The ‘Right Not to Work’

Faculty members concerned about health and safety want a say in the conditions under which they'll be working if they are expected to teach in person next fall.

May 4, 2020
 
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As colleges and universities agonize over whether students will return in the fall, either to campus or online, they’re making a big assumption: that faculty members will show up to teach.

The expectation isn’t ill founded. Faculty jobs, especially the good ones, were hard to come by even before hundreds of institutions announced pandemic-related hiring freezes. No one wants to be out of a job right now. But no one wants to get sick, either.

Teaching online for another semester is so far outside many professors’ original job descriptions that it is nearly as unpalatable, to some, as being shut in a room with students. Even so, many professors say they'd prefer a remote term, or even a delayed academic year, to teaching face-to-face again too soon.

“So far, no one has really talked about protecting the faculty,” said Alan Czyzewski, a professor of accounting at Indiana State University who is over 60 and statistically at a greater risk of falling ill with COVID-19 than many of his students and some of his colleagues. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t be doing everything we can for students, but the faculty are equally important. If we get sick, or three to four of us get sick all at the same time, who’s going to be teaching class?”

Czyzewski said working from home for the next eight months is hardly ideal. But an all-online semester remains his preference for fall, absent the mass deployment of a vaccine.

In any case, no one's come knocking for Czyzewski's opinion.

"I'm feeling left out," he said.

Indiana State said last week that it's planning on a phased reopening with face-to-face instruction in the fall to the extent possible. It's promised that the process will be collaborative. In the coming weeks, it and every other college and university must make a chain of related decisions about fall instruction. In so doing, they must reckon with the magnitude of what they’re asking faculty members to do.

Christopher J. Lee, associate professor of history and Africana studies at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, recently wrote a piece for Boston Review called “Higher Education in the Age of Coronavirus: The Right Not to Work.”

By that, Lee wrote, “I do not mean not working at all, but the right not to work under certain conditions.”

For example, he said, “given that a number of schools are seeking to re-open before a vaccine is available, one prospect is to give faculty members the choice of whether to continue teaching online or not. This proposal could benefit at-risk colleagues, while allowing the option of in-class teaching if a faculty member prefers it.”

Lee’s other ideas to limit faculty members’ potential exposure to the virus: shifting larger teaching loads to spring or later semesters, or having classes meet once a week for longer periods, or a combination of these approaches.

The right not to work under certain conditions draws upon existing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines that require reasonable workplace accommodation for reasons of disability or genetic information, Lee says. Given limited testing capabilities and the many epidemiological unknowns of COVID-19, “faculty members would generally fall within this latter category, even without preexisting conditions, until a vaccine is available."

Like many faculty members, Lee is critical of announcements from presidents pushing for an on-campus fall semester. He says, for example, that Brown University president Christina Paxson’s recent New York Times op-ed on colleges reopening invokes, among other arguments, the “basic business model” that tuition equals survival.

Noting Brown’s $4.2 billion endowment, Lee argues that short-term fiscal goals “should not outweigh the long-term lives of students, staff and faculty.”

While an “eventual return to routine is essential,” for obvious reasons, Lee says, health and safety issues “should not be neglected. They should instead form an integral part of the stated commitments of colleges and universities to the safety and well-being of the students, staff and faculty they serve.”

Paxson’s op-ed does address specific measures institutions might take to protect students and employees, including holding large lecture courses remotely and an ambitious coronavirus testing regime. Those ideas are tentative and complex on their own, with implications for privacy rights, for instance. Meanwhile, scientists who have devoted their lives to studying viruses are still finding out new things about COVID-19 and how it spreads every day, meaning that there is currently no proven, foolproof way to open up campuses and ensure that no one gets infected. 

"Is social distancing possible in existing classrooms? Will communal areas, like libraries, remain closed? Will these spaces be regularly disinfected?," Lee wrote. "Another set of questions concerns what will happen if cases are detected. If a student, professor, or staff member becomes ill, is a campus to be shut down again? Do students and faculty remain, in order to prevent the spread of the virus? Or will they be allowed to disperse, but with great disruption for teaching and at great cost to them and their families?" 

More tragic to imagine is "what happens if a faculty member, staff or student dies. Is a college or university liable? Is that institution responsible for not taking appropriate measures to work against the spread of infection? All of the questions, and many others, must be answered clearly and unambiguously."

In an interview, Lee said that it is still unclear how campuses will reopen in the fall given existing classrooms, dorm accommodations and more. "Paxson's op-ed sends a contradictory message by saying campuses must reopen but without supplying enough detail about how this will happen from a logistical standpoint.”

While faculty members are not at the front lines of the effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus itself, Lee said, they are on the front lines of academe, and the potential costs to health and safety they face come fall “not being discussed enough.”

"Overall, I think more faculty opinions should be gathered,” he said. “Decision making should involve more faculty voices across ranks.”

Underscoring some of the points he made in his essay, Lee said there are "intermediate solutions between completely reopening and postponing for a semester.” Such options, he said, can help reduce the level of exposure for at-risk faculty members.

Purdue University president Mitch Daniels recently wrote a memo to his campus saying that a college campus is arguably one of the most difficult places to reopen. But in other respects, he said, “a place like Purdue may be in better position to resume its mission.” For one, at least 80 percent of the population is under about 35, and “all data to date tell us that the COVID-19 virus, while it transmits rapidly in this age group, poses close to zero lethal threat to them.”

Daniels’s letter mentioned a number of ways Purdue might seek to protect its population over 35 and those especially vulnerable to the virus due to underlying medical issues. But his comments were still criticized as hurtful and oblivious to the needs of the overwhelming majority of faculty members over 35.

Alice Pawley, associate professor of engineering education at Purdue and incoming chair of the campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said it’s not possible to practice social distancing in the classrooms where she teaches her undergraduate engineering courses. It’s also impossible to, say, halve the number of students in the room because the program's teaching hours are already so onerous.

"We would be teaching on weekends, in evenings," she said, "and how will I do that with my kids at home?"

Beyond logistics, Pawley said she’s uncomfortable with the idea of any face-to-face teaching in the fall, given that she and her small family are still figuring out how to safely shop for groceries and what to do if both she and her partner get sick.

“I don’t want to think about face-to-face teaching the hordes of students I usually teach until there is a vaccine,” she said, guessing that students have similar health concerns.

"Why would I want to add the pressure of required face-to-face interactions to what is already a stressful learning environment?”

Purdue has developed an ad hoc fall planning committee that includes faculty members. Yet, like so many other professors at Purdue and elsewhere, Pawley doesn’t feel the plan so far reflects her concerns.

“I wish instead they had said, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do in the fall,’” Pawley said of Purdue’s announcement. “But here are the principles we’re going to operate under to figure them out, and we’re going to figure them out together, as a community.’”

T. J. Boisseau, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Purdue and outgoing president of its AAUP chapter, said it doesn’t “seem prudent to promise or predict what will be the best course of action three months from now.”

At the moment, she and colleagues want to focus on every student who enrolls in the fall getting a strong, accessible education online and faculty members getting the summer support they need to provide it.

Faculty want to teach, Boisseau said, “but they also want to know they can teach well and teach safely. We should all be laser focused on planning to do whatever it takes to achieve those twinned goals.”

Purdue had no immediate comment on faculty concerns. Bill Bell, vice president for human resources, said in a recent update that Purdue still "intends to welcome our campus community back for fall semester, albeit with major changes in place to operate with the utmost attention to health and safety for all faculty, staff and students. Guidelines on a safe return to campus work and activity will continue to be developed and will be announced as decisions are made, including direction on the use of personal protective equipment and access to that equipment."

The AAUP’s national legal office said it’s gotten a few inquiries on professors’ rights vis-à-vis teaching in the fall. The "AAUP Principles and Standards for the COVID-19 Crisis" addresses faculty involvement in decisions about those things that are the primary responsibility of the faculty, including teaching.

“We take the position that these principles apply just as much in exigent circumstances, such as those presented by the pandemic,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer at the association.

Letitia Silas, a labor attorney with Fisher and Phillips and former counsel at Howard University in Washington, said institutions must make their decisions about the fall on a case-by-case basis, taking faculty concerns -- including those about accommodations for disabilities and equal employment law -- into account. Engaging the campus counsel is a must.

On the faculty, Silas said that issues such as safety, workload and evaluation that are in flux due to the coronavirus might also be negotiated with faculty unions where applicable. Many faculty members worry that social distancing means they'll be expected to teach more course sections in the fall without additional compensation, for example.

“We are still learning and adapting, and we will get better and better as we go along, but there are things we can put in place to prepare in advance,” Silas said. “You can’t predict every conceivable scenario, but you can talk common scenarios and common experiences and formulate a plan.”

Then, she said, move forward -- tweaking the plan as you go.

“Be as transparent as you can be, given that there are a lot of unknowns and the future for a lot of us right now is opaque.”

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