Faculty members denounce reopening plan, citing ‘glaring’ safety concerns


Jakob Menendez

Emerson’s Paramount theater.

In the month since Emerson announced its hybrid learning plan for the fall semester, a chorus of faculty voices have questioned its logistics and practicality, saying the plan sacrifices their health and safety for the wants of students.  

One Emerson Flex Learning will feature a combination of remote and in-person classes, weekly testing, and an open but de-densified campus, giving students the option to return to campus—a measure the administration says the majority of students want. The plan, however, does not give faculty members free choice to return, instead asking all professors to resume in-person teaching and risk exposure to COVID-19.

Professors have pointed out what they see as glaring health and safety concerns in the plan and rebuked the motives on which it was designed. Faculty also alleged the Emerson administration has failed to effectively communicate with them these past few months and raised concern over the college’s ability to contain the virus.

But in a number of meetings with faculty and in announcements regarding the plan, administrators reiterated their claim that the reopening model was chosen as “the best way to ensure safety.”

In a mid-June survey put out by the faculty union and summarized by Faculty Assembly Secretary Nancy Allen, over 80 percent of 211 full-time and affiliated faculty respondents said faculty should be able to choose whether their fall classes are held in-person or remotely.

Currently, faculty who wish to teach remotely in the fall have applied for a COVID-19 workplace arrangement through Human Resources. If a faculty member is excused from returning to campus, human resources and the academic deans will work to find an alternative way to deliver the course the faculty member was supposed to teach while still providing the in-person experience the flex model promises.

In a worst case scenario, faculty members who are granted an arrangement for the fall semester may not be able to teach the courses they planned on teaching, with a replacement professor stepping in to fulfill the in-person sessions that the flex model requires. 

“There’s two issues—one is that folks who feel that they absolutely must teach online for their safety are being punished for not being able to teach their usual fall classes online,” Allen said. “The second issue is the lack of flexibility in the flex plan, and that the decisions were made for logistics and scheduling, and not what was best for students and faculty.”

Balancing health concerns with logistical and financial concerns

Several faculty members told The Beacon they believe economic considerations drove the plan’s construction, leaving health and safety concerns to the wayside.

The lingering financial ramifications of COVID-19 appear to have hit Emerson especially hard.

The college is expecting between $33 and $76 million in losses for the fiscal year, President M. Lee Pelton and Chief Financial Officer Paul Dworkis said in a faculty forum at the end of June. If the college has to go fully online, they said, losses would exceed $100 million. 

Emerson relies heavily on tuition and housing dollars, which made up 89 percent of its revenue in 2019, according to college tax forms. The college’s endowment also pales in comparison to other Boston schools that have opted to go mostly online, like Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Massachusetts Boston. 

Some faculty believe the current plan was implemented in the interest of saving revenue. 

“If we had a deep endowment, I think they would be having a different conversation,” writing, literature, and publishing professor Richard Hoffman said in a phone interview.

Hoffman, who is 71, applied for a workplace arrangement because he doesn’t feel safe returning to campus. 

“I don’t understand the workings of the money here, I only know that it is at the center of the discussion, and that feels wrong to me,” Hoffman said. “I very much care about the financial health of the college, because we can’t do what we do unless that’s solid, but I care more for the actual health—not the metaphorical health—the actual health of the human beings that make up the college. And I think that got lost somewhere.”

But others, like performing arts professor Andrew Clarke, said it would be naive to ignore the financial ramifications of a fully online semester. He said he does not have any risk factors and will return to campus in the fall to teach playwriting.

If the number one concern here were health and safety, it’s quite obvious what it is that needs to be done,” Clarke said. “It’s shut everything down, put it all online, come back in January. But that’s not realistic. There are huge economic ramifications of doing that. The college will lose a lot of money. The students will go elsewhere. And this is the bind they are in. It would be clueless to not consider the economic aspects of all this.”

Emerson’s plan for reopening relies heavily on social distancing and limiting contact between students. But the virus’ ability to spread rapidly and sometimes silently through asymptomatic carriers means that containing or keeping it off campus may be a longshot.  Even with strict policies that limit social interaction, faculty worry about the spread of the virus. The college’s metropolitan location means that avoiding person-to-person contact, especially on public transportation, is nearly impossible. 

One professor and member of the Faculty Council said bringing a large number of students to one area is inherently dangerous, because it is unlikely they will abide by required health and safety measures.

“I think the plan is predicated on a very problematic premise, which is that students will uniformly abide, at all times and in all places, by the safety measures that the institution is imposing,” the faculty member, who requested to remain anonymous, said. “And I think this assumption is unrealistic, because it goes against everything we know about human nature and the need for intimacy and contact, and contradicts what we know about young adult behavior.”

They added that since transmission of the virus may not be preventable, faculty will be thrown into a scenario where their safety is determined by the conduct of students.

“The breaking of the social distancing is a foregone conclusion,” they said. “It will be sadly inevitable. And therefore, we are deeply concerned that our health and our life depends on behavior we cannot possibly control.”

Multiple faculty said that if a scenario were to arise where a student’s class had to go online because the professor is at risk, students should be understanding of why the class had to be switched to remote learning. 

There has to be some sort of compromise, some sort of education going to students that not all your professors can be in the classroom,” Gian Lombardo, the head of the full time faculty union, said. “Because we’re trying to protect their health. It’s about accepting the health risks for our teachers.”

Chair of Faculty Assembly Heather May, a communications professor, said both students and faculty would work to avoid a situation where an older faculty member gets sick because they risked coming back to campus.

“The possibility of a senior faculty member getting sick because they felt pressured to be in the classroom… I think our students would understand that we have to put people’s health and safety first,” May said. “I think it would be a good idea to find out if [wanting to return to campus] is still how the majority of students are feeling. I think you might find that there’s actually a lot of overlap between what students and faculty want.” 

An HR process that replaces true autonomy

Allen said she did not apply for a COVID-19 workplace arrangement because she did not feel comfortable handing off her class and curriculum to a different professor—a fear other faculty members share.

Professors often spend years cultivating specific curricula and course styles. While teaching online may offer safety, it often means faculty lose control of a course they’ve worked to hone.

“Even if they say yes, you don’t have to come to campus, you can teach online, they are taking your classes away from you,” Allen said. “I have my classes that I have spent years developing, and I’m the only person in my department teaching them. So if I decide to apply for this accommodation, they will take my classes away from me. And then I am forced to either teach a brand new class in the winter session or I have to teach a brand new class that’s on a list somewhere.”

The science professor, who teaches courses with over 30 students and full waitlists, also doubted the effectiveness of an in-person class with strict safety and distancing procedures. She expects that after a few weeks, students may approach her with complaints about the in-person sessions and a desire to shift to fully online. 

While the human resources department and the academic deans work to find alternative ways to deliver a class taught by professors who cannot come to campus, they are also exploring different teaching opportunities for those faculty members. 

“There’s a lot of different options,” Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Michaele Whelan said in a Zoom interview with The Beacon. “In some cases, faculty may work together. Let’s say you were teaching screenwriting, and your colleague was teaching screenwriting, and your colleague can come to campus, but you can’t, maybe that person would do the in-person sessions for both classes, whereas you would be more responsible for the online component, and you’d team-teach it. Or maybe we’ll have a graduate [teaching assistant]. Or maybe you’ll move into the winter term, or maybe you’ll teach an online [graduate] class instead.”

Lombardo, a senior Publisher-in-Residence in the writing, literature, and publishing department, said teachers are not receiving free choice because the college promised in-person classes to students.

“The college is saying that we promised students that all of their courses will be live in the classroom,” Lombardo said. “So they’re saying we can’t just switch you over [to remote teaching], but you might get something else. And to me, that’s not quite a free choice. You’re hired for expertise, and you might have designed that course you’re teaching.”

Keeping the promise to students

In the first week of May, the college sent a survey to students to gauge their opinions about returning to campus for the fall semester. Administrators say students voted overwhelmingly for a return to campus, though the results have not been made publicly available. 

The college repeatedly uses the survey results as the only defense to questions and concerns about the reopening plan from faculty, Allen said.

“The only rationale we have received is ‘This is what the students want,’ but I don’t know that that’s true,” she said. “I don’t know that the students have any sense of what the classroom experience is going to look like. And if they knew that, I don’t know if [coming back to campus] would be their preferred ideology.”

While Allen argued that crafting a plan centered primarily on months-old student responses is dangerous, she also said the college was treating those responses with more weight than input from faculty. 

She said the college has not responded to written input from faculty, and the faculty forums held in June did not serve as a source of adequate feedback. In May and June, three surveys conducted by the ECCAAUP Union were submitted to the Provost, but Allen believes they were not distributed to the task force working on the reopening plan. Faculty Council members also wrote a joint statement to Pelton and Whelan describing their main concerns, which Allen said was based on considerable amounts of faculty feedback. 

“The faculty has put in writing multiple times what we need and want, and we have not received a written response from administration,” Allen said. “What we have received is inadequate answers during the forums that you will be required to teach other classes that the college will offer you, not your own classes. So the idea of winning an accommodation doesn’t feel like you really win much.”

As details of what a fall semester on campus may look like amid the accelerating pandemic were not available at the time the survey was sent to students, Allen said they may not have had a full understanding of what the classroom experience and life on campus would really be.

She added that students may struggle to communicate with each other and the professor while sitting six feet apart and wearing facial protection. Although she said Zoom is far from ideal, she can at least see and hear students clearly. 

“They have not followed up with students since the original survey,” Allen said. “I worry students’ opinions have changed since then. I worry the administration is making a decision based on outdated information based on what students want, that’s ill-informed to the current situation. And, ‘what the students want’ does often feel like a code for the money. It feels like code for ‘tuition dollars’, and not ‘What is student life going to be?’ I worry that in some cases of forced in-class sessions, they will not be positive experiences for students.”

Faculty never received a survey from the college. Pelton said they planned on sending one but decided against it because the full-time faculty union initiated a survey of their own and communicated the results with the administration. 

“The faculty union preempted our sending out a survey to faculty,” Pelton said in an interview with The Beacon. “And we decided after having reviewed the faculty survey that the college sending out a survey would be redundant.”

Whelan said she understands the faculty’s desire to choose how they offer their classes, but in the union survey they received, 37 percent of faculty preferred a hybrid model, 10 percent preferred a shifted calendar, 18 percent preferred full residency, and 35 percent preferred fully online. 

“You can see the difficulties this would present in organizing classes in the departments,” Whelan said in an email to The Beacon. “By combining a shifted calendar with a hybrid approach that focuses on in-person learning, we believe that the flex model incorporates the key elements and provides a consistent, high-quality learning experience for students.”

Pedagogy concerns

While health and safety concerns remain top priority, some faculty think the reopening plan was designed without proper attention to practicality surrounding how classes can and will be taught. Faculty believe the administration could have approached de-densification by considering what courses can effectively be taught online, and what courses can’t.

“Is teaching and educating at the center of this decision? I don’t think it is,” Hoffman said. “The proof of that is that there are no courses in [the Writing, Literature, and Publishing department] that don’t lend themselves to being taught online.” 

Some faculty believe many scenarios will arise where valuable classroom space is wasted on a course that doesn’t necessitate it. Some classes may actually benefit from an online format, given the safety restrictions currently imposed in in-person environments, they say.

“There are some classes that some faculty have said, ‘I can only do this well in person, there’s no way to teach this class online,’” Allen said. “And then we have other faculty who say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to teach this class in person, given the PPE restrictions.’ Had they gone through department by department and asked ‘What’s the most effective way to teach this class?’ I think they would have more buy-in from faculty.”

A half in-person, half online class format may also create another set of challenges for instructors, as some have argued the two teaching formats are incompatible.

“What I’ve heard a significant amount of times from various people on the administration side is, ‘We’ve promised students that they would have face-to-face interaction with their faculty and their classmates,’” May said. “That’s one place where things went really wrong. It’s unfortunate that something was ‘promised’ to students without adequately thinking through it with the faculty. Because for some classes, the hybrid model is not a good way to approach it.”

Pelton said that if he could restart the fall semester planning process, he would have communicated more regularly with the chairs of the departments and also would have held a town meeting with faculty before the reopening plan was announced.

“I think that if we had done those two things, that faculty would have felt more valued,” Pelton said. “I think they would have felt more engaged.”

Clarification July 26: A previous version of this story asserted that journalism professor Cindy Rodriguez acted independently in creating a mid-June survey to members of the faculty. Rodriguez designed the survey at the direction of the faculty union. The story has been updated to reflect the faculty union’s role in distributing the survey.