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The University of Northern Iowa Faculty Senate, after considering a resolution earlier this week to rebuff a Board of Regents prohibition of mask mandates by encouraging faculty to act “at their own discretion,” has opted for a less combative stance.
“The senate, as a body, could not endorse the position that unmasked students should be penalized, nor that faculty should violate the board’s guidance or state law, as this would be dissonant with our culture,” according to a statement from the UNI Faculty Senate.
“After discussing the matter in executive session, the senate voted, with no opposition, to postpone indefinitely the motion to support the senator’s statement.”
The proposed resolution from UNI biology professor and faculty senator Steve L. O’Kane Jr. urged faculty to “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.”
Although regents in May issued guidance barring its three public universities from mandating masks, vaccination or social distancing on campus — and requiring they return to a pre-pandemic level of in-person instruction this fall — O’Kane told The Gazette he’s already imposed a mask mandate in his class.
Faculty across all three campuses have pleaded with the board — via petitions and letters — to give administrators the ability to decide independently about mask and vaccine mandates.
The University of Iowa chapter of the American Association of University Professors earlier this week told UI President Barbara Wilson legal counsel has advised them the UI is breaking the law by barring them from requiring masks in class.
The AAUP, along with the campus’ graduate student union, told Wilson they were informing their membership they have the right to require masks.
“And we hold that the university’s refusal to recognize this right puts it at legal risk,” according to the email.
Wilson replied by sharing a Board of Regents’ response rejecting that idea.
The board, according to Wilson, said Iowa law doesn’t “give employees a right to unilaterally alter or violate existing employer policies.”
But O’Kane told The Gazette he already has, threatening lower laboratory grades for students who refuse to comply with his classroom mask mandate.
“I have made it clear to the administration that I am willing to be terminated for my actions,” he said, noting the mandate has had its intended effect. “My students, not surprisingly, now all wear masks as they know there will be consequences to their grades.”
The UNI Faculty Senate during its meeting this week took the discussion on O’Kane’s proposed resolution behind closed doors.
After the meeting, Faculty Chair James Mattingly and Faculty Vice Chair John Burnight said in a statement the senate voted unanimously to support a previous joint statement that faculty on all three campuses sent to the board Sept. 22 asking for institutional authority over COVID-prevention decisions.
Doing so, according to UNI’s Faculty Senate, would allow the campuses to adapt to both shifting federal guidance and local transmission rates.
“Their support of this statement, but not the earlier one, clearly indicates that our faculty aspire to engage with our external stakeholders in ways that foster constructive dialogue, recognize our common aims, and are respectful of Iowa laws,” according to Mattingly and Burnight.
The board confirmed receipt of that earlier joint statement but hasn’t yet replied.
“The board appreciates hearing from faculty leaders,” the regents’ Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon wrote to faculty senate leaders Sept. 23. “I will ensure it is shared with all board members.”
Board President Michael Richards told The Gazette earlier this month the regents do not intend to impose a mask mandate and expect to keep decision-making power “at the regent level.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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