COVID-19 Roundup: Virtual Falls and Faculty Pink Slips

More colleges that planned to host students on campus shift to virtual-only modes. Canisius and Carthage Colleges plan layoffs, citing budget pressures worsened by the pandemic.

July 21, 2020
 

A growing number of colleges of various types from across the country say worsening public health conditions are forcing them to teach their fall terms entirely remotely.

Three private, historically Black colleges in Atlanta announced Monday they are planning for an all-virtual fall as coronavirus cases rise in Georgia and across the U.S.

Clark Atlanta College had originally planned to bring freshmen and sophomores to campus -- it made an announcement to that effect June 30 -- but the college said Monday that circumstances had changed for the worse, necessitating a remote semester for all students.

“Since my last public announcement, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased exponentially," George T. French Jr., Clark's president, wrote in a message to students. "Thirty-six states have seen the infection rates continuously rise and are now being classified as 'high-risk' states. Thirty-three out of the 36 'high-risk' states are those where approximately 97 percent of Clark Atlanta University’s students reside."

Similarly, in a message announcing Morehouse College's plans to teach remotely and keep campus housing closed, Morehouse president David A. Thomas cited rising case counts in Georgia's Fulton County, where Morehouse is located, as well as in states where the college draws students from. “As much as I was looking forward to having new debates with students on Brown Street, the drastic spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide is concerning. It necessitates that we consider changing course to protect the health and safety of the Morehouse community,” Thomas wrote.

Spelman College had previously announced plans to bring first-year students to campus but said Monday it would instead conduct the fall semester for all students online.

“You may ask why?” Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell wrote in a message to students. “Why did Spelman change its decision less than three weeks after making the announcement? It was just 19 days ago, on July 1, when we published our plan, fully anticipating that, as summer progressed, the virus would subside. Quite the opposite has been the case. An honest appraisal of the evolving facts compelled us to change course.”

Spelman will offer a 10 percent discount on tuition on virtual courses, and a 40 percent average discount on mandatory fees. It is also offering a $1,000 housing scholarship for students who are unable to get out of a lease agreement in metro Atlanta or who are charged a penalty for breaking their lease.

Clark Atlanta also said it would offer a 10 percent tuition discount and reduce mandatory fees.


Elsewhere in the country, other colleges are changing their fall plans.

Grinnell College, a liberal arts colleges in Iowa, announced on Monday it would no longer invite freshmen and transfer students to start on campus for the first 7.5-week fall term.

"Iowa and the country were in a much different place when we first began rolling out our plans for the fall and when we invited many of you to campus only a month ago," Anne F. Harris, Grinnell's president, wrote in a message to students and families.

"Current trends in infection rates across the country, especially here in Iowa, which now has the second highest infection rate per capita in the Midwest, are deeply concerning," she wrote. "In addition, the number of cases in individuals between 18 and 40 years old is growing. Unless this trajectory changes, it is clear that the healthcare infrastructure available along the I-80 corridor in Iowa … will be severely stressed to accommodate the rising tide of infections, and the illness and hospitalizations that follow."


Miami Dade College, a community college serving a city that has been described by one expert in the last week as an emerging "epicenter" of the pandemic, announced plans to start the fall semester mostly remotely.

The college said it has expanded online course offerings to accommodate students who are uncomfortable coming to the campus. And just as it has during the summer session, Miami Dade said it will continue to offer certain courses that are difficult to teach remotely in a face-to-face format -- including courses in aviation, culinary arts, fashion and health science.

The remainder of courses will be offered in a blended format, with instruction to begin remotely Sept. 1 through Sept. 27, with a possible limited resumption of in-person classes after that, "if conditions allow it" and with social distancing guidelines in place.


The University of California, Berkeley, also is planning on starting the fall semester online, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Berkeley Chancellor Carol A. Christ announced the plans at a Chronicle virtual event. The university had planned on offering some face-to-face classes.

Among other challenges associated with bringing students and faculty back to campus, Berkeley announced 47 COVID cases earlier this month, most of which were connected to fraternity parties. “The fraternity outbreak gave us a glimpse of how congregate living could really seed infections,” Christ said.


Meanwhile, two small private colleges have announced planned layoffs, each citing pre-existing financial challenges that were made worse by the pandemic.

Canisius College, a Jesuit college in New York State, is eliminating 96 positions, including 25 faculty positions, most of them tenured. The 71 staff members losing their jobs include full- and part-time administrative staff members and facilities and maintenance staff. 

John J. Hurley, Canisius’s president, in an interview said the college is eliminating major programs in classics, entrepreneurship, European studies, fine arts, human services, international business, physics, religious studies and urban studies. In addition to the programs slated for elimination, the college is cutting faculty positions in chemistry, English, history, management and philosophy.

Hurley said a projected budget deficit of up to $10 million doubled to $20 million after the start of the pandemic. "We don’t have the reserves to simply hope for a better day," Hurley said. "We need to address the situation promptly because we’re a tuition-driven school."

Hurley said the board charged the college with making $12.3 million in cuts. He said all programs slated for elimination produce 10 or fewer degrees per year.

“This was a question unfortunately of having to make strategic decisions about what we could continue to do and what we would continue to be for our students,” he said. “You try to walk a fine line between maintaining a long-held commitment as a Jesuit college to our liberal arts core curriculum and then programs that have demonstrated market strength and, to be honest, have better track records in terms of creating a more direct path between what happens in the classroom and what a graduate does in his or her professional life.”

Opposition to the layoffs has been swift. As of late Monday afternoon, more than 3,700 people had signed a Change.org petition opposing the layoffs, and a Facebook group, “Canisius College Alumni & Allies Against Faculty and Staff Layoffs,” had more than 200 members.

The Change.org petition described the planned layoffs as “just the beginning of the end of liberal arts tradition at Canisius -- the very core of its existence. If these cuts are carried out, this will most likely mark the end of Canisius College itself, and certainly any integrity it once had.”

The Canisius chapter of the American Association of University Professors said in a news release the proposed cuts "would decimate Canisius’s identity as a Jesuit university rooted in the liberal arts that encourages students to think deeply and critically about the problems of our world."

The AAUP also argued the college is not following proper procedures for laying off both untenured and tenured faculty, charges Hurley disputes.

Tanya Loughead, a philosophy professor and president of the Canisius AAUP chapter, said she is hopeful testimonies from students and alumni concerned about the future of Canisius will convince the college's board to reconsider the cuts.

“No paperwork been signed yet by faculty,” she said. “We’re hoping over the next few weeks the trustees begin to realize the mistakes they’ve made and to have a real conversation with all the constituents -- faculty, students, alumni, administration, trustees -- to begin to brainstorm the best way forward for Canisius.”

Separately, Carthage College, in Wisconsin, announced plans last week to reduce its full-time faculty by 10 to 20 percent as part of a reorganization plan that will lead to 10 stand-alone departments being eliminated and incorporated into a new departmental structure.

Affected departments at Carthage are biology, classics, English, modern languages, music, philosophy and great ideas, physics and astronomy, political science, religion, and sociology and criminal justice. The college said major and minor programs in these areas would continue, "with the possible exception" of majors offered by the classics and philosophy departments.

In justifying the proposed changes, Carthage cited a changing higher education landscape nationally and flat enrollment.

"Colleges nationwide are facing rising costs, decreasing revenue, and, demographically, a smaller pool of applicants through at least 2026," the college said in an FAQ on its website. "COVID-19 has certainly accelerated our need for a long-term solution, but these circumstances are not solely related to the pandemic."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that between 15 and 30 Carthage faculty members, including some tenured faculty, face layoffs. Bradley Morelli, a senior at Carthage, organized a protest on Sunday calling for the layoffs to be halted and for the inclusion of student representatives in future discussions.

Images of a protest on Sunday opposing the planned layoffs were captured by the Kenosha News.

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