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The upper-level University of Northern Iowa students who last week experienced the “unnecessary stress and anxiety” of losing their specialized Plant Systematics professor as part of his discipline for mandating masks want their money back.
UNI biology professor Steve O’Kane’s dozen affected students on Thursday issued a list of demands for administrators, including that they receive a full or partial refund of the tuition they paid for the course, which has been upended and reformatted to be vastly different from what they signed up for.
“We suggest as a class that all restrictions still in place regarding Dr. O’Kane and his classroom should be removed and that the normal course will be followed as closely as possible,” according to the student demands, which include the following statement:
“Students share concern that politics and special interests upheld by the Iowa Board of Regents and their acting superior are involved in the actions taken against our class,” they wrote. “The safety and health of students and faculty is not considered by the board policy.
“The policy is politically motivated and has obviously failed us as students and as a university community.”
UNI in a statement said it “continues to support the rights of all our faculty, staff and students.”
Other student demands include:
- Imposing of a pass/fail grading format, calling it the “only way to make this revised format of the course fair.”
- Producing a “formal and entire explanation written to us for the actions taken against our professor and by consequence directly upon innocent students,” including specific names of those responsible.
- Creating a new UNI policy to protect students in “this type of situation of any student suffering academic disruption by administrative actions upon the professor.”
O’Kane on Thursday told The Gazette he worked with the college dean and department chair to formulate a solution allowing him to keep teaching the class he was removed from — online — with in-class help from a colleague.
“We worked out a solution that had the least amount of pain,” O’Kane, 64, said of his work with College of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences Dean John Fritch and Biology Department Head Theresa Spradling.
But — to his students’ point — it remains far from ideal, according to O’Kane, who also was blocked from earning merit pay this year and threatened with termination after telling The Gazette last week he mandated masks in class despite Board of Regents guidance barring it.
Although UNI told O’Kane in his disciplinary letter that another faculty member would take over instruction of his in-person course, administrators did not have anyone at the ready.
That left O’Kane’s students — none of whom had complained to the administration and all of whom had agreed to wear masks — without a professor or a path forward.
In that many of the students needed the specialized 4000-level course to graduate, some reported feeling punished, too. And that was UNI Student Government President Samantha Bennett’s main contention with UNI’s response.
“I do still think it's disappointing it took this long to find solutions for these students, as the university should have prepared something sooner,” she told The Gazette on Thursday, after learning O’Kane will be allowed to keep teaching his Plant Systematics students virtually.
“It would appear as if the effect O'Kane's removal would have on his Plant Systematics students was an afterthought since no plan was initially established to ensure these students could continue their education,” she said.
Going forward, O’Kane will be allowed to give Plant Systematics lectures virtually on Tuesdays, and his colleague — associate biology professor Julie Kang — will fill in for him in the lab on Thursdays, where masks will not be required.
“Under Board of Regents directives, neither the university nor faculty members can mandate that face coverings be worn on campus,” according to UNI’s Wednesday evening statement announcing O’Kane will be allowed to keep teaching his courses and lab online.
O’Kane said he’ll prepare lab materials for his students but will have to truncate the number of examples he gives them — as Kang has a course that overlaps with his lab she’s overseeing, shaving about an hour and a half off the 12:30 to 3:20 p.m. class.
Now it will go from about 2 p.m. to 3:20 p.m., he said.
“What that means is I need to really focus on the absolute best material,” O’Kane told The Gazette.
To date, O’Kane said no one with the Board of Regents or upper UNI administration has reached out to connect with him about the situation. And he was surprised UNI put out a statement so quickly after he reached the resolution with his supervisors.
“I had no idea that the upper administration would, for all intents and purposes, instantly have a release,” O’Kane told The Gazette. “It makes the upper administration sound so concerned … They come off sounding so squeaky clean.
“But the actual boots on the ground picture is quite different,” he said, noting, “I have made it extremely clear to the upper administration how upset I am that the punishment for this ‘crime’ is falling on my students, not me.”
Despite the resolution, O’Kane said he remains concerned about the campus and regent guidance barring mask mandates.
“I hope that people don't feel that, ‘Aha, this whole situation is now resolved,’ when it's not in any way, shape, or form,” he said.
O’Kane said he’s still upset faculty can’t require masks in class; that professor Kang is having to take on extra work; that he needs to jump through new hoops to facilitate a working lab experience; and that his students still are being shorted.
“I’m sad that my students aren’t going to get as rich as experience as they would normally,” he said.
In addition to their demands, O’Kane’s students Thursday produced a list of concerns about how the situation was and is being handled, including their thoughts that:
- Professors “should be able to uphold their own reasonable rules and expectations” in class, including mask mandates — as, “This is currently still a pandemic, and it is justified to request as safe work/learning environment.”
- The administrative actions against O’Kane “caused unnecessary stress and anxiety that cannot be taken back,” with many reporting “some level of depression.”
- They’re still being depraved of the O’Kane instruction they signed up for.
- Some course work has gone to waste.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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