit it to a particular dean, who will then review the request. All such requests must be submitted in the next five days (by August 25). If an exception is approved, the faculty member may be moved from Category 4 to Category 3.

This leaves faculty in a completely unsatisfactory position. We should not need to write a proposal that we must submit in five days to compete for one of a limited number of exceptions that might then allow us to visit our offices to pick up books. We were led to believe it would be a straightforward matter to change from Category 4 to Category 3, but now we find out that is not the case. And we can step back and ask: Why does the university want us not to be doing research on campus this semester? And is the university aiming to make many faculty worse teachers than they might otherwise be? Many faculty have all their teaching materials stored in their offices, but now they are not allowed to return to them to prepare for teaching.

The Students are and will be Disappointed

I have just had an op-ed I wrote published in Inside Higher Education, “False Advertising and the In-Person Experience” (original title: “The Students will be Disappointed”). Here is a central passage:

Let us assume, since administrators are saying this, that most students presently want the option to be able to take classes in person. The crucial question is: Why should we think such preferences will not shift substantially once students experience socially distanced, mask-to-mask classes — or stay at home watching a bad video feed of an instructor whose attention is divided, speaking through a mask? Bear in mind that it will soon become apparent to students that if everyone opts to stay away from the classroom, instructors will be able to remove their masks, and the online alternative will then be more straightforward and relaxed. Indeed, instructors can and probably should begin the semester by pointing this out to students.

On August 5, Boston University junior Sophia Poteet sent an extremely well-composed letter to a number of BU administrators, including the President and the Provost, responding to the internal email that had been sent to faculty at BU in an effort to have faculty craft their communications with students in a way that suits the university’s public relations goals. One week later, Sophia has yet to receive a reply to her letter.* When it started to become apparent to her that she would probably never receive a reply, she contacted the Daily Free Press, who agreed to publish her letter. They published “A Letter to Dean Bizup” yesterday. Here are a few select quotations from the letter:

I was shocked by the condescension, blatant prioritization of money over student experience and utter lack of respect for both students and faculty displayed within the memo. I understand the desire to maintain a calm environment, allay fears and create a cohesive message. However, the language… goes beyond any of those aims. It displays an intense disrespect for the intelligence of both BU’s students and faculty, and clearly prioritizes publicity and public opinion over the actual learning experience of students. … The attempt to censor faculty and their communication with students is not only misguided and deceptive, but is also actively harmful to BU students and their ability to thrive in their education this semester. … If [last semester] my professors had solely focused on the “positive aspects of their courses and teaching methods,” as you advised in your memo, I do not know if I would have made it through the semester. … When you wrote “it is better to be vague than to emphasize uncertainties to be resolved,” you demonstrated that you have little understanding of students’ decision-making processes… In every letter BU has released so far during the pandemic, it was not the acknowledgments of uncertainty but rather the vague statements that were ripped to shreds in student discussions, mocked on social media… Personally, this memo has dramatically reduced my level of trust in the BU administration and the information it puts out. … [It] seems to make clear that you would like to prevent students from becoming fully aware of the level to which professors objected, perhaps so that students do not realize that the LfA model was crafted out of financial concerns rather than the desire to create the best educational experience possible. … I know that many other BU students feel similarly… I hope that in future communications, you and the rest of the University will display a deeper level of thoughtfulness and respect toward both faculty and students.

Yesterday, Faculty Council met, and President Brown and a team involved in campus reopening plans were present to answer questions. Contacts on Faculty Council have told me about a number of the questions and responses. Let me briefly mention just one important issue among many that were discussed. When pressed on the contact tracing procedures that will be put in place in the coming weeks, the President and his team declared that classroom instructors would not be informed when a student in one of their classes tests positive for Covid-19. The justification that was presented for this decision was that instructors and other students in a classroom will not normally count as “close” contacts, since people will be observing the six feet social distancing rule in class, and only “close” contacts matter for contact tracing purposes. What this reasoning completely ignores is everything we now know about the transmission of Covid-19 indoors. So much for the much touted idea that BU’s reopening plans are relying on cutting edge science. Here is a relevant quotation from an article in yesterday’s New York Times:

‘We know that indoors, those distance rules don’t matter anymore,’ Dr. Schofield said. It takes about five minutes for small aerosols to traverse the room even in still air, she added. The six-foot minimum is ‘misleading, because people think they are protected indoors and they’re really not,’ she said.

In conclusion: #fckitwontcutit, BU!

*Sophia’s experience reminds me of the fact that Russell Powell and I have never received a reply (not even acknowledging receipt) to our open letter to the President and Provost of June 2, or a later letter, sent on June 15, providing the petition that now has more than 1500 signatures.

UPDATE 1: On August 13, The Daily Free Press published a response from Dean Bizup.
UPDATE 2: On August 14, The Daily Free Press published “Will faculty be told if a student tests positive for COVID-19? BU says it’s still not sure.

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.