A Suggestion for Keeping Classes Safe, and More Questions

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

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

Now for a few other items of interest. First, it’s worth noting that according to his statement yesterday, MA Governor Charlie Baker continues to require of all indoor meetings that there be no more than 25 people present. Although the university has said that social meetings on campus should follow this rule, they have not said that they will ensure that no classes in university rooms ever have more than 25 people in them at once. So far as I’m aware, the university will be violating Governor Baker’s orders if they allow more than 25 people to be in a classroom at once, and I know that presently there are classes that are scheduled to have more than 25 people in them at once. Will the university be accepting this ruling, so far as classes are concerned?

Here is another question: will the university be telling us what percentage of students have elected to return to campus, based on the student payments that came in this week? Harvard and MIT provided this information to the public, but BU has not done so as yet.

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

BU Today, BU Letters, and an AAUP Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BU Professors Publish in Medium and the Conversation, and BU is in the News

One month after sending our open letter to Boston University’s leaders and the university community, my department colleague Russell Powell and I have published an opinion piece in Medium that has its distant origins in that letter: Colleges Must Not Compel People to Teach In Person During the Pandemic. Please share our Medium piece with people who might be interested in it.

Neta C. Crawford, Chair of the Department of Political Science at Boston University, and also an ethicist, today published an article in The Conversation: Ethical Challenges Loom Over Decisions to Resume In-Person College Classes. There is much to agree with and think about in this piece. I voiced a concern in the first comment published below it.

Two days ago, The Washington Post published an article where faculty discontent with BU’s plans for the Fall is mentioned and Russell Powell is quoted: As Young People Drive Infection Spikes, College Faculty Members Fight for the Right to Teach Remotely. Today, The New York Times caught up: Colleges Face Rising Revolts by Professors. Sadly, our petition isn’t mentioned in the Times article, even though petitions at a number of other colleges are mentioned. This is a little odd, given that back on June 11, The Boston Globe led the way for others to follow with Faculty Grow Uneasy as Universities Scramble to Bring Students Back to Campus, which mentions both our petition and a petition at the University of Notre Dame (and, in an odd choice for the Globe, features a photograph of yours truly, looking pensive). Still, the important thing is that the newspapers are reporting on faculty discontent. Speaking of petitions, one can find out which universities have them by looking at this list of university petitions online. It’s maintained, I believe, by PhD candidate Cait S. Kirby, who features in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Top Ten Must Reads from June

Here is a list of my ten favorite articles and Op Ed pieces from June that are about COVID-19 and campus reopening plans for the coming academic year. I have restricted this list to pieces that are not specifically about any particular college or state, and had to discard some good candidates just to minimize repetition. The list is in reverse chronological order.

  1. There is No Safe Way to Reopen Colleges this Fall, Washington Post, June 30: Written by three educators who are also public health researchers, the title says it all.
  2. Colleges Say Campuses can Reopen Safely. Students and Faculty Aren’t Convinced, Vox, June 26: Let’s get real.
  3. College Leaders Must Explain Why — Not Just How — to Return to Campus, EdSurge, June 25: As we said in our Open Letter, universities must be upfront about their rationales for reopening campuses. This is an excellent article that makes many important points about lack of honesty on the part of university administrations, and their failure to address the interests of the public at large.
  4. Your College May Ask You to Sign a Waiver for Harm Inflicted by COVID-19. Don’t do it, Los Angeles Times, June 25: I wish it were as simple as “Don’t do it,” but the article is surely right that people should think very carefully about what they are signing away (much depends on what the consequences of not signing forms will be).
  5. Who Gets to Teach Remotely? The Decisions are Getting Personal, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22: Many universities are aiming to minimize the number of individual exemptions that they provide to faculty, and some of the examples provided here are simply outrageous.
  6. The Great Reopening Debate, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18: The title is a misnomer, as the contributors do not debate each other, and there is obviously much to disagree with here no matter what your views are, but it was a good idea to have a range of views published in one place.
  7. Expecting Students to Play it Safe if Colleges Reopen is a Fantasy, New York Times, June 15: A good piece by a psychologist, confirming commonsense.
  8. The Question of Living Spaces, Inside Higher Education, June 12: An architecture expert who publishes on residence halls and a bioethicist from the NIH with expertise regarding infectious diseases explore changes that might be made to living spaces on campus, and caution they will not be enough to prevent infections.
  9. What Will College Be Like in the Fall? New York Times, June 3: As with one of the articles from the Chronicle mentioned above, a number of outlooks are represented here, some of them very pessimistic.
  10. In the Rush to Bring Students to Campus, Professors Ask: What about Us? Washington Post, June 2: As university employees quickly noticed, many university administrations have been very slow to address the interests of employees, instead focusing in their rhetoric on their particular understanding of student preferences. This continues today.

Special Mentions
There are several other good reads that are particularly worth mentioning. First and foremost, I recommend following @MikeOtsuka on Twitter: earlier in the month, I linked to his thread on the evidence that teaching in small classrooms is particularly risky; a more recent thread of his deals with the significant number of students we can estimate will arrive with COVID-19 on university campuses (the thread is about the UK; it would be good to see estimates of the relevant numbers for universities in the US). Second, there is a lot to like about Scott Galloway’s much shared blog post, Higher Ed: Enough Already, which calls on universities to stop with all the other- and self-deception, despite the obnoxious nationalist hyperbole in the last paragraph. Third, there were also important pieces published in May. Stan Yoshinobu’s The Case Against Reopening has been particularly influential. Also notable in May were a blog post reflecting on the purpose of higher education, The Existential Threat to Higher Education is Not What You Think, and my department colleague Russell Powell’s opinion piece (coauthored with Irina Mikhalevich), The Misguided Rush to Reopen Universities. Finally, we shouldn’t forget humorous takes on university plans for the Fall, the best of which (so far as I know) was McSweeney’s A Message from Your University’s Vice President for Magical Thinking — wishful thinking is what it’s all about in the US at this time, and our universities are no exception.

Where are you BU Today?

Originally published June 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

500 Signatures in 24 Hours and Boston Globe Article

Originally published June 11, 2020

Our petition received approximately 500 signatures in the first twenty four hours, from professors,  lecturers, medical professionals, graduate teaching fellows, and concerned members of the public. We are hoping to receive many more signatures, and would encourage everyone to continue sending around the above link, or the link for the present web page (which contains both the petition link, above, and our original letter, below). Tonight, our petition was mentioned in news stories about recent events at BU that came out in the Boston Globe (here is  a link to their story), WBUR Edify (here is a link to their story) and  CommonWealth magazine (here is a link to their story). And a few days ago, a BU student reporter got the scoop on the story (here is a link to her article).