International Undergraduate Students, ICE, and University Policies

I am going to comment on two significant news items from yesterday. First, Harvard University announced that a maximum of 40% of their undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will be staying on their campus in the Fall, and confirmed that all courses there will be online courses (six of their graduate and professional schools have also announced they will be entirely online). I think it’s important for those of us working or studying at other universities not to take Harvard as a model. Harvard’s wealth and status puts it in a position to do things that other universities can rightly view as being too costly for them to do. That being said, there are at least three take home lessons here for all of us. The first is summed up nicely in a popular Tweet “If Harvard doesn’t have the resources to make in person education safe in the Fall, do you seriously think anyone else does?” Next, Harvard’s statement says that the 40% figure was based on reasoning by their public health experts concerning health risks, and I think it is sobering to compare that number to the much higher percentage (perhaps 100%, or close to it) many other colleges, such as my own, are trying to tell their university communities is a safe percentage to aim for. The third lesson, I would suggest, is that college students don’t come to campus simply, or even mainly, for in person classes. Amongst other things, they come to be with their peers and establish independence in relation to their families. I’ve been saying this for a month or so (as, I’m sure, have many other people), but Harvard’s policy represents an endorsement of this idea on the part of a leading university, since the students who come to Harvard will be taking all their classes online. We need to bear all these points in mind when considering the policies other universities are adopting or considering adopting.

The second piece of news concerns the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announcement regarding student visas and online courses. Here, I must emphasize that what I will say at this point is speculative. I’m not a lawyer or immigration expert, and students should contact the International Students & Scholars Office (or equivalent) at their college regarding any specific concerns they might have. I am not writing this post to offer advice to students, but rather as part of my continuing efforts to think through university policies and policy options. The announcement begins by indicating, in effect, that the statement is not yet legally binding. This leaves a little room to think that petition signing and lobbying efforts now underfoot may possibly lead to some changes before the regulations become legally binding. On the assumption that no relevant policy changes occur, however, I am inclined to think the following. It appears that whenever colleges offer all courses online only, international students enrolled at these colleges will not be permitted to remain in the US. This means, first, that universities, such as Harvard, that are planning to only be offering courses online will have to either end up reversing their policies, or will be accepting that their international students will only be taking courses from outside of the US. Second, and closer to home, it also means that any college that has adopted a hybrid model* or is planning to hold classes in a face to face mode, and any international student that is contemplating attending such a college, will be very concerned that if the college needs to move online during semester, due to an outbreak of COVID-19, all international students at that college may need to promptly leave the US (unless they are able to go on medical leave, or meet some other excusing condition).

What are the likely implications of this last idea for the policies of colleges following either a hybrid model or holding all classes on campus? Here are two possibilities that are particularly salient to me, although they pull in different directions. First, if we suppose (hypothetically) that some colleges will succeed in attracting many of their overseas students back to campus to attend classes in person, then these colleges will have a new disincentive to provide information regarding infection and hospitalization rates and to declare an emergency of the kind that would require that all classes move online. They already have other disincentives to do this. Russell Powell and I have already called for our own university to set up a thorough, transparent, and independent process for the reporting of all relevant information to the university community and the city where the university resides. Such a move now seems more important than ever. In case any of this talk of disincentives to report information sounds paranoid or conspiratorial, let me be clear: I’m not saying that universities will engage in incomplete or biased reporting; I’m just saying we now need to hear what their information policies are going to be, and we need to think about them carefully.

Second, overseas students who are presently residing overseas will be considering their options now and they are more likely than ever to decide not to return to the US. They are looking at the option of attending college in a country where idiotic public policies and attitudes (let’s not mince words) are ensuring COVID-19 infections are not going to be reduced to small numbers any time soon, and are killing or ruining the lives of a great many people, and where their college may end up moving completely online part way during semester, because of an outbreak, meaning they will need to immediately leave the US. They are comparing this to the option of staying at home for a year, where risk of infection is probably quite a bit lower, and where they can take their courses online and not need to spend money on room and board in the US. Why would such students return to the US? These students are not going to be particularly satisfied with synchronous delivery of courses, such as is required by the Learn from Anywhere model, because of time zone differences. This suggests demand for online only courses will increase. Incidentally, I also expect demand for online only courses will significantly increase once those domestic and international students who do return to campus experience what it is really like to be taught in socially distanced classes by masked teachers (and often using a “platoon” based approach, at least at BU, that involves only some students being allowed to attend each class while other students attend online, due to a shortage of suitable lecture rooms).

There is one good piece of news in the otherwise terrible announcement from ICE that I should now also mention. In schools adopting a hybrid model, students “will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online… [as long as] the student is not taking an entirely online course load.” As I understand it, this frees the relevant colleges up to offer more courses online, as long as they still offer enough face to face (or, let’s be frank, mask to mask) courses to count as following a hybrid model (this is good because the old rule, waived in the Spring, was that only 25% of a course load could be online). BU’s International Students & Scholars office today confirmed this interpretation, saying “Fortunately, this updated guidance appears to continue to allow students to take more online courses than normally allowed by regulation, provided that students continue to take courses in person.” Let us end on this positive note then: online only courses may be thought to be much better options for colleges following a hybrid model to offer from now onwards. Learn from Anywhere/HyFlex may end up dying a natural death.

*Surveys of student preferences generally fail to distinguish between two different hybrid models: (1) some courses are offered online, some are offered in class; (2) all or most courses are offered in class but students may take these classes wholly or partly online, watching and interacting with their teachers from home (the Learn from Anywhere or HyFlex approach). These models are very different in important respects, as teachers at institutions like BU, where the the second model is being forced on us, are only too aware.

[UPDATE, July 8: Legal challenges to the ICE plan have begun, with Harvard and MIT leading the way. Let’s hope they succeed.]

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

Dear Boston City Council members,

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,
Russell Powell
Daniel Star

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.

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.

A Tale of Two Letters

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

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

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

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

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.

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 Memo from the Provost Regarding PhD Students

Originally published June 24, 2020

A number of people have asked me what I think of the Provost’s internal memo of June 19,  regarding PhD students, which has been the subject of a social media storm, and is now being commented on in the media more generally, after somebody posted it online (not me, just in case anybody is tempted to think that). I think that this represents something of a public relations disaster for a university administration that appears to be rushing policy documents out without sufficient internal consultation. One might have hoped that the university would have released a public statement by now to address the reasonable concerns that PhD students have expressed concerning the stated policies (here, and in many other places). All this being said, I have heard, through reliable channels, that the PhD graduate student policies that will actually end up being instituted are not going to be as punitive as one might think if one were to take this document at face value. 

I have heard that BU does not, in fact, plan to withdraw funding from international students who have good justifications for not being able to get back in time (e.g. border restrictions or cancelled flights); what will be crucial, apparently, is that a good faith effort is made to return.  There is also a concern that the 14-day quarantine condition mentioned in the document might mean graduate students cannot return at the end of August, but must instead return in mid-August. Again, I’m hearing that this may not be what the university is actually requiring. I’ve been told that international PhD students who need to teach can return at the end of August and then teach online for a couple of weeks if they are in quarantine. Whether these interpretations are what was always intended and the memo could have simply been written more carefully, or there wasn’t enough thought put into considering the implications of what is said  in the document, I don’t know. A strange condition, to my mind, is that they are requiring all new PhD students to be living in Boston from the beginning of fall semester, even though they are not teaching (first year students don’t teach, at least not in departments I’m aware of), and even though they are permitted to take all of their classes online. I haven’t heard that this policy will be weakened. I don’t know why the administration requiring this. My best guess is that the university simply wants to be able to count these students as having arrived on campus. Students who have finished all teaching duties and can do their research elsewhere as they finish off their dissertations are not required to return to Boston.

Russell Powell and I remain committed to the idea that graduate students who teach or assist teachers at BU should not be put in a position where they are being treated differently than the rest of us with respect to teaching on campus. We continue to believe that during this pandemic, all of us should be provided with the right to teach from anywhere, just as students are being provided with the right to learn from anywhere.

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.

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!

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 ([email protected]) 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. 

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).

The Petitions

Originally published June 10, 2020

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

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