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Iowa university faculty threaten to rebuff state mask-mandate prohibition
‘I am willing to be terminated for my actions,’ UNI professor says
Faculty across Iowa’s public universities are continuing to demand the authority to mandate masks in the classroom — looping in attorneys and considering resolutions urging faculty, regardless of state law or campus policy, to act on their own.
“Faculty members, at their own discretion, should manage their own classroom in a way that maximizes their own and their students’ health and, by extension, the health of the broader university and local community,” according to a resolution the University of Northern Iowa Faculty Senate in Cedar Falls was discussing Monday afternoon. “Members should exercise this choice even if disallowed by state law, the Board of Regents, or University of Northern Iowa policy.”
The UNI biology professor pitching the resolution, Steve L. O’Kane Jr., told The Gazette he has already imposed a mask mandate for his students, lowering laboratory grades if they refuse.
“I have made it clear to the administration that I am willing to be terminated for my actions,” he said. “Of course, I would immediately sue the university and the Board of Regents if that were to come to pass.”
Faculty need more freedom to require masking as the delta variant of COVID-19 is driving another surge of the disease, O’Kane argued, estimating that only one or two out of 100 wear masks in UNI’s McCollum Science Hall, “even after their professor has pleaded with them to do so.”
“My students, not surprisingly, now all wear masks as they know there will be consequences to their grades,” he said.
All three of the public campuses last month sent petitions to the Iowa Board of Regents — signed by hundreds of faculty — pleading for the ability to require masks and vaccines. Additionally, the University of Iowa chapter of the American Association of University Professors and UI graduate student union sent an email Sunday to UI President Barbara Wilson accusing the campus of breaking workplace safety rules and demanding an explanation.
“We have consulted a lawyer, who advises us that faculty, graduate instructors, and staff are public employees who have rights under Chapter 20, specifically the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection in their primary workspaces,” according to the email. “Accordingly, we believe that faculty, graduate instructors, and staff have the right to require masking in their classrooms and personal offices for the purpose of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and protecting our colleagues and co-workers.”
The AAUP and graduate student leaders told Wilson they plan to inform their membership that “they have this right.”
“And we hold that the university’s refusal to recognize this right puts it at legal risk,” according to the email. “We therefore ask that you consult legal counsel and explain why the university has put into place measures that violate public employee rights under Iowa Code Chapter 20.”
Wilson responded to the email Monday after consulting the regents.
“The Board of Regents respects the rights of public employees to engage in concerted activity as protected by Iowa Code Chapter 20, which includes the ability of covered employees to work together to seek changes in employment policies. Chapter 20 does not, however, give employees a right to unilaterally alter or violate existing employer policies. In accordance with Board of Regents guidance issued on May 20, 2021, masks may not be required on regent campuses except in specific situations such as public transportation, research, and health care settings. All employees are expected to comply with this guidance.”
Wilson said the UI “must follow state law and the guidance of our governing body” but noted the campus has taken steps to mitigate risks, like encouraging masks and vaccinations, offering incentives and working with immunocompromised faculty and staff on accommodations.
Regents President Mike Richards issued the statement barring the universities from requiring masks, social distancing or inoculations when COVID-19 vaccines were being widely distributed back in May. Despite the subsequent emergence of the delta variant and demands this fall semester from faculty, Richards has remained steadfast in the board’s prohibition against mandates.
Following a regents meeting earlier this month, Richards told The Gazette his board is following the law and, “We do not intend to put a mask mandate in at this point in time.” When asked whether the board might at some point allow the campuses to individually decide whether to impose mask mandates, Richards said, “No, I think that will be decided at the regent level.”
Last week, following the board meeting, faculty senate leaders from UI, UNI, and Iowa State University sent a joint letter to the regents asking that they “delegate authority over COVID prevention efforts, such as masking and social distancing, to the individual regents institutions.”
“Having the ability to respond rapidly to changing conditions will allow our universities to continue, where necessary, the mitigation efforts that have been shown to be highly effective in protecting our students, faculty, and staff,” according to that letter. “The discretion to manage local situations and unique conditions will allow the regents universities to remain open and maintain the high-quality education for which they are well known.”
UNI’s faculty union — United Faculty — on Friday sent regents an email backing that statement and repeating their demands for a mask mandate, a vaccine requirement for students and employees and virtual options for meetings.
That union also asked for clear benchmark data “to trigger decisions for moving online and returning to face-to-face instruction.”
United Faculty earlier this semester filed an “unsafe working conditions” complaint against UNI with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — but so far has received only process-related responses, according to United Faculty President Becky Hawbaker.
Hawbaker said her union backs the faculty, but warned of the potential that their petitions and actions might not make a difference and instead could have ramifications for employees.
“In other words, while we believe this is a protected activity and will absolutely back our faculty, it is also a form of civil disobedience with unknown consequences for those who take this stand,” she said.
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