More than 100 Ohio University professors met Friday afternoon for a townhall meeting over Zoom where many expressed shared feelings of anxiety and discomfort at the likely prospect of returning to teach in-person classes to thousands of undergraduate students next month.
Many of the professors who spoke feel that they are uninformed of the policies and procedures the university has in place to ensure both the protection of their personal health and the health of their students as the date of their arrival inches closer.
Further adding to many of the professors’ sense of distress is the recent surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases among college-aged people in Athens County. As of Monday evening, nearly nearly 200 total cases existed in the 20-29 age bracket in the county.
Athens County now is classified as a “Level 3” county under the state’s Public Health Advisory Alert System. Athens County currently sits at this level.
During his July 16 press conference, Gov. DeWine noted that the situation in Athens County has “rapidly accelerated with isolated outbreaks that have resulted from a concerning community spread.”
The meeting, hosted by the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), was held in response to many professor’s displeasure with another virtual townhall meeting members of the OU administration and public health officials held June 30 to address pre-prepared questions about how the institution plans to reopen in the fall.
“Many of us felt that our concerns were dismissed, due to the top-down, one-way format, the tiny slice of questions answered, and the ending of the event after a walloping 38 minutes,” Patty Stokes, professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, said of OU’s townhall.
But the administration’s meeting was held during a time when the COVID-19 situation didn’t look as bleak, and infections were largely down at the local, state and national levels.
“So, what I’m wondering is whether or not the university leadership has the actual courage to acknowledge that the situation has changed and change course for the university?,” asked Kyle Butler, a professor in the Ohio Program of Intensive English.
Many professors who spoke during Friday’s meeting were firmly in the camp of advocating for the university to move classes entirely online in the fall but ensure that jobs are protected in the long run.
They worry that an all online fall semester could lead to economic devastation that results in the loss of more university jobs, following the many that have already been eliminated.
“It just strikes me as utter lunacy to have an opening for the fall semester whose basic mode is bringing the 16,000, or so, young people back to campus,” said Associate Professor of Classics in The College or Arts and Sciences William Owens. “This is driven by economics – or let me put it this way: this is driven by very narrow and short-sighted understanding of what the economic situation is.”
Todd Fredrick, a doctor and professor in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, said in contrast with the many concerns presented by other meeting attendees that he’s not “terribly concerned” about contacting the virus at the university, provided that he’s able to abide by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands, and avoiding close-contact conversations that last more than 15 minutes.
More than one meeting participant, including Owens, advocated that AAUP members and other faculty coalesce around refusing to comply with the university’s plans to move forward with the semester in-person.
Others (who aren’t tenured) worry that doing so could lead to retaliation against them, such as simply being replaced by another professor who would be willing to teach amid the pandemic.
The meeting ended with little consensus on what the organizers’ next move will be.
Some suggested penning a statement to the university administration outlining their concerns.
“If we fail to make a strong statement, and I’m not sure who is going to make that statement, then things will simply happen in the way that they’re planning to happen now,” Professor of Physics and Astronomy Arthur Smith said.