An Email with Instructions to Faculty

Yesterday (August 3), two undergraduate student journalists independently reported on an email that was sent to CAS faculty on July 29. Grace Ferguson broke the story with an excellent example of journalistic work on WTBU, the student-run university radio station, and Katarzyna Jezak of the Daily Free Press, an independent student newspaper, further reported on it in a great article titled “CAS professors asked to self-censor in communication with students.”

For the record: I didn’t leak this letter, and I have a policy of not posting internal BU documents on my website without permission of their authors. But I am not a journalist. I think it is completely appropriate for journalists to report on university politics, and faculty should feel free to be interviewed by journalists. Fortunately, Provost Jean Morrison is also a defender of free speech rights: ‘Free and unfettered speech is at the core of our mission as a university, and it must be central to who we are as a campus community. This means allowing all voices to be heard and for robust and critical debate of the ideas expressed.’

A link to Grace Ferguson’s radio report and transcript was retweeted widely on Twitter, e.g. by a Boston Globe reporter, and by Carl T. Bergstrom, popular biology professor and author of “Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World.”

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.”

BU Today and BU Tomorrow

This is a guest post by Jonathan R. Zatlin, Associate Professor of History at Boston University.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of thinking about our future at BU, I invited BU Today to report on a letter to university leaders by the History Department, which you can find here. The letter asked the university president and provost, as well as the dean of CAS to rethink their approach to reopening the campus, and allow instructors at BU the same freedom as our students: the freedom to choose to teach in person or remotely based on each instructor’s own personal situation. To our surprise, we received answers from all three administrators, first from Dean Sclaroff, and then from President Brown and Provost Morrison. As far as I know, these two letters from the upper administration are unique; they have not responded to other letters or petitions from faculty or graduate students. I suspect there are several reasons that we received responses, all of which have to do with aspects of our letter.

Whatever those reasons, we were encouraged that our concerns were officially acknowledged. Given the administration’s reticence to discuss LfA and its perceived shortcomings, I thought it would be useful for the larger BU community to read our letter and the responses to it. To help apprise our colleagues and students, I invited BU Today to report on the letters and what they mean for BU tomorrow. I turned to BU Today because, according to their website, they are a source for “university news” and include “safety” as one of their reporting areas. I recognize, of course, that BU Today is more newsletter than news organization. Any news that conflicts with its mission to enhance BU’s reputation will present a serious challenge to its reporters. That said, I hoped that BU Today’s willingness to print an op-ed by graduate student Emily Chua represented a readiness to report on the actual news: what reopening BU’s campus will actually mean for teachers, students, and staff. One part of that story that needed reporting, I thought, was that History faculty wanted the same choice as is being granted students and the reasons that administrators continue to choose to deny us that choice. 

What I didn’t expect was BU Today’s response. The editor, John O’Rourke, rejected my suggestion that BU Today report on the letters. Worse, he responded by offering a non-solution that is at once telling as it is insulting: “If you wanted to post the letter with a short intro as a comment to the POV that we ran written by Emily Chua, we’d be happy to post the letter in the Comments section of the story.” The story by Emily Chua was published on July 9, and this suggestion was provided on July 20. I wrote, in response, “Placing our letter in the comments section… strikes me as problematic. I’m sure you didn’t intend to suggest it, but your offer … makes me worry that our concerns will simply be swept under the rug, tucked away in comments well after the publication of a different piece. I’d prefer that BU Today report directly on them.” Needless to say, O’Rourke did not take me up on this suggestion. I guess the helpful thing about O’Rourke’s response is that it clarifies BU Today’s institutional position for us: despite sometimes trying to present itself as a journalistic venture, BU Today is not a newspaper, newsletter, or even a newsfeed, for it doesn’t deal in news. Instead, it’s a public relations enterprise, and, as such, it uncritically reflects the views of the BU administration. 

See also these earlier posts on BU Today: On the Response to my Open Letter, An Open Letter to the Editor of BU Today, and Where are you BU Today?

Quarantine Requirements and Compliance Issues

I recently reported that BU was planning to merely recommend that students arriving from out of state enter quarantine for fourteen days, rather than require that they do so. Fortunately, this insufficiently cautious plan has had to change because, on July 24, MA Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order putting in place new quarantine regulations. Now, students arriving from overseas or any state that is not classified as one of the “lower-risk states” (presently only eight states are so qualified) must either quarantine for 14 days, or provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test that was taken no longer than 72 hours before arrival in the state. People who do not comply with this order may be fined $500 per day. The Mayor of Boston, Martin J. Walsh, responded to this news by indicating that although he takes it to be good news, he is still very concerned about the many students that will be descending on the greater Boston area (as many as 170,000, according to the Boston Globe), and that he thinks, ideally, students should quarantine for two weeks at home and then quarantine again for two weeks in Boston, before being tested.

On July 27, the BU President sent faculty and staff a statement regarding testing protocols and compliance issues. It contains a fair amount of information. I will comment on just one important piece of news contained in the statement. President Brown makes it clear that there is a requirement on everyone who returns to campus to follow protocols regarding quarantine, face covering rules, testing, etc. The protocols will be provided in a document that all students will be required to commit themselves to. It is said that they will do so through a “digital agreement.” I take it that such an agreement will involve scrolling to the end of a document and pressing a button that says something like “I agree to abide by these conditions” (much as one does when one installs computer software, although one might hope students will actually read this text more carefully than people usually do when they install software). Unsurprisingly, I am highly skeptical that this and the public campaigns also mentioned will ensure sufficient compliance with the necessary protocols (especially compliance outside of the classroom). Here is an additional concern. I express it with caution, lest I be accused of paranoia. Perhaps this digital agreement or contract, which all students will be required to accept if they wish to remain on campus, will also include text that amounts to a waiver, indemnifying the university from subsequent law suits. I do not say this will happen. As far as I am aware, BU has not so far indicated it will be joining other universities that are asking for waivers to be signed by students.

Comments regarding workplace adjustments have been coming in (please keep submitting them). Many people still haven’t heard whether or not they will be provided with a workplace adjustment. One troubling development on this front is that, for multiple faculty members, medical documentation provided by doctors to BU has gone missing (applicants are required to have doctors fax a form directly to HR). This may mean some people who are in CDC-recognized high-risk categories will have their requests to teach online denied.

In other news, BU Real Estate has declined to reverse course with respect to its plans to house regular graduate students alongside students suspected of being infected with Covid-19, despite the efforts of at least one dean and a representative from the Provost’s office. As a result, graduate students have set up a petition for all who are concerned about this development to sign, and are also undertaking a survey of graduate students.

Workplace Adjustment Requests Update, with Invitation to Provide Comments

On Tuesday, July 21, department chairs at Boston University were sent a memo that made a number of them angry. The memo was accompanied by a list of their department members who had filed workplace adjustment requests, indicating whether the HR Work Adjustment Request Team (WART) had decided they met the CDC high-risk category guidelines for Covid-19, or had noted instead that the department member had filed a request that involved entering reasons for wanting an accommodation in the “Other” box provided on the workplace adjustment request form. A clear implication of the memo is that the remote learning option must remain the exception, rather than the rule. The university has said that approval of requests for courses to be taught wholly online, rather than in conformity with the hybrid Learn from Anywhere approach, should be kept to a minimum. The memo asked chairs to talk to all department members asking for workplace adjustments, including those that HR has now determined meet the CDC high-risk criteria, to see if they might be persuaded to teach their courses non-remotely, in conformity with the LfA model. It might be inferred from this memo that the university is concerned that they have received too many workplace adjustment requests (from their perspective). This request to go back to people who have already had their doctors provide medical notes, and who HR have determined are eligible for workplace adjustments, was thought by at least some chairs to be an outrageous request, and some CAS chairs said as much in an unscheduled meeting the next day.

In a subsequent email to chairs that might reasonably be interpreted as involving back-pedaling (sent after the CAS chairs meeting, on July 22), administrators indicated that faculty who HR has confirmed meet CDC guidelines will, in fact, be permitted to teach their courses online. However, it is still unclear what will happen to those applications where faculty provided their reasons for a request in the “Other” box. In the afternoon on July 22, faculty who had requested workplace adjustments received individual email messages from Faculty Actions indicating that WART had confirmed that the faculty member falls in a CDC high-risk category. It appears graduate student teachers have yet to receive any responses, and that their requests will be processed after faculty requests have been processed.

What types of good reasons might have been provided in the “Other” box? Two that are particularly important are concerns with respect to childcare and care of elderly family members, and concerns with respect to anxiety regarding teaching in the classroom during this pandemic. The second communication mentioned above indicates that decisions regarding applicants who cite childcare concerns are to be dealt with at some point down the road.

I am opening the comments here, and intend to leave them open for quite some time. They will be lightly moderated, and anonymous comments (submitted using pseudonyms) will be allowed. The primary reason I am providing this space for comments is to provide a public forum for people who have their requests turned down. If you are commenting for this reason, please indicate what the nature of your request was, and what you were told about why it was turned down. Other comments are also welcome.

Racism and BU, COVID-19 in Black and Latinx Communities, and Workplace Adjustments

Originally published June 25, 2020

Yesterday was BU’s Day of Collective Engagement. It’s a very good thing indeed that the university has been asking us all to reflect on issues concerning racism that involve BU, and this request couldn’t have come a moment too soon, given the incredible moral significance of efforts to combat racism in the US today. I have two issues concerning BU and racism that I wish to help add to the reflections on campus. In neither case did discussion of the issue start with me. I claim no originality at all here. 
 
First, I wish to link to a copy of an account of police acts and a closely related series of reflections by two BU PhD candidates which they have provided for all to read (it was earlier posted publicly on Facebook). I will let this powerful piece by these two students speak for itself.
 
Second, I’ve been talking to some concerned professors at BU about another important and relevant issue we should reflect upon. COVID-19 is hitting Black and Latinx communities particularly hard, because of the widespread effects of racism. This is one of the reasons UMass Boston states as a justification for moving their classes online in the Fall. BU has been saying that they will use CDC criteria for granting exemptions, but the risk groups that have been discussed and provided as examples by the university to date concern factors such as age, pregnancy and pre-existing health conditions. This is despite the fact that the CDC does recognize race as a crucial risk factor. It would seem that belonging to one of these communities should also allow for exemptions for faculty, lecturers, non-teaching staff, and graduate students. Will the university be providing exemptions of this kind? Hopefully our university leadership will consider this question carefully during this period in which they are inviting us all to reflect on issues concerning racism.

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.