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Heading into a spring semester plagued by soaring COVID cases, a University of Northern Iowa professor again will be doing all his teaching online due to his insistence students in his classes wear face masks.
UNI biology professor Steve O’Kane — who’s been at UNI for more than 25 years — made news in the fall when he required his students to wear masks or suffer grade penalties, despite Board of Regents and university guidance prohibiting mask, social distancing or vaccine mandates.
UNI administrators responded initially by stripping O’Kane’s teaching duties, requiring professional training, dinging his performance evaluation, making him ineligible for a raise and threatening termination for “future infractions.”
Given blowback from students and the wider community, alongside the reality UNI hadn’t identified a qualified professor to teach the high-level course O’Kane teaches, administrators reinstated some of his instructional duties.
O’Kane taught the course online, while another professor oversaw his students in the lab.
O’Kane told The Gazette this week the setup was far from ideal.
“The thing that was extremely, I guess embarrassing is the word, was that I no longer retained the supervision of my own grades,” O’Kane said. “So what happened was another person leaned over my shoulder, metaphorically, and looked at all the grades in my gradebook. And even questioned them.
“This is an experience I've never had,” he said. “They trust you to teach the material but not to grade the students.”
Heading into spring, O’Kane said he met with UNI President Mark Nook recently to discuss his employment future.
O’Kane offered to resign three semesters from now — at the end of spring 2023 — if UNI grants him 1.5 years of fully-paid sabbatical leave or a full-time research assignment, allowing him to publish several papers, prepare the UNI Herbarium he curates and prepare his lab for a successor.
“I have had only one one-semester sabbatical 20 years ago,” O’Kane wrote in a proposal to Nook. “I purposely did not take additional leaves because no one could cover what I teach.”
He pitched his offer as being “in the best interest of UNI.”
“It disturbs me greatly to contemplate another semester like the last one,” he said. “My solution would mean that UNI would not have to deal with what I consider my moral duty to impose masks on my students. This solution, too, avoids bad press, annoyed regents and having to deal with lawyers and courts.”
Nook rejected O’Kane’s offer, giving him the option to teach all three of his planned courses for the spring online — including two that were supposed to be in- person — or accept a “differentiated portfolio assignment” teaching two online courses and conducting research.
Given unknowns around how COVID will progress, Nook said, “We feel it is not appropriate to make decisions concerning the next three semesters.”
Board of Regents President Mike Richards this week announced the board isn’t amending its COVID guidance for spring for Iowa’s three public universities — meaning mask, distancing and vaccine mandates remain barred across its campuses.
O’Kane said he “absolutely” would prefer to be in-person with his students, if they’re masked, and longs for the freedom to manage his classroom’s COVID precautions.
“I'm going to miss my students,” he said. “They’re like my children. It’s absolutely crazy how much I love those guys. I love to see them learn.”
UNI also this week formally rejected O’Kane’s fall appeal of his treatment last semester, in which he accused UNI of depriving him of due process and violating faculty standards set forth by the American Association of University Professors.
Through his appeal, O’Kane made three demands: that his evaluation be based solely on his standard departmental performance; that he be allowed to return to in-person teaching “as requested by my students”; and that further discipline would include due-process hearings.
In rejecting O’Kane’s appeal and denying his requests, Associate Provost for Faculty John Vallentine argued the professor failed to produce any evidence showing the sanctions violated UNI’s faculty handbook, the campus’ procedures or policies or O’Kane’s academic freedom.
“You did not present any evidence to support your assertion that the dean’s decision was politically-motivated,” Vallentine wrote, adding he also sees nothing inappropriate with a “needs improvement” notation on his performance evaluation — given the threat of tying grades to masks.
“A faculty member who is found in violation of university policy should not reasonably expect to receive a ‘meets expectations’ or ‘exceeds expectations’ rating,” he wrote. “In any event, by telling your students you would assess their lab work based on their compliance with your self-imposed mask mandate, you failed to satisfy at least two of the university guiding standards.”
That includes failing to disclose grading standards on his course syllabus, “which would suggest you did not provide complete information to students of the evaluation methods.”
AAUP: No hearing
Despite UNI’s contention it did nothing wrong in reprimanding O’Kane, the national AAUP wrote administrators in the fall taking aim at the process it followed in disciplining the professor.
“Under the AAUP-supported procedural standards, a suspension may be imposed as a disciplinary action only after an administration has met the burden of demonstrating adequate cause for the suspension in an adjudicative hearing of record before an elected faculty body,” according to the AAUP’s November letter. “Professor O’Kane reports that he has not been afforded such a hearing.”
The national organization called UNI’s institutional remedies “woefully inadequate according to AAUP-supported standards.”
“The summary imposition of such a judgment is especially worrisome in the case of a tenured faculty member, whose indefinite appointment carries with it a rebuttable presumption of professional competence,” according to the letter.
UNI didn’t respond to that first letter, but UNI Provost Jose Herrera did respond after a second AAUP letter in December with confirmation his institution doesn’t have broad written procedures in place for when the administration wants to impose serious sanctions on faculty.
“I understand the concern expressed by faculty leadership that the university does not currently have generally applicable written procedures to be followed before the university administration imposes serious discipline on faculty,” Herrera wrote. “I agree that it is important that we move forward expeditiously with developing such written procedures.”
Herrera said he charged Vallentine and Faculty Chair Jim Mattingly with leading a working group to develop such procedures.
“I hope that this group will put forward recommended procedures to be considered by the Faculty Handbook Committee by the end of the spring 2022 semester so that these procedures can possibly be added to the Faculty Handbook prior to July 1, 2022.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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