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Heeding mounting pressure from students and others, the University of Northern Iowa revised its discipline of a professor who rebuffed policy by requiring masks in his classes.
Steve O’Kane now will be allowed to continue teaching the class he was removed from last week.
“After listening to the concerns and working closely with all parties involved, the University of Northern Iowa has reached an agreement with a faculty member to continue teaching his course,” administrators said Wednesday night in a statement provided to The Gazette.
Longtime UNI biology professor Steve O’Kane, 64, for the rest of the semester will teach his “plant systematics” course and lab online. As some portions of the lab-based class still must happen in person, UNI announced another “high-qualified professor will handle other classroom duties.”
UNI officials didn’t identify that face-to-face professor on Wednesday.
And, unlike when O’Kane was in charge of the in-person instruction, “masks will not be mandated in the class.”
“Board and university policy has not changed,” according to the UNI statement. “UNI continues to support the rights of all our faculty, staff, and students and is pleased to have reached a resolution that protects all of those involved.”
O’Kane — who has been at UNI for 26 years — was stripped of his in-person teaching duties and threatened with termination last week after he told The Gazette he had mandated masks in his lab, despite regent guidance barring such requirements, and threatened to lower student grades if they refused.
In addition to losing his in-person class, O’Kane was required to complete a faculty-responsibilities training by the end of November and given a “needs improvement” performance evaluation, making him ineligible for merit pay.
O’Kane was allowed to continue teaching his online courses and told he would be expected to follow UNI and regent policy going forward — or face more discipline and possibly termination.
If given in-person courses in the spring, O’Kane told The Gazette he again would require masks — unless the COVID situation changed. UNI hasn’t said whether O’Kane will be teaching in person in the spring.
When UNI said they planned to pull O’Kane completely from the plant systematics course and replace him, his dozen students spoke out — demanding his reinstatement and saying they signed up to learn from O’Kane but weren’t getting what they paid for.
“As a class we are deeply saddened that the university would punish us and our professor and we ask that the university take steps to reverse the unjust punishments imposed on Dr. O’Kane and in effect his students,” the students wrote in a joint statement.
UNI Student Government leadership also on Wednesday considered a resolution supporting the students, who they said “have expressed that the course of action taken by the university has put them under great distress, had a negative impact on their experiences both academically and personally, and left them with an uncertain future at UNI.”
The student government’s draft resolution condemned UNI’s handing of the situation, noting administrators were “not able to provide the students of plant systematics with any concrete solutions regarding the future of their class, their credits, or their course fees.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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