On September 30, the faculty Senate voted to endorse and forward a letter outlining COVID policy recommendations to the Board of Regents and Board of Trustees. The letter was originally drafted by the Sewanee chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and sent to Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety on September 13.
Following a COVID outbreak at the beginning of the semester, when one round of campus-wide testing resulted in 55 positive cases, the University released a COVID policy update on September 4. The update cancelled a second round of planned testing and announced that COVID-positive students would be responsible for isolating themselves. The AAUP called a meeting on September 10 to allow faculty to discuss and compile their concerns, which resulted in a list of four policy recommendations. Professor of Chemistry Robert Bachman said that while “a normal AAUP meeting might be 15 to 20 people,” the September meeting was “the largest AAUP meeting ever in 20 years,” with attendance estimated at over 100 faculty members.
The recommendations included University-provided quarantine space for students, the ability to apply for flexibility in teaching modality, transparency in the University COVID response team, and greater test accessibility for symptomatic students.
Dr. Andrea Hatcher of the politics department said, “In one of my classes, the peak was a 50% absentee rate when students were testing positive, quarantining, or awaiting test results.” However, Hatcher was not allowed to temporarily move her class to remote instruction and that meant faculty “could not make the best decisions for our classes to prioritize student success.”
Bachman said that faculty were considering both their concerns and those that affect their students, such as the issue of quarantine space. “It’s not our job, but yet it’s so much a part of who we are in terms of our care for the students that we work with,” Bachman said.
The AAUP letter did not result in COVID policy changes. The vice-chancellor said, “Many of the things that the faculty have asked for not only were in place, but have always been in place.” For example, Brigety said that professors with a “documented mental or medical issue” could apply for teaching accommodations. However, Brigety said, “What we’re not going to do is to create a generalized hybrid model for faculty to decide on their own because they are concerned about what might happen, as opposed to what actually is happening, to go online.”
Brigety emphasized the high vaccination rate on campus, 94% of students and faculty, and the lack of cases resulting in hospitalization. “No one’s been hospitalized, not one person who has been vaccinated who’s part of this community,” he said. “That’s success.”
Hatcher said, “For the administration to make data-informed policies, it must collect data. Instead, when the data evidenced an outbreak on campus, the administration decided to stop data collection.” David Shipps (C’88), vice president of economic development and community relations and a member of the University’s COVID team. “We do not know for certain [how many breakthrough cases occurred] because those that tested positive were not asked whether or not they were previously vaccinated,” Shipps said.
Twelve members of the faculty Senate, a governmental body of full professors in the University, signed a letter calling for a special meeting of the Senate to vote on a motion to send the AAUP letter to the Board of Regents. In response, the administration announced another town hall to hear faculty concerns, but the group of senators decided to continue forward with a vote.
Hatcher said that she and other faculty members were prompted to call the senate meeting because they worried “that our concerns were not being adequately expressed by this administration to the Board, that the Board— even further removed from the realities of the classroom than the administration— were unaware of the consequences of this policy.”
Hatcher said, “Beyond acknowledging the receipt of the letter, the administration has not revised policy to grant these requests.” Bachman clarified, “These were specific requests, but the response back tended to be more of ‘Here are the answers to your questions.’”
“Town halls are platforms for grievance airing, which can be useful but also a fig leaf for actions,” Hatcher said. “Faculty (and students) have had opportunities to talk but there’s no evidence that our views have been heard.”
The office of the Vice-Chancellor said that, “The requests in that letter have been considered just as another input received from faculty, students, and student families is considered when making policies and protocols.” Brigety said that the faculty’s input was not rejected and that the Dean of the College and Provost “put out multiple emails” to communicate policy with faculty. However, some faculty members viewed the administrative response as a rejection of their requests. “That becomes, then, a question of communication, because a non-response can feel like a rejection,” Bachman said.
The Board of Regents reviewed the AAUP letter during their most recent meeting on October 8, and sent a letter to the faculty Senate dated October 14. “With the vaccination mandate and an understanding of the most recent relevant data, we are confident in the administration’s current approach to the pandemic,” the letter read. Jay Fisher (C’79), special assistant to the vice-chancellor and staff liaison to the Board of Regents, said, “There is no plan for a further response from the Regents.”
The debate over COVID policy has revealed wider questions about the concept of shared governance and distribution of power at the University. “The main, underlying, long-term question is what the idea of shared governance means from all sides,” Bachman said. “We need to understand it because what we were used to doesn’t seem to be quite the same.”