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.

August 13, 2021 Special Senate Meeting Agenda

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View Full Special Senate Meeting Agenda (PDF)



C. ACTION ITEMS – Plan to vote by approximately 11:40 a.m.

  • Vote on Resolution in Appendix A
  • Vote on Resolution in Appendix B


Senators are reminded to wait to be unmuted and identify themselves and their voting unit before speaking on the floor. Members of the University community, who are not Senators, may not speak at a Senate meeting unless they request and are granted the privilege of the floor from the Senate Chair at least five days in advance of the meeting.



Appendix A

Faculty Senate Resolution for Sequential Actions in Response to Penn State’s COVID-19 Policies as of August 13, 2021

Patricia Birungi , Kimberly Blockett, Wendy A. Coduti , Caroline D. Eckhardt, Siela N. Maximova 

(Senate Council Working Group)



We stand in solidarity with the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), and the Graduate and Professional Student Organization Association (GPSA), Borough of State College, American Association of University Professors (AAUP) – Penn State, and Coalition for a Just University (CJU) calls to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all eligible Penn State students, faculty and staff. On May 12, 2021, the University Faculty Senate passed a resolution for Penn State to require COVID-19 vaccinations before the start of the Fall 2021 semester. Based on the current decisions of Penn State administration regarding COVID-19 policies, we present this resolution.


Whereas, the Penn State administration have not been fully transparent, promptly communicative, nor inclusive concerning COVID-19 planning and decisions;

Whereas, the decision not to require COVID-19 vaccinations for Penn State students, faculty and staff jeopardizes the health, welfare, and lives of people, particularly children and others at increased risk;

Whereas, the administration has not communicated details about specific consequences or enforcement for non-compliance with required COVID-19 policies;

Whereas, current policies do not fully accommodate faculty, staff, and student circumstances during a pandemic, which require more alternatives and flexibility; and

Whereas, all instructors do not have sufficient choice in determining course and/or class delivery mode(s) during COVID-19;

Be it resolved, that the University Faculty Senate calls for an immediate vaccination mandate for eligible Penn State students, faculty, and staff and further calls for the following actions until full vaccination can occur:

  1. universal mask mandates;
  2. twice weekly COVID-19 testing for individuals without proof of vaccination; and
  3. adherence to CDC recommendations and/or restrictions for all Penn State students, faculty, and staff (including gatherings on University-managed property and University sponsored activities).

Be it further resolved, that the University Faculty Senate calls for

  1. instructor choice in determining course and/or class delivery mode(s) based on individual instructors and student circumstances;
  2. faculty, student, and staff choice for remote options for any campus activity including, but not limited to, office hours, graduate student exams, and meetings; and
  3. significant and diverse faculty representation proportionate to administration on any and all committees, groups, or taskforces related to COVID-19 plans and policies.

Be it further resolved, that the University Faculty Senate reserves the right to revisit a Vote of No Confidence on or before the next scheduled Senate plenary meeting, on September 14, 2021.



Appendix B

University Faculty Senate Response to the University’s Fall 2021 Plan

Mohamad Ansari – Past Senate Chair, Renee Bishop-Pierce, Victor Brunsden,
Michele Duffey, Frantisek Marko, James Strauss



The University Faculty Senate of the Pennsylvania State University endeavored to work cooperatively with the University to develop COVID-19 pandemic plans that protect the health, safety, and educational  interests of faculty, staff, and students.  Toward this goal, Senate passed a resolution about COVID-19 testing, monitoring, and management, and a second resolution mandating COVID-19 vaccination for all Penn State members.  The University’s Fall 2021 Plan falls short of faculty expectations and does not embody a sense of safety and confidence among our faculty, staff, and students.


WHEREAS Centre County and most counties surrounding Penn State Campuses have “substantial community transmission of COVID-19” as designated by the Centers for Disease Control;

WHEREAS the University’s Fall 2021 Plan does not include a vaccination mandate for faculty, students, and staff;

WHEREAS the University’s Fall 2021 Plan does not account for faculty, staff, students, and their household members, who are not eligible for vaccination, and must be afforded the option of remote work to protect their and their household’s health and safety;

WHEREAS the University’s Fall 2021 Plan does not allow faculty autonomy over curriculum and pedagogy, including instructional mode and classroom management;

WHEREAS the University’s Fall 2021 Plan does not require universal arrival COVID testing for all students; nor a contact tracing plan that is reasonable, given in-residence course delivery without physical distancing;

WHEREAS the University Faculty Senate does recognize the University’s recent announcement of masking for faculty and students as a positive step; however, this action was not negotiated for unionized employees;

WHEREAS the University did not engage the University Faculty Senate in shared governance regarding COVID planning and decisions.  The planning process was not transparent and decisions were made by an exclusive administrative group without satisfactory explanation;

BE IT RESOLVED the University Faculty Senate of the Pennsylvania State University provides a VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE regarding the University’s COVID-19 Plan for Fall 2021.

BE IT RESOLVED the University Faculty Senate of the Pennsylvania State University urges the University to reconsider their Fall 2021 Plan, work closely with Senate, and make all plans and contingencies transparent to the university community, to directly address the outlined issues of contention, as stated in the above resolution.






Penn State Shield

Dear Penn State community,

Over the last 18 months Penn State has worked to be systematic and deliberate in our response to the ever-changing course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our singular objective is, and always has been, the health and safety of our community. Our decisions have been driven by data, science and advice from medical professionals at a local, state and national level.

Unfortunately, across the nation every action in response to the pandemic is being met with division and controversy. A recent Quinnipiac poll found 49% of adults opposed university vaccine mandates while 48% supported mandates. A recent decision at Penn State to require indoor masking regardless of vaccination status generated a petition exceeding 1,000 student signatures in opposition — in only its first day of posting. Many faculty members at Penn State supported the masking requirement and are also calling for a vaccine mandate. At the same time, others are attempting to organize “resistance campaigns.” Universities with vaccine mandates have been met with implementation, enforcement and legal challenges. Public universities, in particular, have challenges with the mode of response to the pandemic. Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities. State funding of our University requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support.

The focus of the controversy is on the means by which we achieve health and safety. Our actions at Penn State are designed to achieve the desired outcome, with as little polarization as possible. Our objective is progress and results. We believe we have a powerful way forward by incorporating all three of the strongest tools to mitigate COVID-19 — vaccines, masking and testing. And, we have systematically and deliberately adjusted as conditions have changed. Penn State’s posture with respect to vaccination illustrates this last point.

First, we worked to make vaccination easy. Prior to any evidence that the University would be able to offer vaccinations, we chose to purchase freezers and set up protocols in case we were asked to provide vaccinations. University Health Services at University Park successfully applied to gain permission from the state Department of Health to administer vaccines to students. We also successfully volunteered to be a vaccine distribution site for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And we worked with private vendors to provide easy access to vaccines across the commonwealth for our employees and students. We leaned on the “we are” spirit of Penn Staters to focus on the health of all members of our community.

As we monitored conditions and saw a decline in initial vaccination rates, our second step was to incentivize vaccinations through weekly drawings for prizes and to encourage uploading of vaccination information so the University could better manage the pandemic. Incentives created an uptick in vaccination rates and uploading of vaccination status, but the prospect of the Delta variant, coupled with a national relaxation back to pre-COVID-19 behaviors, prompted us to develop even stronger requirements.

We then took the step of instituting testing for all members of our community — faculty, staff and students — who have not shared with the University that they are vaccinated. We informed all students of our expectations, and further indicated that without uploaded proof of vaccination, all students entering residence halls would be tested and any positive tests would prevent immediate entrance to residence halls — and students would require isolation. The requirement for repeated testing without vaccination is regarded as a significant incentive to become vaccinated. Further, in consultation with Faculty Senate leadership, we instituted masking in all University buildings regardless of vaccination status while we face the Delta variant.

For the 18 months of the pandemic, we also have worked to regularize engagement and communications with our community. We specifically worked to involve Faculty Senate leadership, who have participated in our COVID-19 Management Team’s regular meetings, in addition to participation in the weekly or bi-weekly meetings of the Academic Leadership Council. The COVID-19 Operations Control Center (COCC) team members have provided extensive outreach to units, groups and colleges across the University to provide updates and support plans and activities.

The combined implementation of the three most powerful tools — vaccination level, testing and masking — should help create a safe environment to fulfill our mission at Penn State. But we are more than capable of taking stronger action, much like last year when we rapidly pivoted to regulate gatherings and moved to remote status as demanded by circumstances.

Which brings us back to the end goal — high vaccination rates.

The evidence is growing that our deliberate and systematic process is working. The final results of our COVID-19 vaccination survey show that, among both undergraduate and graduate student respondents, 88% of University Park respondents, 73% of Commonwealth Campus respondents and 84% of World Campus respondents report being partially or fully vaccinated. As of today, more than 73.5% of students entering residence halls have already uploaded their proof of vaccination, and the numbers are steadily growing on a daily basis. We expect many other students will demonstrate vaccination status or provide proof of having COVID-19 over the last 90 days. Vaccination uploads by academic personnel are slightly lower at 69%, and unfortunately there has been little growth in academic uploads since early July. Survey data for all sectors suggest that vaccination rates are higher than what is currently uploaded and individuals have just not yet uploaded their information. The highest vaccination rate is for administrators, which is currently at 86%.

Of course, enforcement too, plays a role.

If proof of vaccination is not uploaded, students in University housing will be tested on arrival and all students who have not uploaded their proof of vaccination, regardless of housing, will be tested weekly. The consequences for failure to test are significant — including suspension if individuals ignore repeated requests. When released, policies on frequent testing of employees who have not shared with the University that they have been vaccinated should also reveal higher rates.

Although the data are promising and indicate that our deliberate, three-pronged efforts are making strong progress, we will continue to be vigilant — and we will take further steps if necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on our campuses. We developed processes, protocols and policies through the pandemic that enable us to pivot successfully when we need to impose greater restrictions, and to relax restrictions as we make progress.

Thank you for your efforts to promote a safe community. Please get vaccinated and upload your data. A safe and productive environment is everyone’s responsibility.


Eric J. Barron
President, Penn State

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