As the University of Georgia plans for the first day of class in one week, faculty members and university administration are engaged in a back-and-forth debate over certain aspects of the COVID-19 reopening plan.
Faculty senators in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and Mary Frances Early College of Education sent a joint statement on July 28 to UGA President Jere Morehead and University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley about their concerns with USG and UGA plans for reopening campus during COVID-19.
The statement calls for increasing asymptomatic testing and issuing clear guidelines that would result in campus closure and a move to fully online classes. Faculty senators also want community-wide town halls, transparent reporting of positive COVID-19 cases and for any student, faculty or staff member to be able to work remotely without penalty.
Faculty senators gave Morehead and Wrigley until Aug. 4 to respond to the statement. Both sent responses on Aug. 4, with Morehead calling the claims in the statement “unsubstantiated and inappropriate.”
Debating a new committee
The University Council met Thursday to discuss endorsing the joint statement.
While Morehead said in his letter that he isn’t sure where the senators have the authority to comment on these matters, professor Laura Bierema said that in the University Statutes, faculty members “have the right to criticize” academic and non-academic university policies. Bierema teaches in the Early College of Education and was one of the faculty members involved in initiating the petition that created Wednesday’s special meeting.
Over 1,100 users tuned into the two-hour meeting, which was livestreamed on YouTube while council members met via Zoom. The comment section was active with professors, staff and students voicing their concerns. The council could not see the comments.
Senators cited the need for a body that accurately represents faculty, staff and student voices of the university community in the joint statement. There were nine working groups including over 30 faculty members that worked on the reopening plan, Morehead said, and the only bodies that remain in operation are faculty-driven.
Professors and graduate assistants have continually demanded the right to make their own decisions to teach remotely. Currently, instructors must get approval from associate deans, deans and the provost in order to make their classes completely online.
The council voted 96-54 to create a COVID-19 Crisis Response Committee of 12 elected council members that are more representative of the faculty, staff and students on campus. Six faculty members didn’t vote on the motion.
The council did not name specific individuals who would serve on the committee. The group is required to make monthly COVID-19 status reports and consult with already active working groups, including the Preventative Measures Advisory Board and the Medical Oversight Task Force.
UGA School of Law Dean Bo Rutledge was against the creation of a new committee. “I don’t believe that it will adequately advance the goals here, and may end up ultimately being counterproductive,” he said.
Rutledge is a member of the instruction working group, which developed guidelines for classrooms and instructors for the fall. He felt it was “diversely represented by a wide number of schools.” There are a variety of colleges, services and departments represented on this particular working group, but there is only one faculty member named. The other members are deans and administrative staff.
Possible job loss and testing capacity
Professors and staff members have also advocated for protecting jobs at all levels in the event of a transition to fully online instruction.
“If we were to move fully online, there is no question that there would have to be layoffs,” Morehead said.
Ryan Nesbit, vice president for finance and administration, added that auxiliary services workers in dining, housing and transportation would be most affected because their jobs are funded through student fees. Faculty and administrative staff would be more protected if UGA moves online, he said.
“I’m very concerned about the reality of being able to preserve those types of jobs without the revenue being generated,” Nesbit said.
Faculty also criticized UGA’s asymptomatic testing capabilities. UGA plans to test 300 volunteers per day. The Georgia Institute of Technology announced in an email to students and employees that it will test 1,500 people per day. Schools such as Auburn University and the University of South Carolina are requiring students to receive COVID-19 tests before they move on campus.
Provost Jack Hu said UGA’s ability to create a testing site on Legion Field is “a miracle,” especially since the campus doesn’t have a hospital or medical school other than its Medical Partnership with Augusta University.
Lisa Nolan, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, said UGA has 10,000 saliva tests ready for rapid deployment, as well as the capability to increase testing capacity in the lab. Nolan said UGA needs approval before distributing more tests, but didn’t say from whom or if the university is in the process of trying to get approval.
The council voted 87-64 against endorsing the joint statement by the faculty senators. Twelve members didn’t vote on the resolution. This may increase the likelihood of the two schools issuing a vote of no confidence in Morehead, the USG Board of Regents and Wrigley.
On Aug. 11, Franklin College faculty senators discussed the idea of a vote of no confidence in the near future. This vote acts solely as a public expression of the lack of faith in USG leadership, said English professor Christopher Pizzino.
The vote would send a clear message as students head back to the classroom — or the chat room — on Aug. 20 that administration and some faculty still can’t agree on the reopening plan.