Let me dream, for a minute, that this was the email we were all getting this week:
Thank you for your service during the Spring 2020 semester. The quick pivot to remote teaching was a reminder that excellent teaching remains the heart of the university. As in-person social activities fell away, your classes were often the primary way that students stayed connected to each other and to the university. We would not have ended the semester successfully if not for your commitment to your students, to your teaching, and to our mission.
Fall 2020 presents us with unknown challenges. In order to harness the collective wisdom and insight of our faculty, we must keep this tension in mind: faculty are both the decision makers for matters related to instruction AND faculty decisions about instruction are constrained by forces often beyond their control. That is, decisions about instruction, like all decisions, occur within a context over which the decision-maker does not have full autonomy. (If you want to learn more, ask Dr. Miller for his reading list for POLI 3327: Political Philosophy.)
This week, other universities’ chancellors are promising a physical return to campus for the fall. I will not offer such an assurance because it dishonestly disregards the constraints that higher education will face in the fall. We cannot physically return to campus if our state or county government prohibits it. While we, as a key employer in the region, are able to influence state and local government policies, we, as researchers, also respect the work that our colleagues at the CDC and in other public health institutions do. If we believe that thoughtful, disciplined research should influence public policy, then the university must not seek to undermine the guidance of other scholars by pressuring state and local governments to re-open before science says is safe. Our work as scholars means little if we do not trust scholarship.
Further, as a state-supported university, we have a responsibility to taxpayers to use resources wisely. Proposals that are unduly expensive with minimal benefit are unlikely to be implemented, especially during a time when tax revenues are down and other public entities also need extra support.
Additionally, even if our state and county government permits us to reopen and even if scientists agree that doing so aligns with public health goals and even if we have the financial ability to make our physical campus safe, we face the possibility that students will not be able or ready to return to a physical campus. New economic challenges, new caretaking duties, new health concerns, and other factors beyond our control will shape enrollment for Fall 2020–and enrollment, in turn, shapes what instruction looks like.
Finally, any solutions that faculty propose must align with the mission and values of our university: inclusive excellence in scholarship, teaching, and service. Should campus physically re-open, some students, staff, and faculty will be unable to return to their face-to-face jobs because of concerns about their own health or caretaking duties. These forces are more likely to employees and students with disabilities, women, and people of color. The university will not create a system that either leaves these valuable members of our community behind or that offers them fewer or less robust opportunities than are offered to those who choose to return to F2F work or learning. Our commitment to inclusion and diversity means nothing if it does not ensure the best we have to offer to all.
I say this not to dissuade you from generating solutions to the challenges we will face but to encourage you to focus on solutions that are workable within the constraints we face and the obligations we have chosen. To that end, I call upon our faculty senate and the union that represents our teaching staff to propose plans for Fall 2020 that
- recognize falling financial support for the university from the state and the financial limits on what is possible for Fall 2020
- include the possibility that campus will be prohibited by state or county regulations from reopening for some or all of Fall 2020
- account for the multiple barriers that students may face unrelated to the university in returning to a physical campus and the multiple barriers that they may face in succeeding in online courses
- ensure equal access to resources and opportunities for students and teachers who cannot or who chose not to return to a physical campus
In the effort to lead us to a humane, successful Fall 2020, as your chancellor, I am forwarding the following proposals:
- the automatic granting of requests for unpaid leave for Fall 2020 from faculty who wish not to participate in teaching this semester, with a June 1 deadline to choose this option
- reduced teaching loads with commensurate reductions in salaries but not benefits for all teaching staff for Fall 2020, with a June 1, 2020 deadline to choose this option, with faculty being able to teach as few as one course in Fall 2020
- automatic permission for all faculty who wish to teach fully online in Fall 2020 to do so, with a June 1, 2020 deadline to choose this option, with mandatory completion of our online pedagogy course (10 hours of asynchronous work and 10 hours of independent work) by July 1, supported with a stipend of $1000, or evidence of success teaching online previously
- a pause in the tenure clock for all those who choose it, with a June 1, 2021 deadline for all those who choose it, so that pre-tenure faculty may select to ignore Fall 2021 and/or Spring 2021 for tenure purposes after the academic year is complete
- a competitive early-retirement package for faculty who have long-served the university but who do not wish to enter this unknown territory. My hope is to offer a package that expresses our gratitude for their work and allows them to retire with financial confidence.
I made a commitment to you to be transparent when I was installed as Chancellor. I ask that you read this message in the spirit of that commitment: not to scare or threaten faculty but to help us all have a clear-eyed assessment of the possibilities before us.
I believe that our university can be a leader in responding nimbly and effectively to the immediate crisis that the coronavirus and COVID have created and to the long-term consequences of this moment. Our faculty are some of the of the smartest people in the world. We are facing challenges we can meet.
The only decision that CAN confidently be made right now is the decision to be fully online. If you have time to wait to make that decision, then wait for more information to emerge–recognizing, again, that you can plan for whatever you think is best but that, on August 15, your state and county government could ruin all your plans anyway.
Above, Eton College Chapel, c. 1754, by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto. We look across the river to Eton’s chapel. On either bank of the Thames, people picnic, and boaters float on the water. Eton was founded in 1440, and it’s going to have to change to handle coronavirus, so your school is too.