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The University of Northern Iowa biology professor who this month imposed a mask mandate in his class and threatened lower grades for violators — despite Board of Regents and university policies — has been relieved of his in-person teaching duties for the rest of the semester and won’t be eligible for any merit pay this year.
Professor Steve L. O’Kane — who is 64 and has been at UNI for 26 years — will be allowed to continue teaching his online courses this semester, according to a disciplinary letter from UNI College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences Dean John Fritch.
That letter, provided to The Gazette, told O’Kane that, “Going forward, you will be expected to comply with all university and (Board of Regents) policies, including all policies or directives regarding masks or face coverings. Failure to follow such policies may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
O’Kane told The Gazette on Monday that he had imposed a mask mandate in his class and threatened to lower students’ lab grades if they refused to cover their faces. His disciplinary letter cites his quote in The Gazette saying, “My students, not surprisingly, now all wear masks as they know there will be consequences to their grades.”
“Based upon this information, it is apparent you have acted in violation of university and (Board of Regents) policy by requiring masks of yours students,” according to the letter. “Further, you have violated UNI policy 6.10 regarding your responsibilities to your students by threatening to lower your students’ grades should they refuse to comply with your self-imposed mask mandate.”
His specific discipline includes:
- Completing training addressing his professional responsibilities as a faculty member, including following university policies, by Nov. 30.
- Receiving a “needs improvement” performance evaluation for the 2021-22 academic year, making him ineligible for merit pay.
- Being removed from his in-person course immediately and replaced by another faculty member, although he’ll keep teaching online and be assigned “other duties.”
O’Kane told The Gazette he holds no animosity toward the UNI administrators who penalized him. And — even if regent and campus policies remain unchanged — he’ll impose another mask mandate in his class if given the chance to teach in-person in the spring semester.
“The answer is yes, I’ll stick with the mask requirement,” he said.
These are risks O’Kane said he can make, given he’s so close to retirement. “I’m just, one, two, three years from retirement,” he said. “And if I were to be terminated, this would not ruin my life.”
He told The Gazette other faculty on his campus also have imposed mask mandates in their classes, but said he’s the only one who’s been willing to put his name out there publicly.
"We know, I know, the upper administration knows that I’m not the only civil disobedient here at UNI,“ he said. ”I just happen to be the only one to have his name attached to it.“
UNI officials said they have not received other reports or complaints of unauthorized mask requirements in classrooms or on campus, despite O’Kane’s assertion.
The professor met with administrators Tuesday — the day after The Gazette’s story — to discuss the matter, during which he acknowledged understanding board and UNI policies.
“I told the provost … most of us somewhere in our lives have a hill they’re willing to die on,” he said. “And this is one of my hills.”
In a statement, UNI officials said they’re “deeply committed to the health and safety of our campus community.”
“Under Board of Regents directives, neither the university nor faculty can mandate that masks be worn on campus, including in classrooms,” according to the statement. “UNI has processes in place to address violations of university and Board of Regents policy. After an internal review of actions by a single faculty member, the university has taken appropriate measures to uphold compliance with those policies on campus. We cannot comment further on personnel matters.”
Regents President Mike Richards in May issued guidance barring the state’s three public universities from requiring masks, social distancing or COVID-19 vaccinations. Although that was issued before the delta variant worsened the spread, the new wave of infections and demands from faculty asking for local control, Richards has remained steadfast in his prohibition of mandates.
O’Kane told The Gazette he endured some soul searching before deciding to take a public stand on the issue — but was motivated by high-risk friends.
“I had a pang of conscience, honestly,” he said. “It said, you need to do the moral and ethical thing. You simply must … I feel that I have a moral imperative to protect.”
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