CitrusTV Special Report: As Syracuse University Preps for Fall 2020, Mixed Messaging From Admin Unsettles Faculty
Video/Story by: Ricky Sayer, Katie Goralski
By Rob Flaks & Ricky Sayer, SYRACUSE, N.Y. – As Syracuse University approaches the on-campus fall semester, faculty find themselves tasked with envisioning instruction in the age of COVID-19, evaluating their personal safety and relying on students to practice safe habits — all while receiving mixed messages from administration.
Discussions with more than fifteen faculty members revealed how the university’s messaging led to confusion about whether faculty would be guaranteed the option to teach from home.
Non-tenured faculty said they felt pressured to teach in person, or risk their future at the university.
In a June 9 email to the deans of each school, administrators outlined the instruction plan: “The general expectation is that most faculty members will provide in-person classroom instruction. A faculty member may request to teach exclusively online for fall 2020 if they or someone with whom they cohabitate has conditions that put them at greater risk for illness due to exposure to COVID-19.”
The email left some faculty worried their requests, which had a June 17 deadline, could be denied.
“It was merely a request; it wasn’t even saying it would be granted. It was merely a request,” Newhouse Professor Greg Heisler said.
The initial communication was met with concern from faculty, according to Crystal Bartolovich, president of the Syracuse Chapter of The American Association of University Professors. The organization works to represent faculty interests. Her organization believes the final decision on whether to teach from home or in person should come from the individual faculty members.
“Admin clearly considers the ideal situation to be some ‘in person’ component, so it is unclear what will happen if ‘too many’ faculty opt not to teach [face to face],” Bartolovich said.
Individual colleges have some discretion to interpret the university-wide teach-from-home policy, College of Engineering and Computer Science Dean J. Cole Smith said.
College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Michael Tick sent an email on June 10 to his faculty that said “all requests will be treated with respect and with the understanding that you have a compelling reason to make the request.”
The email also said that “Although we [VPA] hope to accommodate all requests, we can’t guarantee them without knowing what our portfolio of offerings will look like. To be clear, the University has a goal of having the vast majority of classes being offered with (at least some) in-person content.”
Leaders of the College of Arts and Sciences, in a June 15th meeting, said faculty could choose whether to return to campus, according to English Department Chair Coran Klaver, who attended the meeting.
The Newhouse School leadership communicated to its faculty a “flexible guideline” that members ages 65 and older, as well as those who met CDC criteria for high-risk individuals, could request to teach from home, according to Heisler.
Smith said the College of Engineering and Computer Science did not ask for any proof from faculty of heightened vulnerability if they requested to teach online-only.
“Almost all requests were approved,” Smith said in response to a question about if he had denied any requests to teach online.“When they were not: I simply had a discussion with the faculty member to see which classes they did not want to teach in person, and if we could salvage in-person instruction for some of their other classes.”
He also said his faculty was given the option to opt out past the June 17 deadline.
Provost John Liu later echoed the language of the June 9 email during a University Senate meeting.
“The general expectation is that we will provide the majority of our instruction now with an in-person component,” Liu said while speaking at the June 24 virtual Senate meeting.
“There’s absolutely no confusion, and we’re not going to force anybody to come to teach one way or the other. It’s your decision,” Liu added.
The University’s Frequently Asked Questions page says “the decision to teach in the fall is yours and yours alone,” if a faculty member or a member of their family has conditions putting them at greater risk due to exposure to COVID-19.
During the senate meeting, Professor Gail Hamner described the discrepancies within the VPA email as “mixed messaging” that left VPA faculty feeling uncertain of their ability to opt-out of teaching in person.
In a statement to CitrusTV, VPA Dean Micheal Tick maintained they left the choice to faculty.
“From the very beginning, VPA left the decision to teach in person, online, or hybrid to our faculty, who have worked tirelessly to plan for the fall semester and beyond,” he said.
It remains unclear if that faculty decision would require further approval before going forward.
According to Bartolovich, after faculty pushed back, the new administration language at the senate meeting was “considerably softened.”
Despite the shift in language, Bartolovich and others believe the pressure to work face-to-face persists.
“A lot of faculty are still sitting on the fence, since we were told that we could decide at any time we needed to shift online. For that reason, I — and many others — are still listed as teaching [face-to-face] – both because we truly would prefer it [and] because it is what is ‘expected’ by admin,” Bartolovich said.
Heisler said he was frustrated when central administrators asserted in a Newhouse webinar that professors could make their own decision to teach from home, while also explicitly stating they expected a majority of classes to be taught with in-person elements. He viewed the two commitments as being at odds.
“That is mixed messaging — that’s pretty unequivocal. And then later on, 45 minutes later, another statement was made which was, faculty are able to choose,” said Heisler.
Klaver also said the university’s expectation that courses include in-person components did influence faculty decisions.
“It does provide pressure, especially for those who are more vulnerable,” Klaver argued.
Those most vulnerable would be faculty without tenure, who work under short-term contracts and are not guaranteed future employment by the university.
“I think it will fall hard on people who are on tenure track, or frankly professors of practice or adjunct faculty,” Heisler said.
The threat of going against administration expectations for a mostly in-person experience would be enough to discourage these faculty members from requesting to work remotely, according to Klaver — even if it meant putting their health at risk.
“Even though the administration is saying there is no consequence, when your future depends on other people’s assessment of you and you are being asked by the powers that be to do this ‘if you feel comfortable, if you can find your way to feeling comfortable,’ you’re more likely to push those boundaries,” Klaver said.
Syracuse University did not directly respond to our questions about whether they intended to pressure or persuade any faculty to teach in person. They referred us back to an earlier statement from spokesperson Sarah Scalese, which said in part:
“Syracuse University will not ask our faculty to do anything that will jeopardize their well-being or the well-being of an at-risk family member. Nor will the University penalize our faculty in any way for making the decision that is best for them and their family. The general expectation is that we will provide the majority of our instruction with an in-person component, of course with the right public health and safety protocols in place.”
The university didn’t respond to questions on if they would implement any concrete policies to protect adjunct and part-time faculty who choose or request to work from home. Those policies could protect part-time faculty who are concerned their decision to teach online could impact their likelihood of being rehired for the next semester.
“We cannot put our faculty in a position where they’re choosing between their job and their health,” Smith said in an email to CitrusTV.
Faculty who felt their health would be at risk teaching in person repeatedly cited what at the time was a draft of the proposed student social contract. They expressed doubts students would abide by it.
The contract requires students to avoid large social gatherings and wear masks both on campus and while they are off campus and are unable to social distance.
Students are not required to sign the contract, but the university will require students to abide by it nonetheless.
“It’s wishful thinking,” Heisler said, adding, “All these systems are only as strong as their weakest link.”
Other Syracuse University students have already faced consequences for violating public health guidance and quarantine orders.
The Zeta Beta Tau fraternity was suspended on July 31 for “reckless and selfish behavior” that violated public health policies. Two graduating members of ZBT entered the house without permission on April 23 and hosted a gathering with 20 to 30 students, according to a statement from Zeta Beta Tau National.
An unknown number of students were put on interim suspension on August 6 for violating quarantine orders, according to Scalese. It’s unclear if the students live on or off campus.
“Students who violate these requirements will be met with appropriate sanctions,” said Scalese, in a statement to CitrusTV. “While we cannot comment on a specific case due to federal privacy laws, recently, the university has placed a group of students on interim suspension for knowingly violating quarantine orders.”
Heisler doesn’t believe punitive measures will discourage students from congregating, socializing and spreading the virus. He believes administrators “know better” and described their plans for Fall 2020 as “fingers crossed, wishful thinking, magical thinking, all this stuff that is just silly.”
“The clearest thing to me is that it hasn’t started from a position of ‘what’s the safest thing to do’” he said , adding he believes a fully online fall semester was never an option.
Heisler said he felt the approach was one of “we gotta open in the fall for sure, what’s kinda the safest way we can do that and still open?”
“It’s just backwards. I hate to say it but it is. The safety is second,” he said.
Faculty, or anyone else, wishing to share their viewpoint with CitrusTV can email Ricky Sayer at RSayer@CitrusTV.net or using the encrypted email address RickySayer@Protonmail.com.