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Hundreds Of Penn State Faculty, Staff Sign Open Letter Criticizing University’s Fall Semester Planning

More than 1,200 Penn State faculty, staff, and graduate students have signed an open letter expressing concern over the university’s plans to return to campus this fall and encouraging administration to reconsider some decisions.

The letter, penned before plans were formalized, specifically cited President Eric Barron’s failure to address their concerns when drawing up the university’s plans for the fall semester. It listed Barron, Provost Nick Jones, and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Kathy Bieschke as recipients. The letter was later followed by a press release echoing the sentiment after the university’s announcement.

“Ignoring faculty concerns, President Barron announced Penn State’s reopening plan on Sunday evening, June 14. Nowhere in his statement was there any language about the faculty’s right to decide how to teach their fall classes,” faculty members wrote in a subsequent release. “He also offered no assurances about job security and benefits for all staff and contingent faculty — one of the key demands of the faculty’s open letter and a concern for many due to earlier communications from the university alluding to the possibility of additional furloughs and layoffs. Nor was there any mention of guarantees of extended funding for graduate students whose progress has been impacted by the pandemic.”

According to Penn State’s preliminary plans, classes of more than 250 students will be delivered remotely this fall. Smaller courses will be left to individual campuses, but the language surrounding the policy remains vague and unspecific.

Faculty also cited Penn State’s 16 task forces as a cause for concern. The groups, tasked with drawing up plans for the fall, were appointed by administration. Of their approximate 250 members, “fewer than 20” are faculty members, most of whom also hold administrative titles.

The faculty members asked the university to commit to several policies, including the following:

  • Implementing a “rigorous system” of coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and isolation for students, faculty, and staff
  • Outlining clear procedures for addressing violations of social distancing, wearing masks, and other safety protocols
  • Giving faculty the right to prevent non-compliant students from attending in-person classes to protect themselves and their students
  • Providing faculty the autonomy to decide how to teach classes, attend meetings, and hold office hours either in-person, remotely, or through a hybrid model

Faculty members’ remarks regarding non-compliant students weren’t addressed in Penn State’s preliminary plans Sunday evening. Instead, the university said it’ll simply encourage students to follow guidelines and sign a pledge committing to doing so without outlining any binding policies.

Citing Penn State’s “significant liquid assets,” faculty members also recommended the following policies:

  • Extending fixed-term faculty contracts through the 2020-2021 academic year at a salary equal to or exceeding faculty members’ 2019-2020 contracts
  • Maintaining full employment, pay, raises, and benefits for all faculty and staff
  • Maintain or raised all pre-pandemic levels of funding for graduate employees and guarantee a yearlong extension of funding to current grad students whose “progress has been impacted”
  • Implement hiring initiatives to ensure its workforce remains strong and diverse while advancing current faculty, especially underrepresented groups
  • Commit to using financial resources to “ensure the maintenance of programs and positions” across Penn State’s campuses

Faculty members noted they are stakeholders at Penn State and deserve a proverbial seat at the table.

“Transparency, consultation, shared governance, and the active involvement of faculty, staff, and other employees in decision-making processes is imperative at all times, but even more so during times of uncertainty and crisis,” they wrote.

Finally, the writers asked Penn State to ensure faculty play a “central role” in making decisions moving forward, going beyond a few individuals on task forces, town hall meetings, and online surveys. They also implored Penn State to create a “clear and effective system of liaisons” to quickly and efficiently share plans for the fall and financial information.

“Despite the challenges, we look forward to collaborating and contributing our collective knowledge to this endeavor so that rather than simply weathering the crisis, Penn State will emerge as a more equitable and spirited place of learning for all,” they wrote.

Although the open letter was written and signed before Penn State formally announced plans for the fall, faculty members issued another statement Monday echoing the same sentiment and noting Barron’s words didn’t soothe their worries.

“President Barron’s statement doesn’t address any of the concerns we expressed in our open letter,” associate professor Sarah Townsend wrote. “It offers no guarantee that faculty will be able to take the measures needed to protect the safety of themselves, their students, staff, and the broader community. Right now many people are worried about whether they’ll have a job in the fall, and yet his statement says nothing about job security for non-tenure track faculty and staff, and the critical need for funding our graduate students.”

Back in April, Penn State announced it would reduce the salaries of employees unable to perform their job during the coronavirus pandemic by 50% from May 4 to June 30. Since then, it hasn’t relayed any additional information regarding employees’ pay.

Other faculty members believe that by having their concerns ignored, their is being put at risk.

“Faculty feel that their concerns about personal and public health are being ignored or downplayed by administrators and that they are being subjected to a dangerous, potentially deadly experiment — without their informed consent,” professor Esther Prins wrote.

At the time of writing, Penn State hasn’t responded to the faculty’s open letter. Additionally, the university didn’t directly respond to Onward State’s request for comment.

Faculty, staff, and graduate students are encouraged to sign their names to the open letter using this Google Form. Additionally, Penn State will address students’ and faculty members’ concerns in two town halls on Monday, June 22.

We’ll update this post with more information as it becomes available.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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