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.

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.

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.

Request / Invitation to Provide Comments

BU teachers, from full professors to graduate students, are hearing back about their workplace adjustment requests (in general, requests to be able to teach their classes online, rather than follow a hybrid model that involves teaching mask to mask). I’m providing a space for comments here. The point is not simply to give people a way to let off steam, although it’s fine, of course, if that’s your reason for commenting. It would be especially helpful for the BU community if you could let us know if you have had a workplace adjustment request turned down, or have been put under pressure not to carry through on a request. Other comments are also welcome. Follow this link to read or submit comments.

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.

Troubling Developments at BU (to be continued)

I’d like to be reporting right now on what appears to be an extremely troubling development at BU when it comes to the workplace adjustment application process and the exceptions to in-class teaching BU is meant to be providing to many BU teachers at this juncture. I’ve heard enough from four department chairs (indirectly in two cases) to know it is an extremely troubling development, but I have not yet seen the relevant internal communication to department chairs for myself. I feel I must wait to comment on this matter. If anyone has anything they’d like to share with me regarding this troubling development, please email me at allcaution@gmail.com.

There is no shortage of other troubling developments. For a start, a BU graduate student recently wrote to me (thank you!) regarding an extraordinary decision made by BU Real Estate, which is responsible for renting out many rooms to both undergraduate and graduate students. The student writes:

BU Real Estate is turning vacant rooms in some BU graduate housing into quarantine rooms for suspected cases of Covid-19. BU Real Estate wanted us to know that confirmed cases will be in a separate building. The [particular] graduate housing will be only used for quarantining of suspected cases. Although it is only for suspected cases… [there are] a myriad of health concerns and logistical uncertainties. … The plan [is] to turn vacant units into quarantine rooms … They essentially confirmed that, according to the current plan, most graduate students in this graduate housing in the fall will be exposed to a constant flow of suspected Covid-infected students. The most alarming of it all is that they currently have no plans to disclose this information to all of their current residents. I understand that it might be difficult to push them to change their whole plan but I strongly believe that BU Real Estate should at least disclose this information to current residents so that students can make informed decisions about their own living environments. BU Real Estate [has] compared themselves to other property managers around Boston and [has] argued for their lack of legal obligation to inform their residents. They [have] argued that if we lived in a random apartment building in Allston or Brighton, property managers/landlords would not notify us if our next door neighbor was suspected or confirmed of Covid-19. I believe this is a flawed comparison, as BU Real Estate is deliberately bringing suspected Covid cases into the building.”

Seriously, BU?

In other news, BU journalism and political science student Grace Ferguson has been doing some great work tracking recent developments, troubling and otherwise, at BU. After reporting on poor ventilation in BU classrooms and the heightened risks of infection that holding classes in these rooms will lead to (we will have more on this topic soon), Grace has in recent days been providing regular reports on Twitter regarding online town hall meetings BU has been organizing with students, in anticipation of students arriving on campus from the middle of August onwards. From Grace’s reporting of these meetings we have learnt, amongst other things, that the university will not be providing a quantitative threshold in advance (with respect to number of people infected, etc.) indicating when they will be prepared to close the campus. We have also learnt that students coming to Boston from elsewhere, including from virus hotspots, will not be required to enter quarantine; they will merely have it recommended to them that they enter quarantine.

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

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

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

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

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

A City Council Meeting and Critical Letters and Articles

Yesterday, the Boston City Council Committee on Public Health met to discuss university reopening plans. Jason Prentice, of BU’s College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, presented live testimony, and submitted a letter corresponding to his testimony. I recommend that members of the Boston University community read this letter, as well as a letter and set of documents prepared by the Writing Program as part of an effort to have this program exempted from needing to conform with the Learn from Anywhere model. Jason and his colleagues present a compelling case against the university’s particular hybrid model, drawing on their expert knowledge concerning pedagogy, as well as safety concerns. The five hour meeting is available to watch on YouTube. Russell Powell and I also submitted this letter as testimony (previously posted here) to the City Council committee. We look forward to hearing more about the findings and recommendations of the committee.

In other news, BU Provost Jean Morrison and Vice President and Associate Provost Willis G. Wang yesterday labelled the proposed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines regarding international students “damaging… xenophobic, and malicious,” and announced that BU will join an amicus brief in support of Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit. Amongst other things, they interpret the news from ICE as meaning that international students will be able to take courses online from outside of the US, and that international students who come to Boston to attend classes will need to leave the US if the university finds it must move all courses online next semester (this is all on the assumption the legal challenges underway do not succeed). I have argued that this means we will, or at least should, see many more courses offered as online only courses, although clearly not beyond a point where the university would still count as following a hybrid model (again, this is all on the assumption, which I fervently hope is not correct, that legal challenges to ICE’s plans do not succeed). Of course, many of the reasons that we should see more courses offered in an online only mode are completely independent of these considerations regarding ICE’s plan regarding international students. In particular, this might also be a result of properly respecting BU teachers by allowing them genuine options.

Speaking of offering courses online, BU PhD candidate Emily Chua has published an excellent opinion piece in BU Today, BU Should Go Fully Online This Fall. BU Today deserves credit for publishing this piece, but, it must be said, it is peculiar that they seem to follow a policy of publishing pieces that are critical of BU policies only when they are written by students, and not when they are written by faculty. Our evidence for this is, in part, provided by my account of a broken promise, and also by the fact that they normally feature pieces fed to them by The Conversation (which is provided with funding from BU, as well as other universities), but they decided not to do so when Professor Neta C. Crawford, Chair of the Department of Political Science at BU, recently published Ethical Challenges Loom Over Decisions to Resume In-Person College Classes.

Also published today in BU Today is a piece summarizing BU’s policy regarding university staff and when they do and do not need to return to work. Like university teachers (including graduate student teachers), they will be able to apply for workplace adjustments. And all staff members who can do their work successfully at home will be permitted to work from home. Make no mistake: This is as it should be. Still, this rather gives the lie to criticisms I have received from some quarters that teachers are asking for something that is wholly unavailable to staff or that we are being elitist. The moral principle that the university is implicitly putting to work here is not being applied to teachers, for we too can effectively do our work from home (in fact we can do it more effectively at home than in the classroom, since teaching mask to mask is inferior to teaching online, pedagogically speaking). And, as we have argued repeatedly (see our Medium article), reducing the number of total employees and students on campus reduces the risks to all that remain on campus. We have also called for staff who are required to remain on campus to be provided with hazard pay. The BU Today story also reports that 84% of almost 3000 staff surveyed were concerned or very concerned about returning to campus. So they, and all of us, should be.

Finally, let me say why I think yesterday’s guest post here from Professor Otsuka is important. With respect to workplace adjustment requests at BU and elsewhere, employers claim that 65 and over is the crucial age-based risk group, but when the CDC recently revised its guidelines it removed the reference to 65 and over, and Otsuka demonstrates that the science now tells us that if you are 45 or over, you are more at risk than other groups that are properly recognized by the CDC and our employers as risk groups. This reveals a gross inconsistency in present university policy regarding workplace adjustments. There may be legal ramifications here.

Healthy people as young as 45 at greater risk from Covid-19 than people deemed “at increased risk” by the CDC

This is a guest post by Michael Otsuka, Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics

A study just published in Nature reveals the following: even for someone with no underlying health conditions, the increased risk associated with being 45 years of age, rather than 30, is greater than the increased risk associated with various health conditions the CDC deems sufficient to render a person “of any age” at “increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19”.

I. Quantifying the risks the CDC recognises

According to the CDC:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html

The aforementioned study in Nature — which is entitled “OpenSAFELY: factors associated with COVID-19 death in 17 million patients” — quantifies the risks associated with the above health conditions. It indicates that, when one adjusts to control for age, gender, level of income deprivation, and other health conditions, the CDC-listed conditions are associated with increases in one’s risk of death from Covid-19 by the following factors (see righthand column of Table 2 on p. 10):

  • Those who have kidney disease (GFR <30) are at 2.52 times greater risk of death than those without kidney disease
  • Those who have COPD are at 1.63 times greater risk of death than those without respiratory diseases
  • Those who have an organ transplant are at 3.55 times the risk of those without a transplant
  • Those who are obese (BMI of 30 or above) are at 1.05-1.92 times greater risk of death than those who are not obese
  • Those who have chronic heart disease are at 1.17 times greater risk of death than those without heart disease
  • Those who have Asplenia, including sickle cell disease, are at 1.34 times greater risk of death than those without this condition
  • Those who have uncontrolled diabetes are at 1.95 times greater risk of death than those without diabetes

Whatever one’s age — and therefore even if one is as young as 30 years old — having any of the above conditions is sufficient for classification as “at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19”. The increased risks associated with these conditions range from 1.05 to 3.55 times the risks to those who lack these, as well as any other, health conditions.

Table 2 also indicates the following strikingly dramatically increasing risks associated with advancing age, even among those who are “healthy” insofar as they lack all of the above, as well as any other, health conditions. Compared with a healthy 30 year old:

  • a healthy 45 year old is at 5.00 times greater risk of death
  • a healthy 55 year old is at 16.67 times greater risk of death
  • a healthy 65 year old is at 40.00 times greater risk of death
  • a healthy 75 year old is at 101.33 times greater risk of death

II. Why are those who are older at such increasing risk?

The “OpenSAFELY” study does not address this question. Elsewhere, the hypothesis that Covid-19 involves impairment of the immune system has been offered as an explanation for why increasing age appears to be such a great risk factor:

Many T cells apparently die, and so the body’s reserves are depleted — particularly in those over age 40, in whom the thymus gland, the organ that generates new T cells, has become less efficient.

…The new research may help answer another pressing question: Why is it so rare for a child to get sick from the coronavirus?

Children have highly active thymus glands, the source of new T cells. That may allow them to stay ahead of the virus, making new T cells faster than the virus can destroy them. In older adults, [as mentioned above] the thymus does not function as well.

III. CDC has removed its age 65 threshold for increased Covid risk

In light of findings such as those reported in Nature, it is unsurprising that the CDC has recently “removed the specific age threshold” of 65 which it once affirmed. “CDC now warns that among adults, risk increases steadily as you age, and it’s not just those over the age of 65 who are at increased risk for severe illness” from Covid-19 infection. The CDC also maintains that “Age is an independent risk factor for severe illness, but risk in older adults is also in part related to the increased likelihood that older adults also have underlying medical conditions” (my emphasis added). Sensibly, and in line with the findings of the “OpenSAFELY” study, the CDC now says the following about “Older Adults” under the general heading of “People Who Are at Increased Risk for Severe Illness”:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html

The data simply does not support an age threshold of 65. As I have shown in Section I above, even those who are 45 years old and healthy are at greater risk than 30 year olds whom the CDC classifies as “at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19” because of underlying health conditions. If any employer attempts to adhere to the now-discarded age threshold of 65, there will be a glaring lack of consistency and parity in the protections it extends to their workers who are at higher risk.

A Letter from Rep. Joe Kennedy and a Letter from BU History

Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-MA 4th District) sent a letter today to President Brown of Boston University, calling on the university to fix their policies regarding PhD students, and allow all graduate students and other teachers at BU to “Teach from Anywhere” (a phrase I and others have been using for some time now). He expresses wholehearted support for our petition, which now has more than 1400 signatures (as he mentions). I wonder whether the BU President will acknowledge receipt of this letter from Congressman Kennedy, which is something neither his office nor the Provost’s office has ever done with any of the direct communications from Russell Powell and myself (including our original signed copy of our open letter on June 2, and our delivery of the petition on June 15, when it contained over 1000 signatures).

The Provost’s Office today sent out an announcement to all PhD students asserting that they will provide health insurance to all PhD students (one of the concerns highlighted in Kennedy’s letter), and registering that they are trying to think their way through the visa issues involving foreign students. One might well wonder whether Congressman Kennedy’s letter prompted the university to send out this email today.

A second letter has also come to my attention. This is a letter sent directly to BU leaders from the Department of History, asking the university to allow all instructors to be given the option of teaching remotely. The letter is well worth reading for the way it provides a number of concrete considerations regarding health and safety issues, in particular. This letter complements our open letter of June 2 (a letter I’ve heard is sometimes incorrectly being referred to as a letter from the Department of Philosophy) and the first letter from the Department of English. All three letters, as well as the letter from Congressman Kennedy, are different at the level of detail, but they all share the common request to provide BU teachers with the freedom to teach from anywhere. I heard today that, after recently looking like it might head in the same direction as BU, Northeastern University has finally relented to the same kind of request from its employees. Perhaps BU will now also finally relent?

One last development must be mentioned, as it could be of great importance to some readers if BU does not relent. BU today changed the web page that hosts the workplace adjustment form. It now acknowledges that the CDC guidelines that changed on June 25, the day the form was originally said to be due, mean that the university must be open to accepting applications from employees who are now covered by the new guidelines. Two changes that seem particularly relevant are the expanded age range for being at serious risk (65 is no longer mentioned as an especially significant age), and the change from a minimum BMI of 40 to a minimum BMI of 30. The deadline has been changed, according to the new form, to July 9. There has been no general communication with employees about these specific changes, although perhaps there will be one soon. Some, but not all employees, have also received an email indicating that they should be concerned if they submitted a form but did not receive an immediate acknowledgment by email of having done so. It appears this a common problem. If you submitted a form but did not receive an email acknowledgement, you must submit again to guarantee that your application will be considered, the email from a high level administrator notes.

CDC Guidelines Change on Day that Workplace Adjustment Forms are Due

Originally published June 25, 2020

The CDC today released new guidelines regarding underlying medical conditions and COVID-19. There are important changes to the classifications of increased risk groups. For example, it was previously stated that a BMI of 40 or over puts you in an increased risk group, but it is now stated that a BMI of 30 or over puts you in an increased risk group. Today also happens to be the due date for workplace adjustment forms at Boston University (employees were given 5 working days to complete and submit the form). Will the university extend the deadline for submission of these forms so that employees who only now qualify for a health based accommodation might have an opportunity to ask for one? 

A Policy Shift / Clarification

Originally published June 23, 2020

We have been given only one week to complete and submit the online workplace adjustment form. At the beginning of the week in question (Thursday June 18) we were provided with a form that many took to be mainly for use by those with medical or age concerns, due to earlier communications, which specified non-medical, pedagogical requests would be considered separately. Near the top of the form is a restricted list of conditions and it initially appeared to many of us as though one must tick one of the boxes for one of these conditions. On Monday, after people starting filling in the form, the Provost made use of BU Today to broadcast (echoing a paragraph that was overlooked by many in her earlier memo and that was not expected): ‘For those faculty and teaching fellows who have concerns about returning to campus for reasons other than the conditions described above, Morrison said, the administration would like to collect more information to understand the scope of those concerns. Those seeking a workplace adjustment who have a nonmedical concern are asked to complete and submit the same form and to use the “Other” box at the end of the form to provide details about their situation. “After we gather this information,” Morrison wrote, “we will determine whether or not there are ameliorative steps we might take.” ’

While we think it is a very good thing that the Provost is recommending that the form be used for any and all non-medical requests, Russell Powell and I are extremely concerned that the policy regarding use of the workplace adjustment forms has not been more clearly communicated to the faculty (to be clear: faculty were earlier led to believe the form was only to be used for medical and age based exemptions). The Provost does often send out email messages to the whole of the faculty, so it would be easy to send a reminder of the policy shift (perhaps along with a reminder of the due date). For us, there is no way to email all of the faculty (this has very much limited our ability to inform people about our petition). We are also concerned that it is possible a great many requests for accommodations will be rejected; we don’t know that they will be, of course, but the success or failure of this process will turn, not just on clearer, repeated communications of the new directive to faculty concerning use of the form, but on actual outcomes at the end of this process. Let us hope that our requests will be dealt with in a charitable, preference respecting fashion.

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.