Campus, Coronavirus, News

BU professors express opposition to Learn from Anywhere

A Boston University sign in South Campus. BU professors have expressed displeasure with the lack of flexibility that the Learn from Anywhere plan offers professors with regard to teaching in-person classes in the Fall. SOPHIE PARK/ DFP FILE

Boston University Provost Jean Morrison outlined in a letter to the academic deans, associate deans and department chairs Sunday that in-person classes are expected to be the “default” method of teaching in Fall as part of the effort to repopulate campus.

A BU Faculty source who asked to remain anonymous forwarded this letter to The Daily Free Press.

“Any course that does not have a significant in-person component incrementally erodes the residential character of the BU experience,” the letter states. “Thus, every effort should be made to avoid an excessive number of fully remote courses.”

The letter acknowledges the difficulties that individual departments may struggle with while planning for the upcoming semester and stresses the locality of making complex decisions and choices. 

Morrison’s letter did not address high-risk populations among faculty or other personal health matters. She did address social distancing requirements, writing that there is a group working on adapting a class format that adheres to the current distancing guidelines.

The letter linked to an instructional document for Learn from Anywhere that outlines the definition, goals and recommendations for implementation of the program. 

Learn from Anywhere is BU’s current hybrid plan for the resumption of on-campus learning in the Fall, which would allow students to choose between returning to campus or continuing remote coursework. 

Exceptions for online-only courses should be few, Morrison added in the letter and must be approved by the dean of the school or college. These requests will be reviewed by the deans who are expected to then “rigorously [weigh] the request against the more general need to maintain a residential program.”

Prior to Morrison’s letter, two BU professors released an open letter June 2 objecting the University’s plans, particularly the Learn from Anywhere policy, for the upcoming Fall semester.

In this letter, Russell Powell and Daniel Star, associate professors in the Department of Philosophy, criticized the lack of consideration toward faculty and asked that BU make in-person teaching optional. 

Powell and Star said they were prompted to write their letter based on the lack of flexibility, indicated by a University email sent to faculty, for them to make a choice about how to teach Fall semester.  

“There was no discussion in it, or no provision in it made for allowing faculty, based on their own circumstances, to choose remotely,” Powell said of the University’s latest update on LfA, “even medical exceptions, exceptions for older faculty, people at high risk, people with children, a million things that you could think of that would create serious problems forcing people to come in to teach.”

Star added that the email made no mention of looking into these factors in the future.

“There wasn’t even a note saying, ‘Hey, look, there might be exceptions we’re going to think about,’” Star said. “It struck us as just really, really deaf to the faculty interests.”

Powell said the University has not responded to the letter.

The email that Powell and Star referred to was sent by Morrison on May 29. 

Star wrote in an email that with the exception of a survey sent earlier this week, the email was the only form of direct communication from BU. 

The survey is meant to gauge the faculty response to BU’s plans, BU Spokesperson Colin Riley wrote in an email. 

In the official email, entitled “Fall 2020 Planning: Undergraduate Programs, Learn from Anywhere, and Other Updates,” Morrison summarized plans for various aspects of the Fall semester — undergraduate, graduate and professional programs; research, library and classroom planning; classroom and technology support and COVID-19 testing. 

Morrison acknowledged in the email the question of what a return to residential education means for faculty.

“We understand that this issue is critically important,” Morrison wrote. “Our job, along with you, in the upcoming weeks is to understand how to balance BU’s firm commitment to residential education and the need for a high degree of faculty presence and participation on campus, with the legitimate concern that people have about possible exposure to COVID-19.” 

Riley wrote that the University administration is conducting discussions and making plans with “sensitivity and consideration for the health and well-being of [the] faculty.” He added that there are conversations and consultations happening with faculty representatives, specifically about the issues raised by Powell and Star’s statement.  

It’s important to note that the University has not yet made any final decisions about faculty returning to the classroom,” Riley wrote, “and there is no requirement in place for all faculty to teach in-person this fall.”

Still, providing a residential educational experience for the students is a key focus of the University, Riley wrote. 

“With faculty input and student considerations, as well as with public health and safety guidelines,” Riley wrote, “we continue to consider how faculty and staff in-person presence will work when students return.”

In their letter, Powell and Star wrote they favor a policy that gives faculty the option of teaching online.

“This would allow all faculty members to exercise their autonomy over a fundamental life decision in light of their own personal circumstances and in consultation with their own values and priorities,” the letter stated, “just as the university has done for students.”

Powell said there is a difference between public health policy and personal medical decisions. While the University could come to public health conclusions, he said it’s important not to override “faculty’s legitimate and profound interests and autonomy.”

The statement from Powell and Star was posted to a BU subreddit page, which sparked conversation among users, many of whom are current students. 

One student commented that while Powell and Star made good moral arguments, professors face the same amount of risk as any essential worker. 

“The folks at Walmart or your local grocery face substantially greater risk and receive substantially less pay and benefits. Not to sound cold, but professors have had it easy so far,” the student wrote. “I know they didn’t sign up to put their health in jeopardy, but neither did any essential employee who worked through the pandemic, and so I’m less inclined to empathize.”

Star said the idea that “because some people are suffering, everybody needs to suffer” is not necessarily the right attitude. 

“We’re not saying our well-being matters more than students,” Star said. “We want some reasonable equality here in terms of understanding everybody’s wellbeing counts, and that we all want to be caring for each other.” 

The letter also expressed concerns about the plausibility of remaining socially distant in a classroom. 

It is far from obvious that lecturing while dressed in full [personal protective equipment] gear, including masks, goggles, visors, gloves, and gowns, would be in any way optimal for anyone,” the letter stated, “as opposed, say, to carrying on these same activities from the safety and psychological comfort of one’s own home.”

Star said teaching online is difficult, yet it is important not to make in-person classes the “default model,” despite many courses requiring hands-on approaches. He said there should be options.

“Please don’t view [teaching online] as something that’s easier for professors. It’s really, really hard,” Star said. “It’s really nice to actually be in a physical space with people. We’re not saying we don’t like that. We love it.”  

Ayse Coskun, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, wrote in an email that online learning can bring challenges to lab-oriented STEM classes. 

In person classes are of course much more effective when students are ‘building things’ in class,” Coskun wrote. “We often offer team projects in many of our classes, resembling real-world engineering projects that are carried out in teams, and that is an added challenge in online education.”

Coskun wrote she feels the University needs to improve communication by involving faculty in discussions earlier.

“Faculty is diverse and people have different needs and constraints,” Coskun wrote. “I think the critical element now is to continue to gather all these different inputs so that a feasible plan can be executed.”

Powell and Star said their letter was met with support from fellow faculty members. Many professors reached out with words of encouragement and appreciation. 

Charles Rzepka, a professor in the English Department, wrote in an email that he hopes the administration has heard Powell and Star and will “act appropriately.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Stan Sclaroff sent an email to CAS faculty May 25 about BU’s plans for the Fall. In the email, Scaroff wrote that details are still being discussed and developed.

“CAS and University leadership are very much aware of the specific questions many of you have shared about teaching in the fall,” Scaroff wrote to CAS faculty, “including how in-person teaching will be handled if you have health concerns or if you feel strongly that your course would lend itself to either in-person or remote teaching but not both.”

Rzepka wrote he feels the University is not “paying serious attention to [faculty’s health] concerns.” He added that he has not received any word from CAS or BU senior leadership about this.

“If BU ‘leadership’ was ‘very much aware’ of my specific health concerns either then or at any time since then (at 70, I’m in the most vulnerable cohort for contracting, suffering permanent damage from, or dying of Covid-19), they haven’t acted on that awareness,” Rzepka wrote.

Merry White, a professor of anthropology, wrote in an email that announcing Fall plans before faculty were involved in the decision-making process seemed “insensitive and disempowering.” 

“I know we’re not being ignored and that there are teams of administrators and faculty working on these issues,” White wrote, “but as things stand at the moment, many of us feel voiceless, choiceless.”

Star said more discussion needs to take place between the faculty and administration so that everyone can move on and focus on making the campus safe for the faculty who are choosing to teach in person. 

“We just would like a change in the approach from the upper leadership of the University, where they’re more transparent about their reasoning and the different options that they’re considering,” Star said, “and providing us with arguments and justifications.”

Laurel Clark, a rising sophomore in CAS, said Powell and Star’s letter leaves her feeling conflicted.

“Looking at it from a student perspective… as students, we’re paying to go to this university; we’re paying for this experience at this institution,” Clark said. “I fully understand why the administration at BU is pushing so hard for this ‘residential campus experience.’”

Clark added that it’s important to recognize that the University is more than just an institution, but the people make it what it is. She said she understands why faculty should have the option to opt out of teaching in-person. 

“I don’t know exactly what the right answer is,” Clark said. “But I think that the administration making decisions that are going to impact people without having those people be part of the conversation, I don’t think that that is the right answer here.” 

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