Employees endorse remote fall for safety

By THE AAUP WORKING CONDITIONS SUBCOMMITTEE

The following statement was previously sent to President Laurie Patton and other members of the Senior Leadership Group on June 17, 2020. The piece has been lightly edited in accordance with The Campus’ style guidelines.

We the undersigned faculty and staff members wish to offer our perspectives on plans for the Fall 2020 semester and the possibility of bringing students back to campus. We know and appreciate that the administration has worked tirelessly to assess various situations and balance many factors, both known and unknown. However, we believe that bringing back a significant number of students to campus risks a devastating health crisis, and thus there is only one path forward that prioritizes the health of our community as well as the long-term financial status of the college.

We see four basic scenarios for how the fall might play out:

  1. In-person fall: We reopen campus for the majority of students and, having exercised widespread diligence and made broad investments in health and safety precautions, we are lucky enough to get to Thanksgiving without a significant outbreak.
  2. Mid-semester shutdown: We reopen campus for the majority of students, but despite our best efforts, there is an outbreak that causes us to shut down campus early, sending most students home, disrupting the semester and potentially infecting many students, employees and community members.
  3. Last minute abort: On June 22, we announce plans to reopen campus for the majority of students, but by the time that students would be due to arrive, conditions have changed locally, and/or outbreaks have emerged on other campuses that repopulated earlier than we do, resulting in our cancelling plans to bring students back at the last minute.
  4. Planned remote: We proactively plan to teach remotely, allowing only a small number of students on campus who would not otherwise be able to safely and effectively participate in remote learning if they were off campus.

We think scenario 4 of a remote semester is what we should plan for now. Obviously, everyone would love for scenario 1 of a non-disrupted in-person fall to work out. We cannot emphasize enough that this would be our preference in an ideal world. But in the world we are actually living in, we believe that a mid-semester shutdown or last minute abort scenario is likely if we plan to repopulate campus. The cost to the institution in money, pedagogy, reputation and (most importantly) health with either of these outcomes would be even more dire than those associated with a planned remote fall. We understand that substantial financial losses would occur as a result of a remote fall, but we believe these losses could be minimized. We have suggestions in that regard, based on the AAUP budget statements that have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the faculty at the June 12 faculty meeting. 

By aiming for an in-person fall, we believe the college would risk far more costly and dangerous situations. A mid-semester shutdown due to an outbreak would obviously be the worst, and seems quite likely, given how outbreaks have flared up over the past month throughout the U.S. Based on our understanding of the psychology of young adults and their attitudes toward risk, having 2,000 students, or even half that number, cohabitating and interacting with a large number of employees and community members is likely to produce an outbreak that could overwhelm a small-town hospital, resulting in severe illnesses and fatalities. This would result in damage to the College’s reputation and a backlash from the community, and it would waste the significant funds we would have to spend on preventative measures on campus. Most importantly, it would put the health of thousands of people at risk. A last-minute move to shift to remote would avoid the worst of this, but would waste a great deal of time and money, damaging the College financially and reputationally, and undermining the quality of teaching due to a last minute scramble. 

Even if we were fortunate enough for an in-person fall to occur without incident, the experience for students would be far from what they had signed up for, leading to a semester of widespread tension and anxiety, creating rifts between members of our community with different attitudes toward risk, and forcing students, faculty and staff to work in challenging teaching and living environments of questionable safety. What might it mean to try to teach and learn in an environment where everyone begins to regard their friends, students, teachers and colleagues with mutual suspicion? It would certainly be a subpar semester lacking in many of the educational and co-curricular activities that typically make Middlebury a vibrant place. We are convinced by the case made by the Biology Department at Macalester College, which assesses both the health risks and inequitable challenges to community and mental health that a trauma-suffused in-person experience would create.

On the other hand, given the higher-than-anticipated enrollments for the online Language Schools — roughly two-thirds of conventional enrollment — we think it likely that more students than anticipated would sign up for a remote semester that maximized safety and leveraged our pedagogical expertise in DLINQ to create a robust and vibrant, equitable remote experience. We believe that as it becomes clear that Covid-19 is not going away this summer, more and more campuses will follow the early lead of California State University and McGill (and most Canadian universities) for a non-residential experience, or Harvard and Stanford in committing to remote teaching, embracing online learning and avoiding unsafe campus conditions. By saving time and money on trying to make campus a Covid-19-safe teaching environment, we can focus on ensuring that a remote Fall 2020 is well-planned and designed to continue regardless of local health circumstances. We can also use the talents of our Communications Office to represent how valuable and effective this online semester will be. We believe that the College is fortunate to have a large enough endowment and can withstand the losses from room and board fees without triggering significant cuts to employee compensation.

None of us want to be teaching online, nor see our students far flung across the globe. But the virus doesn’t care what we want. Just as Middlebury has been a leader in adhering to the inconvenient truths of climate change, we must acknowledge the science behind the spread of Covid-19 if unchecked. We believe a planned remote semester is vital to the health of our students, employees and broader community. On December 1, we would rather look back at a successful remote semester in a healthy Middlebury and wonder if we could have brought students back, than regret a failed attempt to bring students back that caused avoidable damage to our community.

We recognize that based on the faculty vote on June 16, we are not in the majority among our colleagues. Assuming that the College does bring students back to campus, we will continue to collaborate in advocating for the strongest possible health and safety protocols, full transparency in communicating these plans to the community, and a clear emphasis on protecting the employees and community members who will suffer the most from a health crisis.

Sincerely,

AAUP Working Conditions Subcommittee:

Jeanne Albert, Center for Teaching, Learning & Research 

James Berg, English & American Literature

Lorraine Besser, Philosophy

Diane Burnham, American Studies

Laurie Essig, Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies

Jamie McCallum, Sociology

David Miranda Hardy, Film & Media Culture

Jason Mittell, Film & Media Culture

William Poulin-Deltour, French & Francophone Studies

The signatories are members of the Working Conditions Subcommittee of the Middlebury branch of the AAUP. 

Editor’s Note: Jason Mittell is The Campus’ faculty adviser.