Hundreds of professors at Vanderbilt University are calling for a greater say in the way administrators reopen campus in the fall. The faculty members created a petition asking for a default distance learning policy — along with a list of what they consider achievable demands.
The professors aren’t against in-person classes. But in simplified terms, they are asking for a no-questions-asked choice to opt in or out of face-to-face teaching.
“Rather than giving faculty the mandate to teach on campus and having to get an individual accommodation, they would be able to do it by default unless they really wanted to teach on campus,” says Aimi Hamraie, an associate professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt.
Last month, administrators announced the campus would resume in-person classes in the fall, under strict social distancing and health protocols. This includes a requirement that people on campus wear masks, and the installation of public hand-sanitizer stations.
The university says they’ll also enhance their cleaning protocols, make changes to foot-traffic flow, and require that returning students sign an acknowledgment of the campus’ public health protocols.
In a statement to staff and students, Vice Chancellor for Administration Eric Kopstain said that the university’s reopening plan was designed to fit the needs of the university’s “unique residential education and research environment.”
“We remain on track to welcome our students back to campus this fall and are taking every precaution we can to ensure as much as possible the health and safety of our entire community as we do so,” says Kopstain. “We are all in this together and it will take all of us stepping up and working together to help slow the spread of this virus.”
University officials have also made a commitment to provide treatment and care to residential students who fall ill or need to quarantine. The campus is also expected to implement COVID-19 testing requirements as a preventive measure.
However, Hamraie and other professors are asking that the university make a bigger commitment to protect the safety and well-being of faculty, staff and students.
Hamraie says petitioners also want anti-racism and institutional policies that will protect marginalized staff and students, who feel they’ll be discriminated against during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are Black students who said they fear being on campus and also wearing a mask at night because if someone sees them and thinks they are doing something suspicious then there may be consequences for them,” says Hamraie.
Other requests include:
- COVID-19 testing on request and cost-free medical and mental health services
- collaboration between the university and instructors and staff before making university decisions
- transparency and timely data sharing on the status of the presence of COVID-19 on campus
- accommodations for caregivers
- permitting non-resident instructors to teach and remain in good standing regardless of their geographic location
- funding and timeline extensions for all graduate students for one academic year
The university did not directly respond to a request for comment on the demands of the faculty petition. However, in a statement released last week, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan Wente did share her desire to find solutions that will support faculty members.
“I am committed, as is all of the university’s leadership, to our exceptional faculty and to ensuring the continuity of our shared missions of learning, service and discovery,” says Wente. “Working with the deans, I remain dedicated to faculty well-being, faculty shared governance and faculty expertise.”
Meanwhile, the Vanderbilt University chapter of the American Association of University Professors is also asking administrators to protect international students by challenging a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that would prevent foreign students from remaining in the country if they are unable to attend at least some in-person classes.
But as some faculty members push for the university to adopt a default distance learning policy, they are also asking for administrators to prioritize international students when it comes to in-person classes.
“Plenty of people want to teach face-to-face [classes],” says Celia Applegate, a Vanderbilt history professor. “International students should get absolute priority … The faculty is very committed to making it possible for them to have that [option].”
This week, Vanderbilt was among more than 50 colleges that filed an amicus brief in support of a Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology lawsuit against the ICE rule.
“Universities must be able to fulfill their educational missions, preparing all of our students to participate in a global workforce and economy. This new directive severely inhibits our ability to do this,” says Susan R. Wente, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.