Protecting students and faculty during a pandemic

The COVID-19 virus pandemic has upended higher education, as all educational institutions quickly scrambled to protect students by making all instruction virtual, and otherwise keeping social distancing, often by sending residential students home for the rest of the year. Now, as colleges and universities must plan for how the fall semester will look, we offer some suggestions for how they should proceed.

First, the emergency nature of the shutdown of face-to-face instruction, when administrations acted quickly (and unilaterally) to safeguard students’ health has passed (and hopefully will not return). Danger still lurks and must be addressed, but it can no longer be considered an emergency. The pandemic created a true emergency in which administrators had to act quickly, without the opportunity for full consultation with faculty. In the next phase, they must work with faculty to jointly craft flexible solutions to the challenges posed by the virus. As professionals, faculty work far better with administrations than they work for them.

Second, academic freedom remains a key element of higher education. A particular application of that freedom is that faculty have control over the curriculum, their courses, and methods of instruction; the faculty, through their shared governance bodies should accordingly participate in decisions on how to implement a return to on-campus instruction. To ensure full participation, administrations should be transparent, keep the faculty fully informed, and consult meaningfully with existing faculty governance bodies.

Third, if faculty members feel that teaching face-to-face is not safe for them or for their students, it is their decision—not the administration’s—whether or not to teach their courses online or on campus, regardless of an institution’s general stance on the matter. Faculty interact face-to-face with students, whereas administrators often do not. The key decisions need to be made by those on the front lines who are affected personally (i.e., the faculty).

We must work specifically to protect faculty safety as well as student safety. Despite some labeling to the contrary, faculty are essential to higher education (even if their physical presence is not deemed essential). Most college-age students are at low risk even if exposed to the virus, but the same cannot be said for many faculty. Given that there are alternative modes of delivery, there is no need for senselessly risking faculty (or student, or staff, or parent) lives. There are no acceptable losses here, despite the appeal to war metaphors. Our students signed up to be educated, and did not agree to risk death while doing so; the same goes for faculty and staff.

Fourth, intellectual property principles should be established—and agreed to by both faculty and administration—before additional materials are put online. There is an increasingly profit-driven tendency (termed “monetizing”) for university administrations to claim that faculty course materials are “work-for-hire”; they are not. Rather they are the special creation of highly-trained professionals, and should be safeguarded as such. Without protection of their intellectual property rights, it is in faculty interests not to share their materials (including syllabi) with students in course management systems—and student learning will suffer as a direct result.

A recent ICAAUP survey of faculty in Indiana finds that some administrations, most laudably, have worked with faculty to establish parameters for the shift to online, and how that would work, under faculty control. Other administrations have acted unilaterally, and some even appear to be using the crisis as an opportunity to enact other (pre-pandemic) priorities, such as cuts to programs, faculty, and staff. Given the fluid nature of this crisis, we dare continuing to collect data on what is (and is not) working. We will continue to monitor how administrations and faculty work to tackle these complex issues.

This crisis has stressed many systems, including those of higher education. Going forward, there is an opportunity for administrations and faculty to work together to tackle these issues, so that students can continue to receive high-quality education without having to significantly endanger their lives. We urge a rededication to such cooperation, as it best serves not just students and faculty, but also administrations (via greater legitimacy in the eyes of faculty) and the larger community.

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