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The upper-level University of Northern Iowa students who this week lost their specialized “plant systematics” professor feel they’re the ones being punished by the administration’s decision to discipline him for imposing a mask mandate and stripping him of in-person teaching duties.
All of the dozen-plus juniors and seniors were wearing masks in Professor Steve O’Kane’s class, according to UNI senior Brian Yarahmadi — one of his students, who said he needs the class to graduate this winter.
None of the students had a problem with O’Kane’s requirement they wear a mask, he said. And none were disciplined for not wearing one.
“And right now, they don't know who's going to take over the class,” Yarahmadi, 21, told The Gazette on Friday. “It’s highly specialized. Dr. O’Kane — no one has anywhere near his sort of knowledge. Right now he's publishing an Iowa flora book. … There are species named after him, and he's discovered so many species himself, too.”
Whatever alternative administrators find will deprive the UNI students the educational experience they signed up for, Yarahmadi said.
“Hopefully, they find an alternative,” he said. “Right now, we don't know. They just told us, ‘Don't come to class for the time being.’ And so we're all kind of shocked because this sort of was a non-issue.”
Students in the class said they’ve complained to the Board of Regents and UNI administration about their situation and the reprimand against O’Kane — disciplined this week after telling The Gazette on Monday he had imposed a mask mandate in his classes, despite regent and UNI policies barring them.
O’Kane — a couple of weeks into the semester — told his students that he has “health issues and just for everyone’s safety I’m going to ask you guys to wear masks,” Yarahmadi said.
O’Kane, he said, also said anyone with concerns could bring those to him. But none did. And everyone wore a mask, Yarahmadi said, confirming that O’Kane told students they would lose lab points if they refused to comply.
When asked for any emails regents received this week related to O’Kane’s mask mandate, the board office provided The Gazette just one from someone wanting to “report Steve L. O’Kane Jr. for intimidation and abuse of power.”
“While I do not have this professor as an instructor, I do feel that this is a blatant abuse of power,” according to the email’s author, whose name was redacted. “I am concerned for the power of the university if an employee can strong arm the school and students in this manner.”
After O’Kane this week proposed the UNI Faculty Senate pass a resolution encouraging other professors to feel free to mandate masks — and went public with his own choice — UNI administrators on Thursday sent him a “notice of disciplinary action” that was placed in his personnel file.
In addition to being removed from his in-person course this semester, O’Kane won’t be eligible for merit pay this academic year and must complete training on his responsibilities as a faculty member by Nov. 30.
He’s still teaching online courses this fall and, according to the disciplinary letter, is expected to comply with UNI policy barring mask mandates “going forward.”
O’Kane told The Gazette if he teaches face-to-face in the spring, he’ll again require masks.
He told his in-person students Wednesday night — the same day he received his formal discipline letter — he’s been relieved from being their teacher this fall.
“Given that there is no one else with the expertise to teach this course, I do not know what will happen,” O’Kane told students in his email. “I suggest that you attend class tomorrow to see if someone is there with answers.”
Yarahmadi said he and the others did show up for class — which meets for three hours Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. And they were met by a handful of administrators, including the college dean, head of biology, another academic adviser and some biology professors.
“The dean told us it was sort of a Board of Regents choice, and a lot of people in our class feel that this is … just something that's been politicized,” he said. “Nobody in that class really cares about masks. We wear masks, and we don't even think about it.”
But now, he said, “the students are kind of the ones that are punished because we don't have this class now.”
The dean during the meeting told students the administration is working to find a replacement but doesn’t have one at this time, Yarahmadi said.
“They said probably it'll take at least a week to figure something out,” he said.
Yarahmadi asked the dean during the meeting why they took such an extreme step.
“It seems completely disproportionate to what he did,” he said. “Pretty much like all the other questions, they ran around it. It was just kind of disappointing. There were no real answers.”
The students feel UNI and the regents are making an example out of O’Kane, considering he didn’t actually punish any students and no students were upset by his mask mandate.
And — like the UNI, University of Iowa, and Iowa State University faculty who’ve demanded local decision-making power on COVID precautions — Yarahmadi said he would like to see faculty have that authority.
“I, like a lot of other students, felt that I'd rather have Dr. O’Kane and the other professors and doctors at Iowa, Iowa State, UNI making those health decisions for us instead of the Board of Regents,” he said. “That's an easy choice for me of who I'd rather listen to.”
UNI, when asked for comment on the student concerns Friday, told The Gazette it has strongly encouraged indoor mask use but faculty knew about the mandate prohibition before the fall semester began.
“UNI is extremely sensitive to student concerns,” officials said in a statement. “Department leaders have met with affected students and are working to quickly bring in an experienced instructor.”
Although some students might have been willing to comply "with an unauthorized mandate,“ officials said, ”UNI must protect the rights of all students.“
The Board of Regents, when asked for comment Friday, said, “We support the university’s decision.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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