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After backlash from faculty, Northeastern clarifies restrictions on remote teaching

Northeastern University.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

After a backlash from faculty members, particularly women with family care responsibilities, Northeastern University announced Tuesday it would be more flexible about in-person teaching requirements during the spring semester.

In an email to the faculty, university officials said faculty members with “a genuine and significant hardship” may seek exemptions from the provost’s office concerning teaching classes on campus.

Officials didn’t specifically identify childcare among the reasons faculty can request to teach remotely, and some faculty said it didn’t go far enough in offering reassurances. But Renata Nyul, a university spokeswoman, said it will “clearly include childcare responsibilities."

“We are aware that people have other important family obligations and wanted the wording to be broad and inclusive,” she said.


Northeastern has spent tens of millions of dollars on coronavirus testing and has kept the number of positive cases down, with the hope of returning to a more normal campus environment in January.

On Friday, David Madigan, the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, informed faculty that they were expected to return to teaching on campus unless they had medical reasons, including pregnancy or a disability, or if they lived with someone who had a high risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19. A person’s age was no longer sufficient for an exemption.

That message sparked an outcry from many female faculty members who criticized the university for failing to understand that with public schools teaching remotely or in-person only a few days a week, many women were forced to balance parental and teaching responsibilities. Despite Northeastern’s increased childcare subsidy, faculty said it has been hard to find babysitters to watch their children or help younger ones with their online classes.

“It makes me so angry because we feel so invisible,” said Brooke Foucault Welles, a communications studies professor at Northeastern with a 9-year-old and an 11-year old. Her younger child is doing remote and in-person classes, while the older one is fully remote. “It hasn’t occurred to them how hard it’s gotten on working families.”


If the local schools don’t start to teach fully in-person and she has to return to campus full time, her husband may have to reduce his work hours, she said.

Across industries, the pandemic has disproportionately affected female workers, with substantially more women leaving the workforce or considering reducing their hours than men. In academics, women have reported significant declines in their research time, and a study published last week in the Social Science Research Network found that the early months of the pandemic created a surge in research publications that mostly benefited men.

Northeastern faculty members said the university has increased childcare benefits and been more flexible about the tenure application schedule to accommodate the changed circumstances. But it has still been a struggle to balance work and family responsibilities and plan for the spring with the course of the virus so uncertain, some said.

On Tuesday, an hour after speaking with a reporter, one professor had to go and pick up her son from school and was told he had to be quarantined for 14 days because another student had exhibited COVID-like symptoms in class.

At the same time, the university is also under pressure from students and families to get back to business as usual.

The average net price to attend Northeastern is $43,000 a year and students and parents are increasingly questioning why they are spending so much money on a largely remote learning experience. Some have complained about professors starting the semester in person and then moving to remote after a few weeks. However, some professors said that even when they teach on campus, many students choose to take the class virtually from their dorm room.


About a third of faculty members have received exemptions from teaching in person this fall, university officials said.

“One of the lessons we have learned this fall is the immense value of an on-campus experience for our students,” Madigan wrote in his email to faculty Tuesday. “More than 90 percent of our undergraduates have returned to campus and it is our obligation to provide them with all of the benefits and magic of a Northeastern education.”

John Wihbey, a journalism professor and father of four young children, said he understands the juggling act parents are facing but that faculty members also have a responsibility to their students. Wihbey has been on campus for his classes this fall. His wife, who teaches at a private school, is working from home. Between them, day care, and a grandmother, they have cobbled together a childcare schedule, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy,” Wihbey said. “At the end of the day, I was really determined to connect with my students as much as I could.”

Rebecca Carrier, a Northeastern chemical engineering professor and mother of three children, said in-person teaching is preferable but not always possible. Carrier splits her teaching between in-person and remote.


Her husband works at a hospital and must be on-site and her youngest child, a first-grader, needs regular attention when she studies remotely, Carrier said.

On Tuesday, for example, Carrier was scrambling to find someone for the next day to set up her daughter with the online classes and monitor her progress while she met with her graduate students virtually.

“As a working mother, before COVID, it was challenging to accomplish what I wanted to do at work,” Carrier said. “COVID has amplified that markedly.”

Carrier said the university’s initial message on Friday did “induce a tremendous amount of anxiety,” but she hopes that administrators will be flexible.

“It’s hard to plan when you don’t know what you’re planning for,” Carrier said.

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