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Faculty grow uneasy as universities scramble to bring students back to campus

Boston University associate professor Daniel Star has raised concerns about university's re-opening plan.
Boston University associate professor Daniel Star has raised concerns about university's re-opening plan.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As colleges and universities announce plans to bring students back for the fall, many are encountering resistance from professors who are wary of returning to the classroom, fearful that the health risks may be too high and that teaching face-to-face and online at the same time may be ineffective.

Faculty members say their concerns have been sidelined, as institutions — in an effort to keep students and families happy and minimize potential financial losses — have promised a robust slate of in-person classes.

At Boston University, which announced that it will give students the choice to learn either in person or online, professors said they have been given few choices and little information about how to prepare for the fall.

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“It’s a bad plan,” said Jason Prentice, a senior lecturer in the writing program who has been teaching at BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, its largest school, for 15 years. “I think it’s a dangerous plan, frankly. I’m concerned about myself and concerned about my family.”

BU expects that most professors will teach in the classroom to both the students in front of them and the ones participating online, adding to their teaching load and responsibilities, Prentice said.

There has been no discussion about whether some classes would be better taught only remotely instead of a dual method that could have professors trying to manage discussions with students in far-off locations with bad connections and those in the classroom, he said.

BU provost Jean Morrison wrote in a memo sent last Sunday to the university’s deans and department chairs that “all courses should have a significant in-person component that is accessible synchronously to remote students,” and that exceptions “should be few, and must be approved by the dean of the school or college.”

BU has conducted a faculty survey and is still developing a framework to determine which instructors will be given exemptions to teaching in-person, Morrison said in an interview.

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But these are difficult times and the solutions are far from ideal, she said.

“We’re trying to do our best by students, faculty, and staff,” Morrison said. “That takes weighing and managing factors that push against each other. . . . This isn’t our first choice way forward. The global pandemic represents real challenges.”

Faculty rebellions are simmering on campuses across the country, said Walter Benn Michaels, a member of the academic freedom committee at the American Association of University Professors and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Longtime professors fear that their age makes them more susceptible to the more serious effects of the virus. Younger professors worry about having child care options if schools and day cares aren’t fully in session.

And professors without tenure or employment protections worry that if they don’t come to class, they could lose their jobs, he said.

“People are upset,” Michaels said. “People get tired of being told by deans and provosts what the best thing to do is. If there’s anything we should be consulted about, it is how we do teaching.”

At Notre Dame University, more than 140 professors have signed a petition arguing that faculty should be able to make “their own prudential judgments” about teaching in-person as well as attending faculty meetings and other in-person campus gatherings.

Faculty and staff at Purdue University in Indiana have also expressed concerns about bringing students back on campus even though the institution’s president, Mitch Daniels, recently testified before the Senate that colleges and universities could reopen safely.

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Some universities are requiring that faculty apply for exemptions to in-person teaching and provide information about their age and medical documentation of underlying health conditions, which some critics argue is too invasive, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

College campuses bring together a large community with different levels of risks, professors point out.

While the young people who come to campus may be in a lower risk group for becoming seriously sick from COVID-19, their professors tend to be older and may have underlying health issues.

“This is the first time I have questioned whether my university cares for me,” said a Northeastern University professor, who declined to give a name for fear of retribution. “Everything is being introduced to us as if it’s a done deal. It’s not a very comfortable place to be at.”

Northeastern faculty who have concerns are encouraged to work with their supervisors to develop appropriate teaching and working arrangements, said Renata Nyul, a university spokeswoman.

“The university is making major classroom technology investments this summer to ensure that all learners can have a high quality experience with maximum flexibility,” Nyul said.

Professors understand that the universities must remain financially sound and need the tuition and room and board revenue from students coming to campus, said Nancy Allen, a science and interdisciplinary liberal arts professor at Emerson College who conducted a survey for the faculty union to gauge the sentiment about reopening.

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“The financial health and well-being of the institution is a significant component, but health and safety also is,” Allen said. “We want to be sure that students are getting a good education, and when it needs to be in person . . . faculty are in favor of it.”

But many of Emerson’s instructors must take public transportation to get to the downtown Boston campus and they worry about how the college will make sure that buildings with narrow hallways can be safe, Allen said.

Emerson on Wednesday announced that most of its classes in the fall will incorporate both in-person and online components. What that will mean for faculty is still “in process,” said spokeswoman Michelle Gaseau.

“The overall goal, though, is to have in-person classes when possible,” she said.

Faculty members said they aren’t just concerned about their health. Many question the hybrid teaching methods that will likely require them to do much more work, even as universities are cutting benefits and pay for staff. Those with young children are worried that if their schools don’t open completely, they may have few child care options and need more flexible schedules.

“If students can learn from anywhere, professors should teach from anywhere," said Russell Powell, a BU philosophy professor who along with his colleague Daniel Star wrote a widely distributed letter criticizing the university’s reopening plan and launched a petition on Wednesday urging the administration to make in-person teaching optional for professors.

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Nafisa Tanjeem, an assistant professor of global studies at Lesley University, said that while a handful of professors are being consulted, many more are unsure about how the fall semester will unfold. Tanjeem said the professors have asked Lesley‘s president to speak at a town hall meeting to address concerns.

Lesley has a task force composed of members of the faculty and staff to help develop the plans for the upcoming academic year, said John Sullivan, a spokesman for the university.

“Lesley University is actively planning for the fall and beyond, and we are committed to thoughtfully implementing decisions that prioritize the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff,” Sullivan said. “To that effect, we will be offering a variety of experiences to our students as we believe everyone’s needs and levels of comfort during these uncertain times vary.”

But Tanjeem said there is a lot of confusion among professors who want to start planning their courses about whether they can teach only online and — if it’s a hybrid model — what level of safety the university will provide. For now, she’s planning to offer her class entirely online.

“We have lots of flexibility, but almost no direction,” Tanjeem said. “It’s a mess.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.