Concerned Penn State Instructors Pen Open Letter
Teachers address continuing uneasiness about returning to the classroom in the wake of COVID-19
As we transition, awkwardly and cautiously, toward a Green phase economy in PA, over 1100 faculty and staff workers at Penn State are demanding better protection and more security.
On June 12, the University's President Eric Barron (and several high-level administrators) received an open letter outlining concerns about re-opening campuses for the fall semester. Two days later, a decision to "resume campus-based residential instruction" was announced without any response to the letter. This announcement also lacked clear information about job security, benefits, or faculty involvement in the decision-making process.
That said, Penn State isn't approaching the fall semester recklessly. Social distancing measures are being instituted, masks will be required, and strict cleaning protocols will be implemented in each classroom. In-person classes will end on November 20, allowing the final weeks of the semester to finish digitally, and some classes will operate online entirely. And at the end of June, an additional 50 faculty members were invited to join the administration's task force charged with establishing protocols for the fall.
But many unknowns remain. Is it really safe to invite hundreds of students back into classrooms designed for close proximity? Can we ensure the safety of students as they travel long distances to report for class? Do staff members and faculty deserve clear assurances about their job security – as well as reasonable options concerning their health? Can 19-year-olds be trusted to keep their masks on and maintain social distance?
With these questions in mind, the Erie Reader has decided to share the open letter in full.
Eric J. Barron, President of The Pennsylvania State University
Nicholas P. Jones, Executive Vice President and Provost of The Pennsylvania State University
Kathleen Bieschke, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs of The Pennsylvania State University
As Penn State faculty prepare for the fall semester, we continue to grapple with the fallout from a global pandemic that has upended millions of lives around the globe, killing more than 110,000 people in the U.S. as of this writing. At the same time, we also face uncertainty surrounding our employment and plans for instruction. Especially troubling is the limited amount of input faculty, staff, and graduate employees have had on decisions related to our safety, job security, allocation of resources, and academic freedom to teach in the manner we deem most effective at this time. Moreover, there has been no discussion of the university's priorities and how it should respond to the financial fallout from the pandemic. In addition to furloughing nearly 2,000 workers, the administration has raised the specter of additional furloughs and layoffs and has instituted a pay freeze for all employees—a move that comes after a decade in which the university has enjoyed an enormous growth in revenue streams and returns on its endowment investments, amassing significant liquid assets that give it ample cushion for projected losses from COVID-19. At the same time, it has recently introduced new language into the contracts of fixed-term faculty that formalizes the administration's right to issue terminations at any time. This gesture has only heightened the sense of precarity among instructors who—like tenure-line faculty and graduate assistants—have already invested many hours of extra labor with the shift to remote learning and are now expected to dedicate even more time to preparing for the possibility of a multimodal system of instruction in the fall.
Now is the time for Penn State to put people first, to engage in an open discussion about what our priorities as a university should be, and for the faculty to play a central role in making decisions about how to respond to this crisis.
To that end, we the undersigned Penn State faculty stand in solidarity with all Penn State workers, and we affirm the following:
All people have the right to protect their own well-being. Therefore, in the event that students return to campus for the fall semester, we ask the university to commit to the following, and to formalize all policies in writing:
● The university will implement a rigorous system of free, widespread COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and isolation for faculty, staff, and students in accordance with the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health experts. On-campus instructors, staff, and students will be provided with all necessary personal protective equipment, and the university will cover any and all costs related to the treatment of COVID-19 and subsequent complications, including mental health support.
● The university—in consultation with faculty, students, and staff—will outline clear procedures for addressing violations of social distancing, the wearing of masks, and other safety protocols. These measures will not involve campus or local police. Faculty will have the right to bar non-compliant students from their in-person classes should this prove necessary to protect themselves and their other students, and in doing so they will have the support of the Student Affairs and Behavioral Threat Management Team.
● The university will affirm the autonomy of instructors in deciding whether to teach classes, attend meetings, and hold office hours remotely, in-person, or in some hybrid mode. Staff should also have the option of working remotely. Instructors will be able to alter the mode of course delivery at any time if they deem it necessary for their own safety or the safety of their students; no one will be obligated to disclose personal health information as a justification for such decisions, and they will not face negative repercussions from the university or supervisors. We say this as faculty who firmly believe in the importance of the university as a physical site of face-to-face dialogue and debate, and we look forward to the moment when such measures are no longer necessary.
To fulfill the educational mission of our university, all faculty members, staff, graduate employees, and other essential employees must have secure employment, equity, and a guarantee of the resources necessary to perform their work. Given Penn State's significant liquid assets, we ask the university to commit to the following:
● The university will extend fixed-term faculty contracts through the 2020-2021 year at a salary equal to or exceeding the faculty member's 2019-2020 contract, and it will maintain full employment, pay, raises, and benefits for all faculty and staff (including administrative, custodial, and maintenance staff). If classes fail to meet the minimum enrollment, the university will either allow these smaller classes to run, or it will assign faculty other important tasks such as curriculum design and program-building. The university will also maintain (or raise) all pre-pandemic levels of funding for graduate employees, and in light of the pandemic's effects on their research and working conditions, it will guarantee a yearlong extension of funding to current graduate students whose progress has been impacted.
● The university will continue to undertake tenure-track hiring initiatives and other efforts to ensure the strength and diversity of its workforce while simultaneously facilitating the advancement of all current faculty, particularly those from underrepresented groups. It will continue to offer assistant professors choice in whether to request a delay in their tenure review due to the pandemic and its fallout, for as long as such accommodations are needed. It will also recognize that delays in the promotion of both assistant and associate professors may undermine efforts to redress disparities of gender and race and will consider ways to address this issue.
● The university will commit to drawing on its many financial resources to ensure the maintenance of programs and positions across all of our campuses.
We are stakeholders in this university. Transparency, consultation, shared governance, and the active involvement of faculty, staff, and other employees in decision-making processes is imperative at all times, but even more so during times of uncertainty and crisis. Therefore we ask the university to commit to the following:
● From this point forward, the university will ensure that faculty play a central role in making decisions about all matters that affect us and our programs. This will go beyond including a handful of individual faculty members on the task forces, inviting faculty to town hall meetings, and conducting online surveys with questions of a very limited scope. It will include (among other practices) substantive consultation on all relevant matters with existing bodies of faculty governance at the programmatic, departmental, college, and university levels, including but not limited to the University Faculty Senate and the Senate of each Commonwealth Campus.
● To facilitate this, the university will create a clear and effective system of liaisons to ensure the timely, transparent dissem
ination and circulation of information about its plans for the fall (and beyond), and to allow all constituents of the university to offer input even after plans have been announced and implemented. The administration will provide detailed information about the university's finances, including its investments, assets and financial projections, in order to clarify and justify its financial decisions.
Despite the challenges, we look forward to collaborating and contributing our collective knowledge to this endeavor so that rather than simply weathering the crisis, Penn State will emerge as a more equitable and spirited place of learning for all.
More than 1,000 members of the Penn State faculty, along with over 400 graduates, students, and members of the community.
View the full list here.