Risky for no reason? Faculty demand answers (op-ed in the Vanderbilt Hustler)

Vanderbilt’s leadership has jeopardized our community’s safety by prioritizing in-person classes while ignoring faculty concerns.

This op-ed by Vanderbilt AAUP appeared in the Vanderblit Hustler on August 21, 2020.

In late July, the Vanderbilt chapter of the American Association of University Professors (VAAUP) delivered a petition to Vanderbilt’s senior administration, calling for measures to protect the health of the university community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The VAAUP consists of instructors of all ranks, including tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, graduate-student instructors and current and former members of the Faculty Council and Faculty Senate. The measures we are seeking include making online course instruction the default, incorporating meaningful faculty governance into university decision-making and establishing transparent and rigorous testing and quarantine protocols.

To date, the petition has 524 signatures from faculty, students, alumni and parents, including 182 signatures from faculty members. The administration has made no official acknowledgment of the petition, and the issues it addresses have only become more urgent.

Current plans to resume extensive in-person teaching and campus activities will almost certainly result in serious illness and even death for some in the Vanderbilt community. The administration has justified this risk by citing the mission of residential education. It has made reopening campus the priority and tailored its health and teaching policies to support this goal. By pitting educational mission, public health and faculty governance against one another, the administration jeopardizes the safety of our community. This approach compromises the ability of faculty, students and staff to teach, learn and work effectively.

Senior administrators, including Provost Susan Wente, have asserted that Vanderbilt’s mission of residential education demands that a significant number of courses be taught in-person. The administration has emphasized in-person teaching by invoking “the strengths of residential education” and “our scholarly missions as a residential research university.” But peer institutions that also prioritize residential education, including Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, have all switched to total or near-total remote teaching in the fall. They recognize that in-person instruction will expose faculty, students and staff to the risk of deadly infection, without necessarily improving the quality of education. We call upon Vanderbilt to commit to safe teaching and learning, as other institutions have already done. 

The university should not promote the idea that in-person teaching is the best kind of teaching during a pandemic. In fact, in-person classes will pose numerous obstacles to effective teaching and learning. Students will be forced to sit at least six feet away from each other, wearing masks and struggling to hear masked instructors. Some instructors will be standing behind plexiglass partitions. By contrast, students learning online will be able to see everyone unmasked and congregate in small groups with their peers. 

More fundamentally, no approach to teaching can be deemed “effective” if it exposes students, faculty and staff members to a deadly virus.

Scientists note that the virus is most likely to spread indoors, in poorly-ventilated rooms, with people projecting voices over extended periods: these conditions define the college classroom. The risk of infection persists even if everyone in the room wears a mask. And converging evidence indicates that the virus can spread via aerosols that linger in the air, traveling distances over six feet. Vanderbilt has updated ventilation and filtration in some classroom buildings, but they have not communicated specifics of which buildings have been updated. Under these conditions, the university should allow instructors to choose how they will teach to maximize their personal safety.

According to Vanderbilt’s current policy, however, instructors are only guaranteed the option of online teaching if they qualify for a disability accommodation. Our group has heard from junior and contingent faculty who have felt pressured to teach in person, for fear of retribution should they request an online accommodation. Vanderbilt’s policies are forcing some of the most vulnerable members of our community to choose between their health and their work. Not surprisingly, twenty-one of our colleagues elected to sign VAAUP’s petition anonymously (as did 42 students). A default online policy, allowing instructors to teach in person if they choose, would help to alleviate some of these structural inequities. It would also protect the health of housekeeping and maintenance staff, who are placed at risk by the re-opening of campus.

Our safety is also at risk because of the alarming level of viral infection in Nashville and surrounding areas. The Harvard Global Health Initiative COVID-19 risk map places Davidson county at the highest, “red,” risk level, necessitating “stay-at-home orders.” As of Aug. 19, Nashville’s 7-day positivity rate of COVID-19 tests is at a worrying 11.3 percent. For comparison, the World Health Organization recommended in May that the positivity rate remains below five percent for at least two weeks before governments consider reopening. Despite the prevalence of the coronavirus off-campus, the university doesn’t plan to pre-screen instructors, graduate and professional students and staff for infection. Nor will it—as Vanderbilt AAUP’s petition demands—offer testing-on-demand for university employees, as some peer institutions are doing. Vanderbilt is one of a dwindling number of colleges and universities undertaking an experiment that risks a serious outbreak. 

With such high stakes, it is all the more concerning that university decision-making during the pandemic has not been open and transparent. No broad faculty input was sought to guide fall planning: no large-scale surveys were circulated, no comprehensive  meetings called, no inclusive committees formed. The Faculty Senate, the elected body representing faculty, was never called upon to debate or comment on fall plans, even though the administration has repeatedly implied that its decisions were guided by Senate input. Once senior administrators arrived at the decision to reopen campus, policies were made and then handed over to committees for justification. These committees contained very few of the teaching faculty being asked to put themselves at risk. Faculty were invited to submit questions at a series of carefully controlled “town hall” meetings this summer, but such a one-way forum does not constitute substantive input.

Our petition calls for meaningful participation in university decision-making by all instructors and staff. The American Association of University Professors affirms this right as a basic principle of academic freedom, stating, “No important institutional decision should be made unilaterally by administrations or governing boards.”

Why does faculty input matter? For one thing, faculty have professional expertise in how to educate students and manage classrooms. They have already been working hard over the spring and summer to determine what good teaching looks like in the pandemic era. Faculty are also experts in directly-relevant topics in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, yet little of this expertise is guiding administrators’ decisions. This refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue with the faculty places our entire community at risk and undermines the quality of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt. 

Many questions remain about what will happen once campus reopens. Some of these have been raised by a coalition of concerned Vanderbilt parents, and are also surely on students’ minds. For instance, is there a rate of community infection in Nashville that would cause Vanderbilt to change its plans? What will happen to instructors who take the logical step of moving their class online after an infected person has attended class? Will senior administrators take personal responsibility for the inevitable illness and deaths of students, staff and faculty? Will the university provide compensation for the medical care and lost health and life incurred by its actions? Has the university budgeted for the lawsuits that will ensue after the virus sweeps through the campus? How will the university respond to the death of a student, staff person or faculty member?

As outbreaks emerge on re-opening campuses across the country, we need accountable leadership at Vanderbilt to make decisions that first and foremost prioritize the health and safety of our community. 


Vanderbilt AAUP Statement on ICE International Student Policy

July 10, 2020

On July 6, 2020, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that international students taking a full online course load will not be issued visas or, if they are currently in the US, will face deportation. The Vanderbilt University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter denounces this policy. The policy exemplifies both the Trump administration’s racist, xenophobic approach to immigrants and refugees, as well as  its failures to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We stand with the more than 30,000 faculty nationwide (as of this writing) who have signed the Open Letter Against the Student Ban, which rejects university complicity with the ICE policy.

In our “Petition to the Vanderbilt University Administration for a More Just, Equitable, and Safe Response to COVID-19,” which is currently circulating for signatures, we demand that the University take action informed by structural and collective responsibility, rather than placing the onus on individual professors to opt in or out of online teaching. Vanderbilt must do everything in its power to prevent the deportation of international students and to protect public health and safety on campus: our university must reject any logic that sets one of these essential goals against the other. Unfortunately, the ICE edict compounds dangers already posed by Vanderbilt policies to the health of non-resident and resident students. 

We demand that Vanderbilt University:

  1. Join together with other institutions to oppose ICE’s policy through lobbying, advocacy, and legal challenges. Vanderbilt must use its leverage as a preeminent research university and collaborate with other higher education institutions to pressure ICE to reinstate its March 13 guidance enabling online classes to count towards a full course of study, extending this temporary provision for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. Two major universities have filed a lawsuit in Federal Court challenging the change in policy, and at least 45 others have filed amicus briefs as of July 10. Vanderbilt should pursue the most assertive legal action possible to protect its international students. 
  2. Give priority to international students (undergraduate and graduate) in the selection of face-to-face classes during fall registration and future semesters in which ICE’s policy is in place. While the default online teaching proposal may increase the number of online classes, the university can protect international students through policy improvements. Before finalizing the fall 2020 course schedule, the administration can privilege international students in enrollment for face-to-face courses, and expand online course offerings for other students to ensure the correct number of seats. This solution protects instructors from teaching on campus against their will while providing international students access to the correct number of courses. Even more importantly, this systemic solution will affirm an institutional commitment to protecting international students rather than placing responsibility on individual faculty. 

Our petition, which was drafted and began circulating before ICE’s announcement, advocates for changes to university policy for both types of international students affected by ICE’s most recent policies. The Petition’s request for default online teaching, with the option for any faculty member to choose to teach on campus, allows for some face-to-face classes while emphasizing safety, equity, consistent pedagogy, and quality scholarship. In addition, the Petition’s other demands directly address Vanderbilt’s policies that have damaging implications for international students.

  1. For international students still abroad, the Petition demands that they be able to study, research, and teach while remaining in good standing and receiving stipend payments, financial assistance, and benefits. Many of these students are not able to return to the US due to travel restrictions. Current Vanderbilt policies ask them to put their lives at risk to return, or risk being forced to take leave. The new ICE rule would similarly ask these students to risk their lives to receive education, and deny immunocompromised or high-risk international students the ability to access online teaching.
  2. For international graduate students in the US, the Petition demands that they must be able to choose on-campus teaching and courses, according to their own health needs.

Adoption of default online teaching would significantly aid the university in grappling with the consequences of this ICE policy in the interests of international students. The immediate implementation of online default and rapid identification of instructors planning to teach face-to-face would free up administrative resources currently being used to process faculty accommodations requests and outfit classrooms, and enhance the university’s capacity to secure international students slots in face-to-face classes as soon as possible.

As instructors devoted to equitable and rigorous education, we stand in solidarity with our international undergraduate, professional, and graduate students. We refuse the false choice between deportation and exposure to COVID-19. We are committed to working with the university administration, faculty staff, and targeted students in a manner that maximizes everyone’s safety.

Vanderbilt Instructors Call for University Administration to Rethink Campus Reopening


July 13, 2020

Vanderbilt Instructors Call for University Administration to Rethink Campus Reopening

Contact: AAUP media liaison, 615-933-3669, vanderbiltaaup@gmail.com

Nashville, Tennessee. More than 400 Vanderbilt faculty, graduate student instructors, and other community members have signed a petition (https://bit.ly/vufall2020 ) calling for default online teaching for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty are concerned that the university’s plan for campus reopening puts the health and safety of community members at risk. The plan also endangers the university’s commitment to offering a superior education. Petitioners demand equity in access to healthcare, testing, and accommodations for all university employees, as well as support for all instructors, with priority given to international graduate students threatened with deportation by ICE.

Vanderbilt faculty fear the administration’s decision to house up to 6,000 undergraduates on campus will adversely impact Nashville’s public health. Activity in downtown Nashville has led to the summer spike in COVID-19 cases with dangerous proximity to Vanderbilt’s campus. Dr. Peter F. Rebeiro, infectious disease epidemiologist with VUMC said, “Vanderbilt’s default position should be responsive to transmission in the community. Until a vaccine is available or the susceptible population is otherwise substantially depleted, remote contact and physical distancing are the best ways to minimize the risk of exposure. Vanderbilt should remain as flexible as possible on remote instruction. If faculty and students become vectors of transmission, they put the Vanderbilt and Nashville communities at risk.” 

Currently, instructors with caregiving responsibilities await authorization for university accommodations to teach online. Parents in particular are concerned about the uncertainty of primary and secondary school openings. The petition demands greater transparency from the administration, greater faculty participation in decision-making, and institutional policies attentive to non-discrimination and anti-racism. 

As U.S. colleges and universities bring student-athletes and others back to campus, new clusters of infection have emerged.. “We are very concerned that the Vanderbilt campus could become a source of infection for the university’s many local workers and the surrounding neighborhoods,” said Celia Applegate, Professor of History and member of the Faculty Senate. 

The new Vanderbilt chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) organized the petition. Its members now insist that Vanderbilt do everything in its power to prevent the deportation of international students and protect public health and safety on campus. For more information on Vanderbilt AAUP’s position on the ICE announcement, see: https://vanderbiltaaup.org/2020/07/10/vaaup-statement-on-ice/

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