Professors contend exclusion from reopening talks, safety not considered

A+faculty+assembly+meeting+in+January.+

Media: Stephanie Purifoy

A faculty assembly meeting in January.

By Diana Bravo, Assistant News Editor

A virtual faculty assembly meeting erupted into angry questioning Tuesday when some professors denounced administration officials for their lack of transparency and communication regarding the college’s fall reopening plan. 

The plan, announced last week after months of workshopping, fails to take into account the safety of faculty, some of the nearly 300 professors at the meeting said. They also said the college mostly excluded them from the decision-making process about the fate of the coming semester. The administration had only communicated with faculty before the meeting in the form of the email announcing the reopening plan that was sent to students as well.

“We have not been communicated to as our own constituency, and it does not feel like we … matter in this decision,” Executive-in-Residence Nancy Allen said at the meeting. “We received the same email as parents, and every single discussion has started with the premise that the decision has been made based on what students want and what is best for students.” 

But President M. Lee Pelton and senior administrators said the hybrid-learning plan is the best way to guarantee the safety of the college community. 

The plan currently includes social distancing, mandatory face masks, and a two-hour maximum time for in-person meetings once a week. It also limits the number of students living in dorms and spreads student move-in across three days in August. 

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“We felt that was the best way to ensure safety,” Pelton said in the meeting. “I hope that [faculty] will see how all the actions that we have taken and plan to take will contribute to the safety of our community and build confidence in those who work, live, and study here.”

Multiple surveys on reopening were sent out by the two faculty unions—the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College—where professors rated their levels of concern with specific aspects of the reopening. The unions have no affiliation with the college administration.

The meeting began with a detailed presentation from several members of the administration that provided further insight missing from the college’s initial announcement about additional safety protocols for the fall reopening. 

Multiple professors at the meeting said they felt blindsided by the new information, which they said did not allow faculty adequate time to prepare questions. Only nine professors on the COVID-19 working group had previously been aware of the details.

“As it is, we have lost most of this forum time that faculty requested of administration,” Allen said. “This entire process feels very top down. While we have had faculty members in the room, it does not feel that we as a constituency have been listened to.”

A top concern for faculty was how teaching in-person puts the well-being of professors in jeopardy. Older professors specifically said that the reopening plan, as is, puts them at too much risk, as COVID-19 complications are often more deadly in older populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Some attendees, like ethics professor Tom Cooper, argued professors should be given the chance to decide whether or not to come to campus. 

“International data and evidence are quite clear that it’s inhumane and unethical for people above 60 to be potentially exposed [coming and going from campus],” Cooper said. “Why are all such members of the community not automatically given the choice of whether to risk such potential exposure by coming to downtown Boston or not?”

Pelton said the college’s hybrid technique is safer than other schools’ plans which rely less on remote learning come fall. Boston College, for example, will reopen almost entirely in-person in August. 

Eventually administration will send a form where faculty may request to teach online, Chief Human Resources Officer Shari Stier said.  It is unclear how and when the college will decide who can teach online.

“We’re going to treat every single request whether it is an accommodation request associated with a disability or a workplace change request associated with the list that CDC has identified as high risk…individually,” Stier said in the meeting. “You don’t need to prove that you’re over a certain age, we know that we have that [information] so you won’t have to prove anything . But…we need to have some kind of process.”

Professors also questioned the reopening plan’s inherent trust in students to follow social distancing guidelines, citing studies about decision-making abilities in young people.

“Much of the success of the [reopening] plan depends on the compliance of the students,” Associate Professor Pablo Muchnik said. “[Raising] two teenagers and having taught young adults that are lovers of risk and defiance, I think that expecting full compliance is unrealistic and terribly dangerous.”

Pelton responded to concerns about student’s willingness to comply with an example of his trust in his own children.

“I have three children, and if they were in this environment, I would trust them 100% to comply because … they are very cautious,” Pelton said. “This will require us to educate and maybe provide incentives or whatever we need to do to create a culture where students are compliant.”

Performing Arts and production-based Visual Media Arts professors, those who would be heavily affected by social distancing and safety measures, were particularly concerned with how their classes would look in the fall.

“Given the nature of what we do: breathing, vocalizing, singing on our feet … we can’t, with any integrity, convert skill-based classes to academic classes,” Associate Professor and Head of Acting Sarah Hickler said. “It’s not what our students come to our programs for. So we feel a little bit in the dark.”

Pelton said that he had not heard of proposed classes being required to meet in person like Hickler said.

A few faculty members were appreciative of the college’s communication with them on the reopening plan. Assistant Professor Russell Newman, vice president of the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he was encouraged that the administration wants to speak with faculty about the topic.

“[The administration] expressed a willingness to commit to further dialogue with faculty—that’s healthy,” Newman said in a phone interview. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a dialogue that extends beyond faculty and administration, everyone’s got to be in it… [including] staff and the folks who provide services for Emerson College. We’re trying to take in the broad view and not be myopic about this.”

Correction 6/19/20: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the college sent out a survey to faculty to weigh their thoughts on reopening. The college did not send out this survey. Multiple surveys have been circulated by the two faculty unions, the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the Affiliated Faculty of Emerson College.

Correction 6/19/20: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote “We’re going to treat every single request whether it is an accommodation request associated with a disability or a workplace change request associated with the list that CDC has identified as high risk…individually. You don’t need to prove that you’re over a certain age, we know that we have that [information] so you won’t have to prove anything . But…we need to have some kind of process,” to Senior Lecturer Heather May. The quote actually came from Chief Human Resources Officer Shari Stier.