June 28, 2020
Rather than continue to post updates here, I have moved all the links and text below to a new blog site:
With All Due Caution
In-Person Teaching Should be Optional for BU Faculty: An Open Letter to the University Community, and Subsequent Updates
I am one of two ethics professors at Boston University who, because of serious concerns about current university plans with respect to teaching in the Fall, wrote the Open Letter below, and subsequently started a petition.
Please sign our petition, which now has more than 1400 signatures.
Link: Teaching in Person Should Be Optional for All Boston University Professors and Instructors During the Pandemic
UPDATE: 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.
* * *
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?
UPDATE: 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.
UPDATE: 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.
UPDATE: 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!
UPDATE: 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 absurd. Yet, 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?
UPDATE: 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.
Again, we wonder: where are you BU Today?
UPDATE: 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).
Where are you BU Today?
UPDATE: 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.
UPDATE: June 9, 2020
On June 2, our university administration sent a multiple choice online survey form out to all faculty. The deadline for the survey was June 8. On June 7, one day before the survey deadline, university leaders sent out a letter and guidance instructions to all deans and department chairs, instructing them to pursue a policy of minimizing the provision of exceptions to Learn from Anywhere of a kind that might allow professors to teach online. It is left rather unclear what kinds of exceptions might be granted (at least one subsequent email sent by a dean to all faculty in a college specifies they must be “pedagogically-driven”), but it is not left unclear that there should be very few exceptions made. At no point are high risk groups, older faculty, or faculty with children mentioned, let alone is there any suggestion that belonging to some such group might provide grounds for exceptions to the policy requiring that all classes be taught in person. It is unfortunate that the university policy was further specified before the faculty survey was completed and feedback from BU faculty could be taken into account. So far BU faculty have received no general communications to the university community as a whole from our university leaders that seriously address faculty concerns regarding the welfare and preferences of faculty with respect to in-class teaching and COVID-19. Less importantly, we have received no substantive response from university leadership to the letter below (a signed version of which was sent directly by email to our upper university administration on June 2), although we have received many very supportive email messages from individual faculty members, for which we are grateful.
We would like to clarify some things about our letter in response to comments we have received, and briefly report on developments at BU. We wanted this letter to be highly focused and not overly long. Still, we now think we should have made it clear that our concerns to do with the interests of BU employees are concerns with teaching employees in general (“faculty” in a broad sense, if you like), including full-time and part-time lecturers, teaching fellows, etc. We very much would not wish to see the university moving the in-class teaching burden to teachers outside of the tenure system; we think that would be unjust. Regarding other BU employees (e.g. cleaners, cafeteria workers, grounds and facilities management), it’s important to recognize that it may be the case that some jobs cannot be done from home (unlike teaching, for many courses). We genuinely sympathize with employees in positions where they do not have the option of working at home. That being said, the fact that some employees cannot work from home is not a good reason to prevent other employees from working from home. Furthermore, lowering the population density of both students and teachers on campus and traveling through campus, by allowing many courses to be taught online, would significantly decrease the health risks for all university employees (as well as students) that remain on campus.
Open Letter to the University Community of June 2, 2020
Russell Powell and Daniel Star
BU’s plan for the fall of 2020 remains very much in flux. At the moment, however, the university appears wedded to the idea that not only should all students who are well and able take up residence on campus, but also that all or most courses be taught in person using a “Learn from Anywhere” approach that would allow students to attend classes either in person or remotely. Students would be permitted to make this decision based on their personal medical condition, family circumstances, travel burdens, and willingness to assume the health risks and potential anxieties that in-person attendance entails. We will not opine here on the practical or moral wisdom of bringing students to campus in the fall, a decision that many peer universities (for good or for ill) have also made. What is unusual about BU’s approach as compared to peer universities, and in our view raises serious moral misgivings, is that the university’s policy as it stands does not carve out a similar sphere of liberty for BU faculty.
The Fall Plan
As of early June, BU faculty are being given no choice but to teach in person in the fall, even though this is a deeply personal decision—one that is no less than a matter of life and death—for faculty members and their families. Like the students they teach and mentor, faculty members find themselves in diverse medical, familial, and geographic circumstances and have very different tolerances for risk. A blanket requirement that faculty teach in person without regard to their medical and family situations would be an unconscionable breach of the university’s moral fiduciary duties to faculty members, one that places the overwhelming weight of the health burden of this once-in-a-century pandemic on important and vulnerable stakeholders.
The notion that faculty members could choose to take a paid sick leave in lieu of teaching, as suggested to us by some in the university administration, is woefully inadequate for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that a paid sick leave would not (as presently configured) cover situations wherein one’s family members are in high-risk categories, such as if one’s partner is pregnant or if one cares for elderly parents. Furthermore, many faculty members are parents of young children and cannot risk being quarantined from their family for 14 days at a time with each exposure (or worse, if they become infected with COVID-19), leaving them unable to properly care for their children. As it stands, the only recourse for a faculty member who finds themselves in such circumstances would be to take an unpaid leave, which for obvious reasons is not a satisfactory option. There is no doubt that a policy that allows professors, lecturers, and graduate students that fall into certain risk classes to teach online would be considerably better than a blanket policy that admits of no exceptions. If the university chooses to go in this direction, we would strongly urge them to also include faculty who are responsible for the care of young children or elderly family members.
However, we strongly favor a policy that would give every faculty member the option of teaching their classes wholly online. This would allow all faculty members to exercise their autonomy over a fundamental life decision in light of their own personal circumstances and in consultation with their own values and priorities—just as the university has done for students. There are several reasons why this is the morally best policy.
First, and most obviously, it is morally wrong to demand that professors risk their health and that of their family members, given the online teaching alternative. In the absence of a vaccine, the only way to open universities in an even remotely safe manner is to have robust testing, contact-tracing teams, supportive quarantine for those exposed, and full PPE gear for faculty in place by the time the fall semester begins. Given the dire national shortages of these things, to say this is a tall order would be an understatement. Creating a reasonably safe environment must go well beyond “security theatre” (such as temperature taking, hallway segregation, classroom spacing, etc.), which risks creating a false sense of security. There will also be major hurdles to adequately enforcing the required conditions, as some students will (e.g.) refuse to wear masks for any number of reasons, including political ones (and we have heard from the university administration that the campus police will not be in the enforcement business). Even if these conditions could be miraculously met and all protocols abided to, many students, faculty, staff, and people in the surrounding Boston community will inevitably get infected, some will be irreparably harmed, and some will die. It is far from clear that this would be a morally acceptable outcome even if the only alternative were to shut down the university for the fall; but it is patently immoral given the remote teaching alternative.
We fear that despite assurances from the university and the good-faith efforts presently underway to physically reshape parts of the campus, the population density on campus will be too high at certain times to allow for adequate social distancing measures if all courses are taught in person. A mixed approach that allows some courses to be offered online only would considerably lower the population density on campus at critical times.
In defending the urgent need to bring students back to campus, universities have stressed the value of in-person teaching and the limits of teaching remotely, despite the advent of what only a decade ago would have seemed like miraculous communication technology. It is far from obvious that lecturing while dressed in full PPE gear, including masks, goggles, visors, gloves, and gowns, would be in any way optimal for anyone—as opposed, say, to carrying on these same activities from the safety and psychological comfort of one’s own home. Moreover, it is likely that many classes, if not the entire university, will be forced to switch to fully remote learning mid-semester as outbreaks flare up and students and faculty get exposed to the virus. In any case, it seems rather obvious to us that optimal pedagogy cannot conceivably justify significant risks to the health of faculty members, staff and their families, to say nothing of the wider Boston community.
The only conceivable justification for in-person teaching under pandemic circumstances is that without it many students will choose not to enroll for the fall—and as a result, the economic impact on the university will be so devastating that many faculty members and staff will have to be furloughed or laid off. We are skeptical that this is the forced choice universities are confronted with, especially for institutions with vast real estate holdings and large endowments invested in a stock market that is booming irrespective of national unemployment rates. However, it is incumbent upon BU and any other universities to make this moral case explicitly and transparently, so that its stakeholders can meaningfully evaluate and contribute their voices to decisions that may have a profound effect on their health, their lives, and their livelihoods.
Sending a Moral Message
What sort of a message are we sending to students if we encourage them to return to campus because their own health is not dramatically at risk, when they are likely to asymptomatically spread the virus to older and more vulnerable university populations? We are telling them that they should not care (or should not care very much) about taking risks that might seriously harm or kill other people. We are telling them that BU faculty do not deserve the same rights as students. We are saying that faculty are here to serve students at any cost—to provide supposedly optimal teaching environments at the expense of their own lives and the lives of those they love, rather than to work collaboratively with students in their development as responsible citizens of our community and stewards of our planet.
Crucially, universities should not take student preferences for how campus life should be conducted in the fall as a fixed point. Instead, they should make the moral case to students that we are all in this together and that we have an obligation to keep one another safe and to support the institution and community we have chosen to be part of. One of us (Powell) co-wrote an opinion piece on the science and ethics of reopening universities that was published in Inside Higher Ed. Since then, the article has been assigned in summer ethics classes, and it turns out that students embrace and appreciate the strength of the arguments therein. Many prospective and current students, who are not themselves at great medical risk, have yet to think through the moral ramifications of attending class in person (an obvious but important one of which is that teachers in the classroom will need to wear masks and screens, whereas online teaching requires no such impediments to teaching well). But they are receptive to reasons. The university must make the case that not only should these students join or continue with BU in the fall, but also that they should do so in ways that do not put others in grave danger.
Are we, or these other ethicists, saying that it’s never permissible for the university to engineer an environment in which its members risk being harmed or harming others? No. We are simply asking that the seriousness of the policy being proposed be acknowledged and the costs and benefits transparently discussed. At the very least, professors and students should, where possible, have the option of teaching and learning online. If, knowing there are serious risks, professors choose to teach in the classroom, and students choose to return to the classroom, that is a decision they should be allowed to make in a way that respects their autonomy, weighing these considerations for themselves.
Faculty, not physical spaces, are the life blood of the university. Compelling faculty members, at the pain of their jobs, to risk their lives for putatively preferable pedagogy or unclear economic benefits is to cut off the university’s nose to spite its face.