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.


 Cover note:

Dear Colleagues:


As the Fall 2021 semester rapidly approaches, Penn State community members are sharing increasingly urgent concerns about rising COVID-19 cases and new and contagious variants. 


Many groups, including the Faculty Senate, UPUA, and GPSA, have called  for more transparency, communication, and clear and appropriate plans to protect our community.  And yet, we are again facing a return to a new semester without adequate support from or confidence in university leadership's commitment to keeping our students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities safe.  This is, as it has been, preventable and unacceptable. 


The time to take action is now.  Join us and sign on to this open letter which calls upon 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

We recognize that in the coming days and weeks, university administration is likely to share new and updated plans for the Fall. We'll edit the demands in the letter accordingly; however, our confidence that any such measures will be sufficient to address the growing crisis is low.  Signatures will not be released until the letter reaches over 200 signers. 


Our collective voices are our power, and our window of opportunity is short.  Please sign on, and share this letter with any and all interested members of the Penn State community. 


In Unity, 

The Faculty Coordinating Committee of the Coalition for a Just University





Dear Penn State University Board of Trustees and Administration,

As Penn State faculty, we are eager to welcome students back to campus for the start of the Fall 2021 semester, but we are deeply concerned that our university is unprepared to handle the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant. There is no way to determine who is unvaccinated and should therefore be masked. According to all available information, the university does not plan to continue surveillance testing of asymptomatic students, which means that if an outbreak occurs, there will be no way to detect it early on and prevent the disease from spreading. Students who are unable to receive a vaccination due to health conditions—and will therefore run significant risk by being in an environment where many people have chosen not to be vaccinated—are being told that their only option is to take courses online, depriving them of equal educational opportunities. Nor is there a clear policy for faculty and staff who have health conditions that make frequent encounters with unvaccinated students at risk, or who live with unvaccinated children and/or people who are immunodeficient.

Before the end of the Spring 2021 semester, the Penn State University Faculty Senate passed a resolution with overwhelming support (113 in favor, 31 against) calling on the administration to implement a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for all students, staff, and faculty. The undergraduate student government at University Park (University Park Undergraduate Association, or UPUA) also passed a resolution calling for a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for students, with similarly strong support (25 in favor, 10 against, and 1 abstention). More recently, on July 30, 2021, the UPUA and the Graduate and Professional Student Association have sent you an open letter asking for a vaccine mandate (https://www.instagram.com/p/CSAqXCIMk28/?utm_medium=copy_link). In all of these cases, the Penn State administration has chosen to ignore the recommendations of its own faculty and students; instead, it has limited itself to “encouraging” students to get vaccinated and offering incentives (including financial rewards). Penn State policy requires all students to have the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and all students living on campus must be vaccinated for meningitis. In contrast, the vaccination for COVID-19, a disease that has killed well over 600,000 people in the U.S. and more than 4 million worldwide, is being presented as a “personal choice.”

We recognize that the situation is evolving and that you'll make announcements about changes to the plan for the upcoming semester and academic year. But given that more than 600 universities and colleges in the U.S. have implemented a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, among them Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern, and Purdue (all members of the Big Ten Academic Alliance), our university is increasingly an outlier. During the 2020-2021 academic year, Penn State was near the very top of the list of U.S. universities with the most COVID-19 cases. We do not want to see such high rates of infection again. We are asking you for all of the following because we are Penn State and care about Penn State:

1.) REQUIRE ALL STUDENTS, FACULTY, AND STAFF WHO WILL BE PRESENT ON CAMPUS TO BE VACCINATED FOR COVID-19. We have reliable and ample evidence that shows the efficacy of the vaccines in dramatically decreasing the likelihood of contagion and the severity of illness if infected. Vaccines work, and the more of us who get vaccinated, the better they will work.

2.) CONTINUE TO REQUIRE MASKING AND SOCIAL DISTANCING. Just as we are learning that the vaccines are effective, we are also learning that they do not provide total inoculation and are not invulnerable. (Indeed, no vaccine is 100% effective). There are increasingly more “breakthrough” cases in which vaccinated people become infected. And according to the CDC, vaccinated people with breakthrough infections can spread the virus as easily as unvaccinated people.

3.) CONTINUE TO CONDUCT RANDOM TESTING AMONG STAFF, STUDENTS, AND FACULTY to detect outbreaks early on and ensure that we do not become a Petri dish for a new variant of the virus.

4.) MAINTAIN THE IMPROVED VENTILATION STANDARDS THAT WERE IMPLEMENTED DURING THE LAST ACADEMIC YEAR. Science shows that improved ventilation can greatly reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

5.) INSTITUTE A MORE FLEXIBLE AND REASONABLE TEACHING POLICY FOR ALL OF OUR FACULTY, STAFF, AND STUDENTS so that we have ample time to plan for remote courses as opposed to being forced to switch modalities from one week to the next. We also must be able to adopt different teaching/learning environments as the situation requires it. How will a faculty member continue to conduct in-person classes if several of their students are infected or in quarantine due to possible exposure and are therefore unable to attend class? How are those students supposed to continue learning? What if an outbreak shuts down an elementary school and a faculty, staff member, or student must remain at home with their child? We are a large, diverse community with different concerns and responsibilities.

6.) IMPROVE PENN STATE'S MENTAL HEALTHCARE RESOURCES. We are approaching two years of a global pandemic. Many of us (faculty, staff, students, and other members of the community) have, are already experiencing, and will continue to face mental health challenges. It is absolutely indispensable that we have the resources and staff ready to help our community manage yet another year of the pandemic.

As Penn State faculty, we care deeply about our students, colleagues, and other community members. Please help us create safe teaching and learning conditions so we can support our students this academic year.


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