Thursday, August 12, 2021

The COVID Wars Continue at Penn State--A Tale of Two Senate Resolutions. . . and the Administration's Counternarrative



I have been following the sadly patched up disaster that has been the lurching progress toward what passes for policy at Penn State relating to the COVID pandemic (Pandemic and the University: "An Open Letter from Penn State faculty to the Penn State Administration and the Board of Trustees").  Not that any of this could be helped.  All of the actors in this drama have been prisoners (and happily so) of the logic of the positions they occupy since the start of this pandemic, and they frankly know no better than what they are are doing.  But a century from now that will be the epitaph of the first part of this century: here lies homo adminstratus incapable of agency other than to perpetuate the structures of power and culture into which they were willingly thrust. But administrators are not the only university actors trapped within the logic of the structures that they populate.  University faculty also perform to type. That is especially the case for the faculty representatives in its University Senate.  All people of good will--to be sure.  But also all necessarily trapped within the logic of their position and discourses of power and legitimacy which binds each to the other. Faculty also may merit an epitaph of their own: here lies homo complicitus who is trapped by the logic of Esau, famished and willing to sell his birthright to the administrator Jacob for a pot of stew (Gen 25-34).  

The Penn State Administration's choice to privilege the un-vaccinated using the discursive tropes of contemporary anti-discrimination for atmospherics, has produced something of a backlash. That backlash has been strengthened in part because Penn State leadership choices (unlike their usual cautious efforts to fall somewhere hidden in the middle of bench marked decision making) put them somewhere on the right side of the outlier curve. 

That has provided an opening for the University Senate, which to some extent has been formally marginally in the process of developing administratively "sound" policy, within the meaning universe of the university administrative community. The Senate has rushed through that opening.  It has called a special meeting of that body to vote on two resolutions, aptly named Resolution A and Resolution B--offering up of two related versions of a counter narrative, and plan of action, to that marketed by the university administration. 

Resolution A offers a counter approach to the administration's COVID planning for the Fall 20201 Semester. It calls for  an immediate vaccination mandate for eligible Penn State students, faculty, and staff and and demands that, until full vaccination can occur, that the university impose rules for universal mask mandates; twice weekly COVID-19 testing for individuals without proof of vaccination; and adherence to CDC recommendations.  

Resolution B serves the purpose of condemning the current administrative approach. It os based on the obvious--the faculty was cut out of the process of decision making. It then seeks an affirmative vote of NO CONFIDENCE  in the University’s COVID-19 Plan for Fall 2021. That s followed by a more meek request to be included in whatever revised decision making process might be triggered as a result of the vote.

That the university's leadership core takes this serious might be evidenced by a last minute appeal to the faculty in the form of an "open letter" signed by the University's president. It s a marvelous statement of its kind.  At the same time its discursive allegiance to the forms and sensibilities of the administrative milieu evidences both the increasing gap that is now apparent in the way that faculty and administration approach an issue, and as well the differences in the way that risk is valued by those who bear the risk but have no control over risk versus those who control the risk but effectively can avoid bearing the risk

The Presidents narrative is detached (though the words are meant to suggest caring, at least form a distance)  and Olympian.  It speaks from above conveying the sense of those burdened with the balancing of factors in a "greater game" of which the productive forces of the university (faculty, staff, buildings, services) play a role. The Senate narrative is risk based as well, but from the perspective of risk bearers the discursive form is more personal and more immediate. The Senate balances risk on their bodies; the administration bases its risk calculus on abstractions--important abstractions to be sure, but bloodless, ledger entries within ideological structures of compliance and accountability regimes.  That remoteness, of course, diminishes the micro risks of those who must bear responsibility for the operation of the ecologies of principles that the administration seeks to advance.  And it ignores the anger of a professional caste once central to the running of the university that increasingly is recast in hyper technical functionaries and transformed into live ingots that serve as one factor in the production of university welfare. 

But decide for yourselves. In the immediate term the issue is simple enough--what and how does the university value most among the factors the university administrators balance, ad whose voices count (and how) in that balancing. 

The text of the two Senate Resolutions. along with the text of the Presidential Open Letter follow.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Pandemic and the University: "An Open Letter from Penn State faculty to the Penn State Administration and the Board of Trustees "

Pix Credit HERE


 The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought out the best and worst among key institutional stakeholders.  It has accelerated trends that had been slowly working toward transformations of work, social, political, and cultural environments.  Most importantly COVID-19 brought into sharp focus the oppositions inherent in the organization of society and the way in which societal principles and objectives are privileged, weighed, and balanced against each other.

That balancing of principles, which are assumed to always be aligned, but which more often than not cannot be adequately reconciled, is more sharply drawn when health (individual, economic, and societal health) is affected by the weighing and balancing.  Less equitably, it appears to accelerate a trend  in which control of risk and risk bearing are increasingly detached. In the case of the university it manifests as a shift in the authority to control risk migrating to institutional administrators who bear little risk (for example in the context of health risks brought on by conditions of pandemic) but can impose risk on faculty, students, and staff whose exposure to risk for themselves and their families are essentially out of their hands. 

The Administrators at Penn State University provide a somewhat ordinary example of the sort of balancing that is being undertaken by the institutional governance apparatus of state and state affiliated universities, the way they value health risks that they do not bear, and the resulting allocation of risk and reward within university structures that privilege some actors in ways denied others.

Health guidelines

​As of June 28, masks are optional inside University buildings for individuals who are fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated individuals must continue to wear masks indoors at all times. If you want someone to wear a mask when interacting with you in your private office, you can request they do so, but cannot require it. It is important to note that those who are visiting designated health care environments must continue to wear masks indoors and maintain physical distancing regardless of vaccination status.

In individual offices, staff members may post this sign if they wish to request that people entering wear a mask.

Yes, unvaccinated individuals who have been in close contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive or suspected of having COVID-19 must quarantine for 7 to 10 days. They must quarantine for 10 days without testing if no symptoms have been reported during daily monitoring, or after seven days with a negative test on or after day five of quarantine and if they have no symptoms.

No. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated individuals do not have to be tested or quarantine but should monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days. If symptoms develop, employees should contact their personal health care provider.

Employees can find detailed information and guidance on the Health Guidelines, Contact Tracing, and Quarantine and Isolation pages.

At this time, masking outdoors and physical distancing are not required. Fully vaccinated individuals are not required to wear face masks indoors, however, individuals who are not fully vaccinated are expected to wear face masks inside University buildings. Additionally, all individuals must wear a face mask while using public transportation, in accordance with CDC guidance, and in some additional settings such as when visiting on-campus health care facilities and when conducting in-person research involving human subjects.

Additional information about masking and physical distancing is available on the Health Guidelines page.

Not all schools similarly situated have chosen to balance the needs for operations (and its derivative outcome), the psycho-social imperatives of physical presence, religious convictions, political choices, and health in the peculiar way chosen by Penn State. See, e.g., Indiana University, whose decision to mandate vaccination (with limited exceptions for medical or religious reasons) was recently upheld by the courts).

Faculty have essentially been cut out of the process of policymaking.  They have been free to express their views of course.  And their organs of governance, reduced to rgans of expressions of opinion, have done just that.  But the University, like other administrative organs throughout liberal democratic collectives, like the United States, have chosen to treat this as a matter for which technical expertise is solicited (by invitation) from staff (in this case faculty), but it remains for the "grown-ups" (the administrator class to gather together to discuss and make decisions. This is not unusual post COVID.  But it nicely expresses the transformation of governance and the greater transformation of the university from a collective of professionals to a learning factory with overseers.  

Faculty, however, have not been content to lick their wounds--not at Penn State anyway.  A group calling itself the Faculty Coordinating Committee of the Coalition for a Just University have decided to organize themselves to put pressure on the university apparatus in more public and politically traditional ways.  They have drafted an "Open Letter" addressed to the University Administrative organs calling on the university to:

1. Require vaccinations
2. Continue masking and social distancing
3. Continue to conduct random surveillance testing
4. Maintain improved ventilation standards
5. Institute a more reasonable and flexible teaching and learning policy
6. Improve Penn State's mental healthcare resources

To date the letter has amassed over 650 faculty signatures and almost 600 signatures of students, staff, and others. It is not clear whether the Open Letter will produce any change in Administrative decision making.  I suspect that calculus will tend to underweigh faculty concerns but center values based decisions on the risk of liability or loss caused by assessments of COVID impact, along with the political cost of taking a particular decision (and its impacts on budget negotiations with the legislature.  It may also depend on the ideologies and politics of the Board of Trustees--but that is a black box (a subject for another day). More interesting, though, is the way that the Open Letter itself provides evidence of the way that Faculty shared governance has become something like a historical artifact that is retained for the gesture it represents to a historical period that is now receding fast.  

Note that the issue survives whatever one's position is vaccination policy or mask wearing, or physical presence at the university.  One does not have to be either pro or anti vaccination mandates, or pro or anti masking, or pro or anti physical presence to understand that the effective consequence here, evidenced by the process and impact of decision making, has shifted, perhaps permanently the role of faculty in governance, and certainly, has exposed the way and extent to which faculty is valued (in terms of risk to health, and the health of their families who may be affected) as a function of other objectives, goals, and principles, against which these may be weighed.  And in the process, those who are required to bear the risk, no longer actively involved in controlling it, become an object in the governance of an institution and its institutional value maximizing calculus. Even that is not necessarily a bad thing--the effort to hide this, and to pretend that one still lives and operates in accordance with principles and expectations now abandoned (effectively), though, is a bad thing if only because it suggests the cultivation of misperception.

The Call to Sign follows below along with the text of the Request to sign cover note.


Monday, August 2, 2021

Now Available Bulletin of the AAUP (Summer 2021)--COVID and the University (and all is not Well)


The AAUP's annual Bulletin collects in one place the reports, policy statements, and official AAUP business materials of an academic year—in this case, 2020–21. Most of these documents have already been published on the AAUP website or in Academe, and the parenthetical dates after their titles refer to date of original publication. The Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors is published annually as the summer issue of Academe (or as the July–August issue prior to 2019). This table of contents links to PDFs of that print version. These PDFs will stand as the historical record for 2020–21 and will not be changed. (AAUP Bulletin Announcement)

 It comes as no surprise that the AAUP focuses its reporting this year on the most important event of this generation--COVID19. Thsi issue of Academe does an excellent job of memorializing the perspectives ad analysis of that crisis on the academy.  It also suggests the great tragedy of the faculty voice in crisis.  That tragedy is centered on the irresistible urge to assume a reactionary posture--and the discourse of a "return"--in the face of transformed conditions that will make the possibility of any such return effectively impossible.  It will be left to others, perhaps, to forge forward.  But this reporting provides a glimpse of the way in which that forward might lead backwards in the context of a industry capable of such a return.  That this is not so and that other approaches may well have to be developed may be read between the lines.

COVID-19 has fast forwarded trends that have effectively sidelined traditional faculty governance and shared governance principles.  Shared governance has been reduced effectively to a technocratic exercise.  At its best it has reduced faculty governance structures to an odd form of focus group, or worse, has absorbed  the faculty into the administrative apparatus at a low administrative level. In the process faculties have refused to embrace or neglected any effort to transform themselves into stronger instruments of accountability.  Part of that, of course, is a function of the great transformation of this century--the effective elimination of tenure except as a vestigial condition.  Faculty dependent on the renewal of contracts are hardly in a position to effectively "lean in" without substantial risk. And the technological revolution will reshape teaching and student engagement--and here it is the administration rather than faculty that are driving change.  In the meantime faculty obsession with transforming their function from research to the exercise of a role as public intellectuals--a process abetted by an administration obsessed, in turn, with short term (and quite manipulative) impact measures, has altered the value of faculty as sources of the production of knowledge.  They have become a political instrument, or on the other side, the blue collar producers of "facts" that can be consumed by the policy caste. Still there is much to lear from the orthodox narrative of the effects of COVID-19 on faculty.  Links to the articles follow.