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Northern Iowa faculty union filing complaint over professor removed for mask mandate
‘There are so many things wrong with this decision’
The University of Northern Iowa faculty union Monday filed a complaint against the Board of Regents and UNI for reprimanding their tenured peer for rebuffing regent guidance by requiring masks in class and threatening lower grades if students didn’t comply.
In addition to a prohibited practice complaint filed with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board, the union — called United Faculty — also is helping professor Steve O’Kane appeal discipline levied against him. That discipline stripped him of in-person teaching duties this fall; landed him a “needs improvement” rating, resulting in no merit pay; required he complete faculty obedience training; and threatened termination if he doesn’t comply in the future.
“There are so many things wrong with this decision it is hard to know where to start,” United Faculty President Beck Hawbaker and Vice President Chris Martin wrote in a letter Saturday to UNI’s 650 faculty members.
“The discipline imposed is a disproportionate, unnecessarily disruptive, political show of force that harms O’Kane’s students and their learning, and communicates to faculty that UNI/BOR will not stand up to external threats to our core values like academic freedom, peer review in evaluation, due process, and the core mission of transformative education.”
Specifically, United Faculty makes these arguments:
- Iowa Code Chapter 20 protects employee rights to organize “for mutual aid and protection as long as the action is not prohibited by law.”
Given the regent policy that officials have cited in prohibiting mask, vaccine and distancing mandates came in the form of “guidance” from Board of Regents President Michael Richards in May, United Faculty contends his statement “is not a law.”
“It’s a stretch to even call it a policy,” according to United Faculty leadership. “We believe that Dr. O’Kane’s actions are protected by Chapter 20 and that the discipline violates the law.”
- United Faculty argues UNI violated its own policy by sanctioning O’Kane’s mask mandate with a “needs improvement” rating in teaching.
That, according to the union, “is a completely inappropriate use of our evaluation system as a lever of discipline outside of the standards themselves.”
- While UNI asserts O’Kane violated its academic freedom and responsibility policy, union leaders say they don’t know how.
“One administrator told us it was in regard to inappropriate grading,” according to the union letter. “However, it is this same policy (ironically) that protects faculty’s academic freedom to teach and assess student work.”
Plus, they said, UNI policy recognizes grade decisions are integral to faculty academic freedom. Therefore, according to the letter, “administrative officers cannot substitute their judgment for that of the faculty concerning the assignment of a grade except as a result of the grievance process outlined in this policy or as defined by circumstances requiring an administrative grade change.”
None of O’Kane’s students complained about his masking or grading policies — because all wore masks and no grades were impacted.
- UNI also ignored its procedures for imposing discipline, which require “an evidentiary review by a faculty panel prior to the imposition of discipline,” according to United Faculty.
“United Faculty will assist and support Dr. O’Kane in pursuing all internal appeal processes under the 1973 BOR Procedures,” according to the letter.
UNI on Monday didn’t immediately respond to the union allegations.
Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman — in response to The Gazette’s question of when Richards’ guidance barring mask, vaccine and distancing mandates became policy — said the full board voted on it and ratified it during its June meeting.
When asked where in regent policy that language now exists, Lehman pointed to a policy giving the board president authorization to determine a state of emergency. He didn’t answer The Gazette’s question of whether guidance given in removing a state of emergency — because a situation has improved — also becomes policy.
Last week, in response to University of Iowa faculty allegations of Chapter 20 violations, the board — through UI President Barbara Wilson — said the code does not “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.”
In the United Faculty letter, his peers report O’Kane — who is 64 and has been at UNI for 26 years — is an “outstanding teacher, scholar, and servant leader” with rare plant systematics and evolution expertise, making him uniquely qualified to teach his assigned courses.
In 2015, O’Kane received the Board of Regents “Award of Excellence,” one of the highest faculty honors awarded, according to the union.
Students have told The Gazette and union leaders they feel shocked and punished by his reprimand and removal from class.
“As a biology student I am in full support of Dr. O'Kane and any other faculty who would like to see all students wear masks in the classroom,” one of his students wrote in an email to the union. “To punish him for requesting safety and public health practice in his own classroom is denying him the right to a safe and healthy workplace.”
That student also noted the class in question “must be done hands-on in a classroom.”
“So this request to wear masks was not unreasonable as we ARE STILL IN A PANDEMIC,” he wrote. “The actions taken against Dr. O’Kane are impeding the education and careers of his students, many of whom are graduating within a year.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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