'Limit the damage' from campus classes, nearly 300 Michigan professors urge Whitmer

August 25, 2020, 6:11 PM by  Alan Stamm

Dire Covid-spread warnings are in an open letter from public university educators to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"Moving forward with a plan that includes unnecessary face-to-face teaching will make people sick, cause lasting damage in many and will certainly kill some. All of this is avoidable, but our universities are doing everything they can to proceed as planned" this semester, says the appeal with over 290 digital signatures as of late Wednesday afternoon.

Central Michigan University student last week, when the fall semester began. (Photo: CMU)

"Please use your authority to limit the damage that is barreling toward Michigan," concludes the letter, urging that the governor require online-only formats for all public college and university campus classes that can be taught remotely. "We are also requesting that you set requirements for levels of testing, data reporting, contact tracing and quarantining," it says.

Michigan has 15 public campuses. The letter is endorsed mainly by faculty members from Eastern, Western, Central, Grand Valley State, Ferris State and northern Michigan universities.

The only University of Michigan signer so far is Dauda Abubakar, chair of Africana Studies at the Flint campus. MSU, which has cancelled most in-personal instruction, is represented solely by Jodi Petersen, an assistant professor of psychology. No names are linked to Wayne State or Oakland University. (The assistant chair of mathematics at the University of Detroit-Mercy joins the appeal, though Whitmer can't regulate that private school. Ditto for Lawrence Tech in Southfield, represented by a senior lecturer.)

Whitmer this week acknowledged the risks of reopening campuses. "I'm concerned," she said Monday in Detroit, MLive reports. "There's no question that anytime we’re congregating, it is inherently riskier behavior. We also know that that age range is where we’re seeing a lot of our growth,” Whitmer said.

Here's more of what the faculty coalition endorses:

While we appreciate the work our universities have done to facilitate a "return to the classroom," the current situation around us, both in Michigan and in the rest of the country, demonstrates that classroom learning remains fraught with risk for students, as well as university staff and faculty. We are asking you to step in, either to move most university classes online (except those whose pedagogies absolutely will not work online) or to offer clear regulations about how in-person standards must be maintained and what situations must trigger a return to primarily online learning. ...

It is clear from many schools around the country that bringing large groups of people to live together, socialize together and study together remains something that cannot be done safely. While we absolutely understand [that] universities, by their very nature, serve as excellent breeding grounds for Covid-19, universities' desire to bring students a near-normal experience, the example of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demonstrates very clearly that universities, by their very nature, serve as excellent breeding grounds for Covid-19.

We faculty have expertise in many areas and agree that UNC’s terrible experiment is something likely to be repeated here in Michigan unless you step in.

Certain disciplines and classes are almost impossible to teach unless faculty and students are in the same room, such as some labs, some classes in health sciences, and certain types of performance, like dance. The vast majority of classes, however, can be taught perfectly well online.

We find that rather than limiting in-person classes to those that need to be in-person, however, our universities are relying on a perceived student preference for face-to-face instruction to decide what and how many courses are offered in-person. In these dangerous times, if a class can be taught well online, that should be the mode of instruction, regardless of student preference.

After all, we don’t ask students in chemistry labs whether they'd prefer to wear goggles or not, and we don't let student athletes opt out of safety equipment if they prefer not to use or wear it. Students rely on university and government authority to set and maintain rules of safety, and we must do so here to protect students, and our larger community, from harm.

There is, without a doubt, a serious financial impact to moving the majority of university courses fully online and limiting the numbers of students, staff and faculty who will be on campus. We ask you to help mitigate this cost.

Our administrations are caught between trying to keep university communities safe, on one hand, and trying to keep university staff and faculty employed, on the other. This has led to decisions, like that made by the University of North Carolina, where lives were put at avoidable risk for financial reasons.

Financial worries mean that faculty feel pressured to teach face-to-face ... and this pressure is especially hard-hitting for less secure faculty, including those who work as visitors or adjuncts and those from vulnerable populations. You, as Governor, could step in to help by offering financial incentives for those universities who choose to put safety first or by publicizing the kinds of low-interest loans that are available to help our institutions of higher learning stay solvent during these extremely challenging times.

While the Covid-19 situation has been improving in some parts of Michigan, we have reached the point where what state universities do in the next few weeks will dramatically impact whether things continue to improve or whether the gains made will be quickly and irretrievably lost. Governor Whitmer, you have the power to step in and protect students, staff, faculty, and our communities around the state.

We faculty are not motivated by fear for ourselves; we are motivated by what we see around the country in other schools, first-hand knowledge that university students don't always make decisions based on what is safest [and] an understanding that the Covid-19 spreads easily among people meeting in groups (especially indoors).

Leave a Comment:

Photo Of The Day