Boston University faculty wary of return to classroom

Petition launched asking for option to conduct courses online

WHILE COLLEGES AND universities are rolling out plans to welcome students back to campus this fall, some Boston University faculty members are giving their institution a failing grade, saying they’re concerned about the safety of in-person teaching and want the option to conduct their courses online. 

A petition launched Wednesday afternoon by two BU professors had more than 600 supporters by late Thursday evening. A separate online petition launched by BU students had backing from 123 students and 31 alumni. 

“Out of respect for the autonomy and wellbeing of our teaching community and their families, no Boston University teacher will be required or otherwise compelled to teach in person, and all Boston University teachers will be afforded the choice to teach entirely online,” reads the petition launched by Russell Powell and Daniel Star, professors in the university’s philosophy department. 

“We just want that discretion,” Powell said about the option to have courses only online. “We all want to come in and lecture and talk to students face to face, but at the cost of lives? Of course not.”  

The coronavirus outbreak prompted campuses across the country to shut down in March and conduct the remainder of spring semester classes online. Colleges and universities are now making plans for a return to campus learning, but it comes amid tremendous uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic and what could happen as more people venture out from months of isolation at home. 

Boston University announced on June 1 that undergraduate students will have the option this fall of attending classes in-person or online. The plan, which the university dubbed “Learn from Anywhere,” “lets students decide how to take classes, based on their needs and their comfort level,” said BU president Robert Brown in an university news article. “BU students now have the option to either be in the classroom in person or to participate remotely from their dorm room or off-campus home, and they can exercise that remote option at any time during the semester,” meaning students could shift between online and in-class modes.

Powell and other faculty say they want the same option to hold classes entirely online if they feel more comfortable doing so. 

“We’re not in a place where a few weeks or months from now we’re even remotely going to be in a place where we could do this safely,” Powell said about in-person classes on campus. 

“I just want choice,” said Merry White, a professor of anthropology who has taught at BU since 1987. White said she would conduct the two courses she’s scheduled to teach this fall online, if she had the option.

Although the university announced plans to have in-person courses, BU officials insist no decision has yet been made on what will be required of faculty. 

“All of the administration’s planning and discussions regarding the fall semester are being made with sensitivity and consideration for the health and well-being of our faculty,” said BU spokesman Colin Riley in a statement. “It’s important to note that the University has not yet made any final decisions about faculty returning to the classroom, and there is no requirement in place for all faculty to teach in-person this fall.”

Powell said the statement was “at best misleading” because BU announced plans for on-campus classes but gave faculty no guidelines on how an instructor could get a waiver from in-person teaching. He said older faculty in particular “are terrified” of the prospect of being required to return to classrooms. 

The university sent faculty a questionnaire on June 2 seeking feedback on possible fall plans and Riley said the results are currently being reviewed. “In addition to the survey, we are in conversations and consultation with faculty representatives,” he said. “Additionally, we must continue to be aware of our students’ needs, including their desire to return to a residential educational experience this fall.”

Powell said the university did not even wait until the June 8 deadline for faculty to respond to the survey before making clear what will be expected in the fall.

“In-person classes are the default expectation as we seek to repopulate our residential campus. Any course that does not have a significant in-person component incrementally erodes the residential character of the BU experience,” said a June 7 memo from university provost Jean Morrison to deans and department chairs. 

Universities are grappling with both the public health issues of the pandemic and the complex logistical challenges they face, including the potential for huge financial setbacks without a return to on-campus instruction and room and board charges for residence halls. 

BU has said it will establish social distancing protocols for classrooms and student residence halls, and the university is in the process of developing a campus-based COVID-19 testing facility to screen students, faculty, and staff suspected of having coronavirus. The university said it will also pursue contact tracing in the case of confirmed cases and establish separate housing for confirmed or suspected cases among students. 

Powell coauthored an article last month for the website Inside Higher Ed that was sharply critical of plans to reopen US campuses this fall. He and coauthor Irina Mikhalevich, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, said plans for testing and contact tracing were not practical and won’t protect against spread of coronavirus unless everyone arriving on campus is tested regularly.  

“Universities with large student populations and capacious class enrollments are essentially cruise ships on steroids, as far as an acute respiratory pathogen like the new coronavirus is concerned,” they wrote. “Many universities are not facing the biological and moral reality of this once-in-a-century pandemic.”

A number of Boston area colleges and universities have said they plan to reopen in the fall with a mix of online and in-person classes. Harvard, however, announced this week that most instruction this fall would be online.