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BU community petitions to make Fall in-person teaching optional for professors

On June 10, Boston University instructors Russell Powell and Daniel Star created a petition to make teaching in-person classes in the Fall optional for faculty. ILLUSTRATION BY LAURYN ALLEN/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Boston University’s current plan for the Fall semester has received criticism stemming from a perceived lack of consideration for faculty, as it does not currently offer an option for professors to teach remotely. 

In response to this lack of teaching freedom — which could pose risks for immunocompromised instructors — professors and students each created separate petitions asking for more flexibility in Fall teaching options. These were sent to the administration Monday morning.

The faculty petition, created June 10 by associate philosophy professors Russell Powell and Daniel Star, has received nearly 1,200  signatures from BU faculty, staff, students and alumni, as well as individuals unaffiliated with BU. 

Powell and Star’s petition requests that teaching in person should be made an option for all BU educators. This includes tenured and tenure-track professors, fixed-term faculty, adjunct faculty, part-time instructors, graduate student teaching fellows, teaching assistants and graders.

Powell and Star previously released a letter in which they openly criticized the Learn from Anywhere plan. The two received positive feedback and support from many faculty members, some of whom suggested a petition. 

A week after we had sent out our letter, we still hadn’t heard anything from the BU administration,” Star wrote in an email. “A petition was necessary to try to get the voices of faculty, regarding the issues mentioned in the petition, properly considered.”

Star wrote that so far, the reactions to the petition have been “extremely” supportive. It received more than 500 signatures in the first 24 hours. 

An independent student petition was also created — to Powell and Star’s surprise. They wrote in an email that they heard about the student petition just as they were finishing their own. 

“We’re all in this together. Recognizing this fact, BU students today surprised us (there was no coordination) when they set up a petition for students to sign,” Powell and Star wrote in the email. “We are very grateful to the students who set up this petition (whoever they are), and all the students signing it.”

BU Spokesperson Colin Riley wrote in an email the University is still making decisions about LfA and nothing has been confirmed yet, though news may be out shortly.

Jaclyn Tayabji, a graduate student in BU’s School of Law, created the student petition. She wrote in an email she was prompted by her own reflections about returning to campus in the Fall. 

“Personally, I am still nervous about the idea of returning to campus,” Tayabji wrote. “I can imagine faculty and staff, who may be more susceptible to COVID-19 or may have family members who are more vulnerable, are feeling the same way.”

For Tayabji, the faculty is one of the biggest reasons why her experience at BU has been “wonderful,” so the inability of this plan to accommodate them raises concerns for her.

While she has struggled to circulate the petition due to lack of communication between different student groups and it being summer, Tayabji wrote students have shown support in their reactions.

“The most common response I’ve heard is that students hadn’t yet thought about this issue,” Tayabji wrote, “and many other students had assumed the hybrid model would also apply to faculty.”

Tayabji wrote that while she understands students do have concerns about how faculty choice could affect their own course experiences, she still believes they should have a choice to not teach in-person. 

She wrote she hopes these petitions are “only the start of the conversation” as students and educators alike continue to adjust to an unprecedented academic year.

“There are a lot of considerations at play, and many intelligent, committed, and much more experienced university leaders are involved in these conversations,” Tayabji wrote. “The university’s messaging regarding this policy and the choices available to its faculty will say a lot about the value it places on all community members.”

At the time Tayabji’s petition was sent to administration, it had 139 signatures from current students and 31 from alumni.

Mary Battenfeld, a professor in BU’s American and New England Studies Program, was among the faculty members who signed the petition, having also reached out to Powell and Star initially after their open letter.

Battenfeld wrote in an email she hopes the administration “does the right thing.” She signed the petition, she wrote, because it is a channel for faculty — who she says have been shut out of recent decisions — to raise their collective voices.

The question I have is: “What would be a safe, ethical, and equitable plan for faculty in the Fall semester?” Battenfeld wrote. “The response to that is clear. Faculty should make the decision about how we will teach.”

Hui Shi, a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the petitions bring up reasonable points given the current pandemic. 

“It’s important to also consider professors because they’re also people too,” Shi said. “Since they do so much in our community, it’s important that they also stay safe.”

While Shi herself has not signed either petition yet, she said she hopes the University will take these concerns into consideration when determining how to proceed. 

“If teachers choose to go online, it would obviously be different from regular teaching,” Shi said. “But, it’s important for them to also take care of themselves in this time.” 

Shi added that if her instructors do choose to teach online, it will impact her decision on whether she will return to campus in the Fall.

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