Podcast Transcript: Professors Unite – No In-Person Fall Classes

Interview with Dr. John Champagne and Dr. Esther Prins

John Champagne
Esther Prins

Dan: Recently, over 1000 Penn State University faculty, along with many other staff and students, signed a letter to the university administration. I’ll provide a link to this letter in the show notes. Although the letter is lengthy and detailed, at its core, however, it’s a fundamental request of the university to affirm instructors’ autonomy, to decide whether to teach classes and attend other professional responsibilities in person or remotely.

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I said in my video segment this week that anytime you can get 1000 faculty at one school to agree on something, it’s something of which we should take notice. Similar letters, whether to individual schools or to state systems, have begun to pop up around the country, and so we are going to devote this podcast to exploring the rationale behind the faculty position. I have two guests with me today; both are faculty from Penn State and both are signatories to the letter. Dr. Esther Prins is professor of lifelong learning and adult education at the Pennsylvania State University, where she also serves as co-director of the Goodling Institute for Research and Family Literacy and the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy. She holds a Ph.D. in adult education from Cornell University. Dr. Prins joined Penn State in 2005 and served for several years on the Faculty Senate, including one year as co-chair of the Faculty Affairs committee. She received the 2019 Penn State Graduate Faculty Teaching Award. John Champagne is a professor of English at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College. The 2018-2019 Penn State Humanities Laureate, Champagne is the author of six books, most recently “Queer Ventennio,” a study of male Italian artists of the fascist period. Dividing his time between Perugia, Italy and Erie, PA, Champagne has been at PSU since 1993. Welcome to both of you.

Champagne: Thanks for having us.

Prins: Yes. Thank you.

Dan: I’d like to begin by asking the same question to each of you. What was your spring semester like? Professor Prins, would you like to go first?

Prins:    Yes. I would say that we did the best we could given the unprecedented circumstances. I had a lot of advantages, I think, over some of my colleagues at Penn State. Ours is a graduate-only program, so I had a graduate course of nine students which is discussion-based. And so teaching a small discussion-based class of graduate students, it was much easier to convert that to Zoom than say, a large class or a class that involves lab work, art work, things that are more hands-on. So I think all of us absolutely miss the face-to-face interaction, but we were still able to incorporate a fair amount of that using features like the breakout rooms in Zoom, or doing pairs small group work using Google docs, which is something that I had already used in my classes and so on. So it was definitely a letdown, but I think we just did the best we could given the hand that we were dealt.

Dan:     Professor Champagne, how about you?

Champagne:     Well, every spring I take a group of students to Rome as part of a course on Italian culture. And of course that was canceled, and the students were very disappointed and we had a great group. So I was sad. My other courses went fairly well, again, as Esther said, given the hand that we were dealt. I am lucky in that one of my other courses is team-taught, so I didn’t have to work all on my own to get the course online. And my other course was an upper-level course and we had done good work in class. So that making the transition online didn’t seem to be a problem for us. The toughest thing, of course, is holding real discussions over the internet and having people move back and forth between, say, a book they’re reading and then a point they want to make in discussion. But we managed.

Dan: Let’s talk about the letter from the faculty and staff and students in some detail. I began by saying that faculty were looking for some level of autonomy. Can you enlarge on that? What’s the current position of Penn State regarding in-person instruction and how does it differ from the positions taken in the letter? Professor Prins, you participated in the drafting of the letter; would you like to begin there?

Prins: I did. Yes. Well, I would just add in terms of the backstory of the letter that it was a group of about 12 to 13 faculty who were primarily responsible for drafting it. However, I think what made the process distinctive is that each of us did informal interviews with anywhere from two to five colleagues so that we could find out what their concerns were about reopening campus. So this letter was didn’t just reflect the opinions of 12 or 13 professors, but rather, over 50 colleagues from different colleges, disciplines, ranks, levels of job security, faculty of color, et cetera, so that it really represented a broad array of perspectives. We drafted the letter in part because we wanted some recognition by the university that as faculty, we have autonomy to decide how best to teach the content of our courses in our areas of expertise. And that that autonomy extends not only to the content of our classes, but also to how they are taught, and that refers to the three options we were given of completely in-person, a hybrid, or remote. So we wanted the university to yes, recognize our authority, and that we should be able to decide given what we know about our students, our content area, the ways that we teach, the best pedagogies for teaching, and our own individual health circumstances, what would be the best option for teaching our classes and learning with students.

And we were concerned that faculty weren’t adequately and substantively consulted in the process of making decisions about returning to campus. Penn State’s position was announced on June 15, which was after we released our letter. ‘Back to State’ is the name of the plan, and the provost repeated numerous times the goal of having 50% in-person instruction. And so the latest news released from Penn State just this week is that indeed 47% of the classes across campuses will have an in-person component. However, to my knowledge, this figure includes everything from independent studies to large classes, and could mean as little as meeting one or two times in person, not for the entire semester. So the breakdown from there that Penn State gave is that 19% of courses will be delivered entirely in-person, 28% will have some in-person component combined with remote instruction, and all classes over 250 people will be remote, and then at the Commonwealth campuses like Erie, any class of a hundred or more students will be remote. Also, some of those classes will be held in places such as the center of the basketball court and the sports arena, and there will be distancing measures plus mask enforcement within those teaching spaces.

Dan:     Thank you. Professor Champagne, do you have anything to add to that?

Champagne: Sure. When the decision was made to return to campus, the university basically had a plan for a plan. And so it was very difficult to get behind this; to return to campus, when, for example, at the time we didn’t know how many students could be accommodated in a classroom safely with masks and social distancing. We didn’t know to whom it would fall to enforce the wearing of the masks, and we still are uncomfortable with that because it will probably fall to teachers. That’s not our role. We are not health professionals or police, frankly, or whomever the university would designate to be in charge of making sure that those guidelines are followed. I was also concerned that people that have health issues and do not want to return to face-to-face learning should not have to reveal those private matters to anybody, frankly, in order to have their decision respected.

I worried about faculty who might not want to teach face-to-face, but felt that they were in vulnerable positions either on renewable contracts or as junior faculty. So as someone who is a full professor within, let’s say, six years of retiring, I felt it was my duty to speak up for colleagues who could not, who are in much more vulnerable positions than I am. Even as we developed this plan to go forward, there are still some very obvious things that have not been worked out. For example, we are continually being told there will be testing and contact tracing. And every time I’ve asked: how is this going to work? Who is going to do this? I get a, “this will be determined at my local campus.” Most recently, for example, we were told that Erie County would a role have in the testing of people. Well, I did some research. Erie County has a population of 269,000. So far, 15,000 people have been tested. That is 18% of our population. So if currently our county can only manage to test 18% of our population, how are we going to test on a regular basis the students, faculty, and staff at our campus?

Dan: A follow-up question occurs to me when, when you talk about that, for example, the right of faculty, not to reveal individual conditions they may have that may make them more vulnerable. It occurs to me that that principle doesn’t just apply to the situation we’re in. Now, what I’m doing is I’m trying to think in my mind, what are the limits of the autonomy that you’re talking about? So if there had never been any COVID-19 by the same principal, wouldn’t a faculty member, simply be able to say to the university for reasons I don’t want to disclose to you. And I don’t think I should have to, I don’t want to teach in person. I want my teaching load to be online. Do you understand my question? And that be something that you think would be permissive?

Champagne:     No, unfortunately you do have to disclose things. There is no mechanism to say, “I have a personal health issue and I would like accommodations made for me on that basis.” You do, in fact, have to disclose something; now, to whom you disclose depends on the particular policy, but there is no way to simply say, “I have a health issue because of my privacy, I’m not going to disclose to what that is. I am hoping that you will make accommodations for me.” And I think part of the issue was how wildly varied the implementation of the Back to State plan was across and within colleges. In some colleges, faculty were basically told, you decide how you’re going to teach, and you know, that’s the end of story, no questions asked, we’ll move on according to your preferences. In other situations, faculty felt a great deal of a tacit or explicit pressure to be teaching in-person in order to meet this goal of 50%. And the unstated implication, even if it wasn’t intended, was that we should be willing to risk our health, to give the students the in-person experience that they expect. And so what happens is that the pressure gets filtered down. So if you’re in a high-risk category, you get a pass. If you’re immune-compromised, if you have an elderly parent living with you or a child with conditions, you know, fine, no problem, you can teach remotely. But if you’re someone who doesn’t have any preexisting conditions or doesn’t have a family member who is high-risk, then the implication was, well, “Hey, you know, you need to sort of step up and be willing to put yourself in a risky situation because other people can’t do that.” And the fact is no one has an immunity to COVID. So it just seems like a really risky and dangerous proposition to let that pressure filter down to people who don’t have other reasons for why they can’t be in the classroom.

Dan: Professor Prins, you helped draft this letter. Were you surprised when a more than a thousand other faculty agreed to sign it?

Prins:    Yes, absolutely. We were hoping for at least a hundred or so. We were all blown away when we had so many people signing it, and not just faculty, but graduate students, some undergraduate students, a lot of staff, I think even a few parents of students signed it.

Dan: Yes. I probably should point out that there were many more signatories to the letter ­– I think it was about 1050 faculty – and then I think there were about 600 other signatories from varying other constituencies on campus and off campus. The letter asks for specific steps, and I wondered – Professor Champagne sort of outlined what he sees as the inadequacies of the current approach – I’m wondering when he described those inadequacies, when the letter talks about the things that still need to be done for in-person instruction to occur, I’m wondering is in-person instruction, as a practical matter, simply impossible at this point?

Prins:    I absolutely agree with what Professor Champagne said, that it seems like a plan for a plan, that there’s so many things we don’t know yet. And I understand that this is all in flux; nobody has ever done this before. So I do not envy the administrators’ situation here, but going to the testing and tracing plan, for example, Penn State announced on June 15, that students would be coming back and has yet to release any details about that plan. Some other universities already have publicized very detailed plans. Cornell, for example, will be testing students on arrival, and then every five days after that. All we know right now, which is the same thing we’ve known since June 15, is that Penn State will test symptomatic individuals and some asymptomatic individuals through contact tracing. So I would say a big, big part of being able to go back to in-person instruction is knowing what Penn State’s models are for determining what kind of testing is necessary to prevent an outbreak, along with guarantees that those can and will be implemented. So I absolutely agree that the testing and tracing plan is paramount here to be able to resume in-person instruction.

Champagne:  To build on what Dr. Prins was saying, I recently saw a study conducted by Johns Hopkins that says that Pennsylvania is among the 10 worst states in terms of number of tests conducted. And so I think it’s a bit foolish to think that suddenly we’re going to be able to have the capacity to test people. We are reading daily in the newspaper about the whole state not being able to test an adequate number of people, not receiving the test results in time and so forth. I don’t see how it is possible for us to return to face-to-face instruction right now, with cases growing all over the United States. We have a higher rate of day to day increases than we did back in March, so if it didn’t make sense for us to teach face-to-face in March, how can it possibly make sense for us to teach face to face now? And this is not just about teachers, obviously, this is about students and staff. We now are learning more things about Coronavirus that should now be reconsidered, as we decide whether to return to campus. For example, how does a student in a communal bathroom avoid taking a mask off? Well, clearly, when you shower and brush your teeth, as Penn State has said, you can remove your mask. Well, I do not see how you can brush your teeth, and if you do have the virus, avoid spreading it.

Prins: One of the things we haven’t talked about yet is that some of our Commonwealth campuses are located in COVID hotspots or have the sorts of students who’ve been directly affected by the pandemic. And so they have a whole other set of issues to deal with than we do here in Centre County. One of the things that we haven’t discussed yet in this podcast is the fact that State College is in a rural area, we have one small hospital. So I think a lot of faculty believe there hasn’t been enough concern for the public health implications of bringing more than 45,000 students from all over the country and the world to this small town, with one small hospital where the ER is already overwhelmed, you know, on regular football weekends, usually for alcohol-related issues. The hospital has recently announced plans to lay off 250 workers, although that’s supposedly in negotiation. And so I think we need to pay a lot more attention to what’s happening in the surrounding community to keep transmission in check.

The final thing I would add is that the whole plan seems to operate on faith, that students are going to curb their social activities outside of the classroom. I think the plan so far seems to do a good job of trying to maintain distancing and masks and sanitation within classrooms, but what happens outside the classroom is a whole other story. It’s very hard for me to see that the majority of students are going to forego parties, going to bars, social activities, eating in restaurants, going to crowded gyms, et cetera.

Champagne:  The rationale for opening is to allow students to have the college experience, right? But as Esther just explained, they won’t be able to have that experience anyway, given the realities of COVID-19.

Prins: Precisely.

Dan:     The open letter contains a specific point that I very much wanted to ask you about: it requests that the university extend last year’s faculty contracts to the 2021 academic year, and agree to ensure that both faculty and staff will continue to receive the same salary benefits and level of employment as they did in 2020. Further, if classes fail to meet the minimum enrollment, and this is sort of an important point, I think, the university will either allow these smaller classes to run, or it will assign faculty other important tasks, such as curriculum design and program building. In other words, there’s no reduction in pay and no reduction in workload. Is it possible that reduced enrollment or higher costs will simply make this impossible, in your view? Or does the university have the financial resources to meet this request regardless of what its enrollment may turn out to be?

Champagne:  Well, first of all, as faculty, it’s very difficult for us to get factual information on university finances. There isn’t the level of transparency that I would like to see around the issue of finances. But what we do know is that Penn State has an endowment that’s valued at between 3.6 and $4.5 billion. It is the 26th largest in the country. When we have raised the issue of tapping into the endowment – because if this isn’t a rainy day, I don’t know what a rainy day is – we’ve been given the canned answer that the vast majority of endowment dollars are designated in particular purposes and it’s illegal to redirect them. Well, I would refer any of your listeners to Paul Campos’s podcast, where he specifically attacks that idea and says, no, it is in fact not illegal at the time of emergency to use, say, 2% to 3% of your endowment to cover expenses like this.

Dan:     Are you referring to the time that DePaul campus was on this program?

Champagne:  Yes, absolutely.

Dan:     Just for listeners who are not familiar with that, this is law professor Paul Campos, who gave a very extended explanation of why campuses were both able to, and should be willing to, tap their endowments in this situation.

Champagne:  But I would encourage all of your listeners to revisit that podcast because it is excellent.

Prins: Now, I wholeheartedly agree with what Dr. Champagne said that Penn State does have a large pool of unrestricted reserves that are not tied to specific scholarships or money for buildings or whatever the case may be. So Penn State is in a much stronger financial position than many of its peers. And what he said regarding transparency is also absolutely true. I’ve never seen a budget for my college, for example, in 15 years. So faculty simply don’t know how money is spent at any level above their program or perhaps even their department. If you also look at the list of top 25 paid Penn State employees, you’ll see that we have many very highly paid administrators. Administrative bloat is also an issue, not only at Penn State, but across the country. So I think there are places where we could find money to help support faculty and staff who are in the most vulnerable positions. And I think our position as letter-writers and the position of many of my colleagues is that those with the most should sacrifice the most.

Dan:     I know that students have assigned the letter, and I’m curious if you’ve gotten any direct feedback from students at the college and what they’ve had to say to you.

Prins:          I did have one student specifically write to me to say, “Thank you so much for the open letter, it means so much that this is happening.” So that was one graduate student who wrote to me. But as you noted, we had so many graduate students who started signing that we actually had to create an additional section just for them and other co-signers.

Champagne:  My institution is – at least my program is – an undergraduate one, and most undergraduates are enjoying their summer. They are not really involved in what’s going on at the university level right now. Now we are teaching people right now, but in my case, it is exclusively online.

Dan:     Well, at this point, I’d like you to take out your crystal balls. And I understand by the way that we’re in a very fluid situation; new news seems to come out all the time. But I’d very much like to know if you had a prediction to make for what your fall experience as a faculty member will be like, what do you think it will be? It sounds as if the university has taken a position in response to your letter in which they, they don’t agree with your position. And I’m wondering where do you think it will end up?

Champagne:  Well, first of all, the university has not really taken a position in terms of our letter. It’s been silent as far as I know, and Dr. Prins can either confirm or help me understand what’s going on. I don’t believe we’ve gotten any kind of direct response to the letter.

Prins: No, there has not been a response.

Champagne:  It’s interesting that you should ask me this question, because just this morning, a friend of mine, a fellow teacher, said, “why are you putting so much energy into this? By the end of September, we are all going to be back online anyway.” And what the university’s engaged in right now is theater.

Prins: It’s interesting that you say that because that sentiment almost verbatim is what I have heard from nearly every faculty member that I’ve talked with.

Dan:     If you’re right, that it’s theater, what do you think the purpose of that theater performance is?

Champagne:  Well, I don’t want to go as far as saying it’s a kind of bait and switch, but the potential of losing revenue, if students don’t return, is presumably substantial. Again, we don’t have any idea about these kinds of things; we aren’t really given that information. But that’s my assumption is that it’s the threatened loss of dorm rooms, meal plans, things like that.

Prins: Yes. And I don’t want to dismiss the very real economic devastation that could occur if students didn’t come back to campus, particularly for a semi-rural town whose businesses depend on those students for their survival. And then many university staff whose jobs also depend on students being here, like janitors, dining room, dining service employees, and so forth. At the same time, I would like to encourage us to think outside of our current solutions. Federal and state policy could be providing further support to universities to cope with these situations. So if we had a stronger safety net for employees, for universities, we wouldn’t have to make these terrible choices between economic viability and public health.

Champagne:  I would absolutely agree, and add that we are talking right now about a semester, right? Not years. But in fact, countries have survived devastating crises that lasted multiple years. And if we had a stronger federal response, we might feel more comfortable with whatever we have to face with COVID-19. I’ve just been particularly struck by a certain lack of historical memory. When people say things like, “Oh, if our students’ education is interrupted for a semester, the whole generation will be devastated.” And I think, what about World War II? What about people who lived through terrible tragedies that lasted many years? Did that produce generations of people who were incapable of socializing or incapable of reading? I can’t help but think this is a typical kind of shortsightedness, a typical product of people’s short attention spans and lack of historical memory. Again, not to underestimate the real economic devastation that can be occurring to people right now, given the failure of our social safety net.

Prins: I would add one more thing here in terms of the crystal ball, I think for those of us at the University Park campus, who live in State College, this past week there were photos going around on social media of bars and downtown State College with very long lines of students packed close together, almost none of whom were wearing masks. And I think for a lot of us, that was a very ominous sign of what this semester could be bringing. In this case, students had come back because it would normally have been the Arts Festival weekend, which tends to be a big party weekend. And so I think that really raised the level of concern about what our town could look like in the end of August after all the students return. And I think that’s why many of us are unfortunately pessimistic about the prospects of being able to finish out the semester with in-person instruction.

Champagne:  We’re a little bit luckier in Erie in that our cases are relatively low, maybe six or seven a day, but there are these really unusual spikes, like two days ago, it was 20 cases. And to build on what Dr. Prins was saying, our students want to go to University Park often throughout the year. So it’s not as if these other Penn State campuses are not going to be interacting with these much bigger campuses and possibly bringing COVID-19 back to these other campuses.

Dan:     Dr. Esther Prins is professor of lifelong learning and adult education at the Pennsylvania State University, where she also serves as co-director of the Goodling Institute for Research and Family Literacy, and the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy. John Champagne is a professor of English at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, and is the 2018-2019 Penn State Humanities Laureate. We have been discussing the recent open letter from over 1000 Penn State University faculty, along with other signers, that affirms instructors’ autonomy to decide whether to teach classes in-person or remotely. To both of you, thank you very, very much for joining me today.

Champagne:  You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure and it’s fun to talk to Esther in this particular venue.

Prins: Yes. Agreed. Thanks so much for your time and we hope your listeners gain a lot from this podcast.

Dan:     I’m sure they will. Thank you again.