Colleges campuses are trying to reopen in the fall. The main source of opposition? The faculty

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The University of Chicago is letting instructors decide whether fall classes will be virtual or in person. Faculty at other colleges like Notre Dame are clamoring for the same option. - Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Just because students might be returning to college campuses this fall doesn’t mean professors will be joining them.

Controversy over whether instructors need to be in the classroom during the fall term has erupted at campuses including the University of Notre Dame, where professors are pushing back, noting the dangers of face-to-face classes while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

These faculty members say they alone should determine how they will teach this fall. Notre Dame, however, is asking those with objections to in-person instruction to submit documentation of medical conditions and a formal request for accommodations. Those who taught remotely prior to the pandemic likely will not need to obtain special approval, said Paul Browne, a spokesman for Notre Dame.

But Eileen Hunt Botting, a political science professor who is spearheading the faculty opposition, said the application process is invasive, requiring colleagues to share personal medical information, and there’s no guarantee that a professor who is uncomfortable teaching on campus will be granted an exemption.

“We want to encourage students to choose to study online as much as possible during the pandemic,” said Botting, who’s taught at Notre Dame, outside South Bend, Indiana, since 2001. “We ought to encourage faculty and staff to teach and work online during the pandemic if simply to eliminate unnecessary crowds on campus milling about on the sidewalks, unintentionally spreading the virus.”

Notre Dame’s position on in-person instruction is among the most rigid, showing how far universities are willing to go to compel professors to return to campuses after classes were abruptly moved online this spring. College faculty, who are generally older and more likely to develop complications from a COVID-19 infection than students, say that being forced to teach in person could expose family members in their homes to the virus, and also question whether all students will adhere to a variety of new safety protocols that are supposed to be in place.

On the other end of the spectrum, the University of Chicago recently announced that it will not require any of its instructors, including graduate students, to teach in person for the fall quarter, which begins Sept. 29 for most classes. In an update released Tuesday, U. of C. said a limited number of classes will be held in-person. New students will be given priority to enroll in such courses so they can acclimate to the university setting.

“Due to these extraordinary circumstances, the University is temporarily suspending the normal requirement that teaching be done in person,” the Office of the Provost said in a message to faculty on Friday.

The school will not require faculty to submit medical records or impose a deadline on the decision, said spokesman Jeremy Manier.

That might present a challenge to students as they consider not just which classes to take but also whether they should move back to campus at all or continue taking virtual courses at home. Some schools are designating how courses will be offered when students register and notifying them about any changes.

Na’ama Rokem, an associate professor of modern Hebrew literature and comparative literature at U. of C., said she was pleased the school leadership is trusting its staff to make the decision on their own and that it won’t ask faculty to share personal medical information.

“We’re very happy about this,” said Rokem, who is also an elected member of the university senate. “This represents, precisely, the faith of the institution in our judgment, as the people who carry out the teaching and research mission of the university.”

Rokem said she is slated to teach only one class this fall — an advanced course for graduate students — and will likely offer it remotely. She said she feels confident she can develop a high-quality online class with all the time she has to prepare over the summer break, as opposed to the abrupt switch this spring. Most of the colleagues she’s conversed with are also planning to teach online, Rokem said.

“Of course we all want to be back in our classrooms. This is what we’re there for,” she said. “There’s no desire to stay online forever, but I think with some experience, a lot of us have the sense that if we plan well, it can actually be a decent temporary replacement.”

In a statement, the school’s local chapter of the American Association of University Professors also praised the new policy, but urged U. of C. to be more transparent in its decision-making process and to include members of its faculty unions.

“Absent a democratic decision-making procedure, and absent much essential information such as the exact level of risk, including predicted numbers of infections and deaths, that is being factored into the university’s planning models, we see no reason to believe that any kind of instructional reopening in the Fall will be safe,” the statement says.

The U. of C.’s chapter said it was also concerned about staff who can’t work remotely — such as those in libraries, dining halls and maintenance — who might not be allowed to stay at home. The group said there should also be systems in place to ensure that lower-rung faculty, including instructors seeking tenure or contract renewals, don’t feel pressured into offering in-person classes.

With coronavirus cases surging in the southern and western parts of the country, colleges are constantly fine-tuning reopening plans for the fall. Some have been especially hard hit by the costs of adapting, doling out millions of dollars in refunds for room and board, and losing revenue from canceled events.

And every college seems to be handling the question of in-person instruction differently.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the format of each course will be decided by individual programs and academic departments, depending on the type of course and faculty availability, said spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

“We recognize that faculty and graduate instructors may have health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic that may prevent them from returning to face-to-face instruction, and we want to insure that they have an opportunity to engage with students remotely,” Kaler said in an emailed statement.

In May, however, a group of faculty said they opposed any further reopening of campus, which would include holding in-person classes this fall. In a statement on its website, UIUC’s Campus Faculty Association said that “adequate protection on a residential campus the breadth and size of ours is nearly impossible” with students from across the country socializing, living and learning in close quarters.

In Evanston, Northwestern University is continuing to devise its plans for fall instruction, including policies to address personal situations that would make working on or commuting to campus difficult for faculty, according to spokesman Jon Yates. Other challenges could stem from child care, if schools need to remain closed, or from preexisting medical conditions.

NU administrators have said “a significant portion of instruction will be conducted remotely” but hopes to provide opportunities for face-to-face learning as well.

College leaders are walking a fine line: They want to keep students and staff safe, but some also worry that enrollment will drop off if they can’t provide a full on-campus experience. And they know that many students and their parents are wary of paying hefty tuition costs just for online classes taken at home.

Notre Dame is doubling down on its promise to offer in-person instruction. The premier Catholic institution released an ambitious plan in May, signaling to students they could return, and revising the fall schedule. Notre Dame is starting classes about two weeks early, eliminating fall break and conducting finals online in case a second wave of COVID-19 emerges in the winter.

“Notre Dame is fundamentally about the on-campus experience, where the whole person is enriched — intellectually, spiritually and physically,” Browne said in an email. “That kind of enrichment can’t be realized remotely alone.”

Instructors who apply for accommodation will not be automatically approved to teach remotely, but administrators reviewing the requests were told “to be as understanding as possible,” Browne said.

Botting, the political science professor, said she received a medical exemption to teach online in the fall after following the accommodation process but is still speaking out for colleagues who morally object to fully reopening campus.

“As a Catholic university, Notre Dame has an obligation to put the lives of its community first in any policy that it crafts, and right now, Notre Dame is effectively expecting the vast majority of its population to return to work on campus during a pandemic in which there is no vaccine and no effective treatment,” she said. “Notre Dame isn’t a bubble. No campus is a bubble. Everything we do will have consequences in the wider community, especially in a pandemic.”

Notre Dame students and alumni have also raised concerns on behalf of faculty, with another petition that also calls for decisions about in-person teaching to be left to instructors.

Rokem said faculty at U. of C. is also keenly aware that allowing thousands of students to flood the Hyde Park campus could adversely affect neighbors in surrounding areas that are majority Black. The concern is particularly acute because of racial disparities documented in minority communities, showing that Black Chicagoans were dying at higher rates compared with others in the early days of the pandemic.

“There is a very serious conversation going on about our responsibility to the community that we are in,” she said. “We are on the South Side of Chicago, and we are in an environment that’s been impacted very severely.”

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