Home Campus Ohio U professors air major grievances at virtual town hall

Ohio U professors air major grievances at virtual town hall

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*Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Jul. 20, 2020, with a response from Ohio University Communications and Marketing.

Ohio University professors expressed grave concerns about a possible return to campus for the upcoming fall semester, as well as discussed the implications of not returning, at a virtual town hall held Friday by the Ohio University American Association of University Professors (OU-AAUP).

The meeting was held in response to widespread dissatisfaction among professors with an Ohio U town hall held June 30, according to Loren Lybarger, OU-AAUP president and an associate professor of classics and world religion. He said that “faculty had no opportunity to participate other than through submission of questions, which were not made public, and many of which were not addressed.”

“Town halls imply a collaborative decision-making process,” Lybarger said. “We want to model here a different approach that involves faculty initiating a deliberation on this crucial question of if, and how, to reopen the university during the pandemic.” 

Some professors challenged Ohio U’s plans to reopen in the fall due to the potential impact of COVID-19 spreading in and around Athens. 

Arthur Smith, a physics and astronomy professor, expressed worries that Ohio U is unprepared to mitigate impacts of the student body’s return. 

“The students coming back to campus in a few weeks precipitates a potential super-spreader event that Athens is only beginning to see. It is a great concern to me that the university has not even instituted a required mask mandate for the university campus,” Smith said. “I see the lack of preparation for what could be a catastrophic event.” 

Smith went on to note that even if students are not at a great risk, faculty and staff largely fall in the high risk category for COVID-19. 

Bill Owens, an associate professor in the classics and world religion department, said holding classes on campus would provoke stress for students and faculty. 

“Students in a classroom and professors are going to be filled with anxiety,” Owens said. “I won’t be looking at my students so much as students but as death vectors.”

Todd Fredricks, an associate professor of family medicine, said it was important for Ohio U to make guidelines clear as soon as possible so that students could return to campus prepared. 

Fredricks continued by acknowledging public guidelines the city of Athens put in place for combating the spread of COVID-19 and said the university has to tag along. He advocated university leadership put out information now so students are familiarized with what they will encounter when they come to campus.  

Many professors spoke of the adverse impacts students returning could have on the Athens community. Michele Morrone, a professor and department chair in the College of Health Sciences and Professions, emphasized the possible impact of COVID-19 community spread. She said it was critical to discuss the disproportionate impacts on people of color as well as people in the Appalachian region.

Julie White, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS), raised the issue of the local health care system’s capacity. 

“I wonder if there are conversations about, were we to have an almost inevitable larger scale outbreak, how it is that O’Bleness and the medical system in Athens would deal with that,” White said.  

Others questioned the Athens City-County Health Department’s ability to handle an outbreak. Daniel Skinner, an associate professor at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, noted that Ohio U has to aid the health department’s efforts. 

Skinner mentioned that capacity, funding and resources for a public health department can be narrow. He said the university has to play a role in making sure it doesn’t do anything that reduces the health department’s ability to do its job. 

“When we hear folks talk about the public health department in a way that’s going to contact trace or whatever, what the university does will depend on whether they’re able to carry out that job or not,” Skinner said.  

Other professors illustrated the implications of not returning to campus, especially financially. Judith Grant, a professor of political science, brought up additional cuts to Ohio U faculty. 

“If we do not go back to campus, we will be facing potentially even steeper cuts than we’ve already faced, and the ones we’ve already faced were devastating,” Grant said.  

Patty Stokes, a WGSS professor, remarked that if the current financial situation at the university gets worse, more professors could be let go.

Several professors suggested proposals for acting on their worries. One proposal was for OU-AAUP to make a statement recommending a remote fall semester. 

“I feel if we do put out a statement asking or demanding to go online, it should be coupled with protections for vulnerable employees,” Stokes said, an idea that was popular among the professors.

Bernhard Debatin, a Scripps College of Communication professor, suggested that Ohio U demand a bailout from the state government if the fall semester is held remotely. 

“I think if we were to stay only online, I would very much recommend that this is accompanied with an extremely strong — I don’t even want to say recommendation — but, demand for this university and other universities too, to really push hard for a very good bailout situation. Otherwise, we will not survive,” Debatin said. 

Andrea Frohne, director of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts, recommended Ohio U make a list of demands for the city of Athens for students to return. One example was Athens going “dry” by closing bars and banning alcohol. 

“The university needs to have a serious conversation with the city. And maybe this town becomes dry, maybe there are no bars, maybe there’s no alcohol. Maybe we attack these huge problems,” Frohne said.

Even with the consequences of not returning to campus, and ideas to make returning easier, between the fear of in-person classes, the consequences of not returning, and ideas to navigate a fall semester, a lack of faith in university administration and its current handling of the pandemic underscored the professor’s thoughts. 

“All of these mitigation methods seem to be in many ways like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, in the broader context of the lunacy of bringing back 16,000 undergraduates to our community,” Owens said. “I know it might have a kind of reassuring air because it’s ‘something we can control,’ but in fact we can’t control the virus adequately under those conditions.”  

In disapproval of Ohio U leadership amid COVID-19, he compared its response to that of the president’s response.

“Yes, I’m comparing Duane Nellis to Donald Trump, in their desire not to really face the full effects of what we’re facing, and in some sense pretend we can manage it or make it go away, or carry on,” Owens said. 

In response to The New Political’s coverage of the town hall held by the OU-AAUP, Robin Oliver, an Ohio U spokesperson, wrote in an email statement Monday that the health and safety of the Ohio U community remains a top priority as they plan for fall semester and that they continue to monitor the pandemic to make adjustments deemed necessary.

“We have included students, faculty, staff, and representatives from our five senates in work groups tasked with creating recommendations on the best path forward. We have also collaborated with the public health experts at OHIO, local and state public health officials, as well as peer institutions across the state, to help guide decision-making,” the statement read.

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