Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Students gather outside Steven C. Beering Hall of Liberal Arts and Education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. The university's president has assured students that they can return to campus in the fall. (Purdue University)

When Matthew Dean Hindman saw the message, one line stopped him: Had his university really just promised, in the midst of the pandemic, that every class would have a “backup professor of record?”

Hindman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Tulsa, took to social media.

“Today my university sent an email to students,” he wrote, “assuring them that every Fall class will have a faculty understudy in case the faculty member of record gets sick or dies.”

University officials said faculty were instrumental in creating the plan. But the tweet went mildly viral, fueling a mix of apocalyptic humor and comparisons with other schools, where professors have been asked to find teaching “buddies” or “successors” even as they reinvent the way they teach, face salary cuts and worry about layoffs.

With drops in revenue and a barrage of new costs, schools across the country have faced heavy financial losses this spring. Now, many are scrambling to reassure students and their parents that campuses can reopen safely in the fall. Some university presidents have even argued in recent op-eds that not opening would be a moral failing or a breach of responsibility.

But the turmoil has worried many faculty members — for what it might mean for their jobs, for their own health and for the public’s.

“They want to assure students, ‘We’ve got you covered, in case things go wrong,’ ” Hindman said. But, he said, “it almost feels like the faculty are an afterthought.”

Fallback plans

When universities debate when and how to return to campus, they’re largely focused on keeping enrollment up, which keeps tuition flowing, the American Association of University Professors wrote in a statement this month.

Instead, the faculty union wrote, schools should rely on health experts and make sure faculty are included in the decision-making.

“I understand the enormous economic consequences of not having students on campus,” said William G. Tierney, an education professor at the University of Southern California. But if a college president were told not to worry about finances, he said, “virtually every president would say: ‘Hallelujah! We will not have classes in the fall, because it’s too risky.’ ”

About 40 percent of tenure-track faculty are 55 or older, Tierney said. He worries some will feel they don’t have a choice but to come back. So are professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which recently announced plans to return this fall. Professors there signed a letter saying “any plan for face-to-face classes in Fall 2020 puts our health and safety at risk.”

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels was the first higher-education leader to declare campus would open in August, way back in April. Although the university convened a task force to prepare, some faculty said they have had little input and remain in the dark about how their classes will run.

“The process of communication has been broken, erratic, incomplete and really confusing,” said Bill Mullen, a professor of American studies at Purdue University, in Indiana. “We’re still waiting to find out how we’ll be teaching, where we’ll be teaching and who will be teaching.”

Mullen said he worries about what happens in the event of an outbreak on campus. Even if the university is successful in keeping its 45,000 students safe within its borders, what happens when they go out into the surrounding community?

Hannah Jewell looks back at plague and yellow fever outbreaks in Europe and New Orleans, which revealed stark divides between the rich and poor. (Video: The Washington Post)

Purdue spokesman Tim Doty said the university has included faculty in its decision-making. The public university will require everyone to wear masks, reduce classroom capacity by half, have an online option for large classes and require a minimum of 10 feet of space between instructors and students. “Literally everything we do over the next weeks will be driven by our concern for the health of our community,” Doty said.

At Ohio State University, no fall plan has been announced, and geography professor Kendra McSweeney applauded the university for taking its time. But she can’t imagine what plan could ease her concerns, given an ongoing public health crisis that has killed 100,000 people in the country and counting. A lot of classrooms are small and poorly ventilated, she said. Some colleagues have compromised immune systems. Even if classes remain online-only, a lot of the burden could fall on underpaid, overworked teaching assistants.

Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for Ohio State, said the university is using “a data-driven approach to recommend when it is safe to begin transitioning back onto campus as well as robust safety protocols.” The panel driving the decision, he said, is led by the deans of the College of Public Health and College of Nursing.

At the University of Tulsa, the email that rankled Hindman, sent by interim university president Janet K. Levit, announced a plan to offer a flexible blend of online and in-person instruction in the fall. In a list of anticipated changes, such as ensuring physical distancing in classrooms and adjusting the academic calendar, she wrote every class would have a “back-up faculty of record.”

A spokeswoman for the university said the idea came from a task-force subgroup led by faculty. Before the semester begins, a designated faculty member will be included in the learning management system for each course, Mona Chamberlin explained, “should an instructor be unavailable to teach for any reason related to covid-19.” The plan includes accommodations for students and instructors who cannot attend, or do not feel comfortable, attending in-person classes.

When asked about faculty concerns, Levit provided several examples of how professors had been included throughout the pandemic. She said the plan to reopen the university was presented to the faculty senate a week before it was presented to the board of trustees for approval, and the president of the faculty senate and two deans are members of the school’s covid-19 management team.

Administrators have made increased efforts to include faculty in key decisions in recent months, Hindman acknowledged.

“I think they genuinely want to do the right thing,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re an afterthought.”

Using covid as cover?

At some schools, professors are contending not just with health concerns but also with worries about job security. As the pandemic rattles the economy, universities are bracing for budget cuts and, in some cases, announcing layoffs, salary reductions and hiring freezes.

In many cases, faculty don’t know whether they will be included in layoffs and furloughs, but the uncertainty is adding to their anxiety.

Morehouse College in Atlanta announced layoffs and furloughs last month, saying cuts would affect the earnings or jobs of every employee on campus.

After state cuts and more than $20 million of coronavirus-related expenses, officials at Montclair State University in New Jersey are negotiating with labor unions about possible layoffs and furloughs. Many temporary positions have been eliminated and some faculty appointments have not been renewed, university spokesman Andrew Mees said.

At the City University of New York, hundreds of part-time faculty members have already been put on notice that they may not be reappointed for the fall.

“The state is facing a more than $13 billion revenue shortfall due entirely to the pandemic and if the federal government doesn’t step up to offset those losses, the state will have to reduce spending by billions of dollars to balance its budget,” Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for CUNY, wrote in an email.

But some faculty are questioning whether universities have been too quick to say the sky is falling. In late April, Wright State University, in Ohio, projected a budget deficit of roughly $11 million for the remainder of the fiscal year. Like at other colleges and universities, administrators took voluntary pay cuts, while staff agreed to reduce their work hours.

That projected deficit has since declined to $1.5 million. Wright State spokesman Seth Bauguess said the deficit was revised because of the “extreme and sudden campuswide spending reductions over the past two months.” But the university has made no secret of the need to reduce its spending, as declining high school graduation rates place pressure on enrollment, Bauguess said.

Noeleen McIlvenna, a professor of history at Wright State, questions whether something different is playing out on her campus, and worries about it playing out on others.

Faculty around the country are hearing, “'Oh, the whole thing is about to cave in on itself,’” she said. “But I would advise them to be sure that’s really happening, and they’re not dealing with administrations or trustees who are going to exploit this pandemic to try and reshape the university the way they want it.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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