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Faculty Senate Chair: ‘Retreat From Open Engagement’ Leaves Penn Staters In The Dark

Dear Penn State Community,

On August 13, the University Faculty Senate issued a vote of no confidence in the plans for the fall reopening of campuses. (Senate mtg agenda) Immediately after, there were replies from both President Eric J. Barron and Penn State Board of Trustees leadership and further coverage in the Penn State News. As the current Penn State Faculty Senate Chair (2021-2022), I feel a responsibility to respond to these recent events.

One only had to attend last week’s special Senate plenary meeting to understand the depth of concern and sadness Penn State faculty and students have felt in observing that, despite the evident increase of the COVID-19 variant across the state, university leadership seem determined to avoid proceeding along the science-informed path of mandated vaccination (with exceptions) and other requests for action, despite thousands of faculty, student or community voices pleading to do so. One notable exception was President Barron’s decision to require masking in all university buildings after consulting with Senate leadership and others.

At the Senate plenary, I referenced the history of the “shared governance” model of university administration. Its philosophical beginnings came out of the ‘60s with a questioning of ‘standards’ of hierarchical institutional authority. Penn State’s tradition of faculty governance started much earlier than that — one hundred years this October! It has grown and evolved to become a fine governance model. When effectively utilized, shared governance at Penn State has borne many opportunities for collaboration on a wide variety of special commissions, committees, and ongoing consultative groups — in short, shared governance has often worked well at Penn State!

Hallmarks of shared governance entail trusting those with whom you work to have good ideas different from your own; constructive criticism; and freedom to express ideas without censure — it is a healthy problem-solving process. An institution that believes in the resourcefulness and intelligence of its own faculty should find it easy to establish ongoing dialogue and tap into the depth and breadth of expertise at this university — and who, in turn, can be guided by the administrative outlook. When these cooperative conversations work, it’s rewarding for all engaged — and indeed, that has often been my longtime experience at Penn State.

And then COVID-19 hit in March 2020. New, confusing information emerged at a fast pace, medical and organizational expertise had to be sought, and decisions made quickly. How does a massive institution reorganize and plan in the face of chaos? We understand. It was chaotic; we all experienced it.

Unfortunately, instead of building community, what we’ve since seen is a retreat away from open faculty engagement. The Senate Chair and a few other senators attend summer meetings, but these are typically where decisions already made are simply reported out. This fall, we have been repeatedly informed vaccination is the best form of protection, but repeated requests for mandated vaccination remain on the shelf; faculty decision-making on how best to deliver classes for the safety of all has been removed. The option to request “work adjustments” carries application standards so strict as to exclude many in fear of bringing infection home to susceptible loved ones. Similarly, a scripted “Town Hall” — with no live audience and pre-determined questions and answers — lacks any actual engagement. These are a few examples of unilateral decision-making. The essential point is that these types of decisions might have better-withstood scrutiny had there been wider, more diverse constituent consultation. This is how a true community moves forward, cohesively, and thoughtfully, with people feeling at least some ownership, and thus equity, about decisions made.

Penn State faculty, staff, and students have always exhibited a deep and abiding affection for this institution. We want to feel confident that our university is leading the way, is at the forefront of science taking a confident stand to protect its communities. Many challenges have been tackled with resolve. But how many thousands of voices must be “heard” before our leadership takes heed that the plan is not now working, or at the least, needs to be better? WE ARE a caring and capable community. WE NEED to see a caring, responsive university leadership model during this crisis, and in all challenges to follow.

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About the Author

Bonj Szczygiel

Bonj Szczygiel is an associate professor of landscape architecture. She currently serves as chair of Penn State's Faculty Senate and holds positions on a number of its committees, including Curricular Affairs and Senate Council. She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Penn State.

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