Even as dozens of faculty have raised concerns over plans for a hybrid return to campus in a fall semester now just weeks away, a memo last week from UNR President Marc Johnson showed no signs the administration would change its approach.
“Unfortunately, the focus of letters sent to Regents and the Chancellor really focus only on working remotely whenever possible, rather than working in-person on campus for the benefit of students whenever possible,” Johnson wrote. “[UNR] policy for fall is to fulfill its missions with the most effective methods possible in a safe environment.”
The tension over whether to provide faculty an individual choice to teach in-person or online has come as UNLV moved earlier this year to do just that, providing an option to opt-out of an in-person return.
In a Twitter thread Monday, UNR professor and Nevada Faculty Alliance Vice President Melissa Burnham said in part that “bringing 20,000 students back to campus [right now] just seems morally reprehensible.”
“Not only are we placing students, their families, and the university community at risk, but we may end up converting back to online instruction mid-semester,” her tweets read. “This is one experiment I’m not interested in condoning. Revenue is not more important than lives.”
Sent on July 2, the memo from Johnson broadly denied the accusation that the university had not taken faculty opinions into consideration when drawing up plans for the university’s so-called “HyFlex” system, or a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction.
Instead, Johnson wrote that the university’s plan closely mirrors a resolution passed by the Faculty Senate in May, and much of the memo responds to that resolution’s nine requests for a reopening plan.
Those requests range from providing accommodations for at-risk faculty to ensuring widespread testing and contact tracing among on-campus faculty and students. Point-by-point, Johnson’s memo largely reflects those requests — with the frequent caveat that the university is the ultimate decision maker, not individual faculty.
At UNR, a contingent of faculty members, including the UNR-chapter of the NFA, have expressed concerns over what they perceive as an administration that eschewed faculty input as it implemented a rushed plan to return.
That included a formal resolution last month signed by nearly 200 of the university’s 1,100 faculty charging the administration of prioritizing the financials of the situation over the ultimate safety of students and faculty.
At the crux of the debate over safety is the availability of online instruction for those faculty who want it. As is, UNR’s plan would mesh a handful of different plans for differently sized classes, sending the largest lectures online, utilizing a hybrid system for medium-sized classes, and allowing the smallest classes to be taught “largely in-person.”
Within that framework, any faculty member who believes they are unable to work on-campus can request an “alternative work arrangement” through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) — though only after speaking with a supervisor and submitting a formal leave request with the university's human resources department and only if that faculty member is under one of six specific quarantine orders related to COVID-19.
A UNR spokesperson clarified that the definition of quarantine provided by the FFCRA was expanded by the university to include any orders to “stay home.” But NFA President John Nolan said the process remained “onerous” and time consuming, and said that faculty who had applied for accommodations in early June were still awaiting a decision from the administration.
Nolan added that, though he and the NFA were thankful for Johnson’s memo, he felt it “does not fully cover the concerns that we had.”
“I think that it's retroactive,” Nolan said. “When they were putting the plan in place, I don't think that they really listened to the Faculty Senate Resolution, I can tell you for a fact they didn't reach out to NFA at all.”
The provost’s office, which handles academic affairs, has since sought to meet with NFA leaders, according to Nolan, and a meeting between the two sides is expected sometime in the next week.
Still, even as UNR and dozens of other institutions within Nevada and across the country have planned partial returns to campus, at least a handful of high-profile schools have abandoned the idea in favor of an online-only 2020 academic year.
That includes Harvard, which also announced Monday that it would ask nearly two-thirds of undergraduate students not to return to campus.
Complicating the issue even further Monday was an announcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that it will modify the Student and Exchange Visitor Program to exclude foreign students from taking an online-only workload and remaining in the United States — essentially requiring those students to either transfer to a school with in-person instruction or leave the country.
The move was swiftly criticized by immigration advocates, who said the policy would force immigrants out of the U.S. and broadly incentivize higher education institutions to provide some kind of in-person instruction, even if the pandemic worsens.
And, amid the practical and pedagogical considerations, the public health effects of a return to campus still loom large. Both faculty from the NFA and the Faculty Senate have expressed concerns that college students may adhere less-strictly to social distancing guidelines than their older, more at-risk faculty — concerns that were bolstered over the weekend by reports that 121 students at the University of Washington’s Greek row tested positive for the coronavirus.
UW, like UNR, is currently planning a hybrid return of in-person and online instruction in the fall.
As the pandemic and the ensuing shutdowns cratered the economy through the spring, stagnant tax revenues have forced hundreds of millions in cuts to state appropriations across every sector of state and local government.
That includes the Nevada System of Higher Education, which is poised to cut at least 19 percent of its budget for 2021, or more than $132 million.
More concrete details regarding the system’s budget will likely become clear over the next week, as legislators head to Carson City for an emergency special session aimed largely at addressing the state’s unprecedented revenue shortfalls.