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The dozen University of Northern Iowa students left without an instructor after administrators stripped him of his in-person teaching duties for making them wear masks have continued meeting at their scheduled class time, and on Tuesday finalized a joint statement in support of their lost professor.
The statement — signed by UNI biology professor Steve O’Kane’s “plant systematics students” — accused UNI of punishing the students in its reprimand of O’Kane and asked administrators to “take steps to reverse the unjust punishments imposed on Dr. O’Kane and in effect his students.”
“The university’s decision to remove professor O’Kane only punished the students of his class who are left without a professor and with no plan on how this course will proceed,” according to the statement, which students said they sent Tuesday afternoon to administrators like UNI President Mark Nook. “Unfortunately, this action taken by the university was not based in science and did not take into consideration the severe consequences it would have on the students of his class.”
The teacher-less students were joined in class Tuesday by some UNI Student Government leaders, who on Wednesday will consider their own resolution condemning the university’s discipline of O’Kane for telling his students they must wear masks or lose lab points — despite Board of Regents guidance blocking Iowa’s public universities from imposing mask, vaccine, or distancing mandates.
“I listened to the students in his Plant Systematics course talk about the amount of distress this has caused them, the uncertainty they are facing about their credits and graduation status, and the fact that the university has not yet provided them with a clear path forward,” UNI Student Government President Samantha Bennett told The Gazette. “These are students in a 4000-level course, now left without an instructor and told their class will not be meeting until further notice.”
She noted the students already had done a large amount of work that now seems for not — at a time of increased anxiety and concerns about mental health.
“Corrections need to be taken by the (Board of Regents) and UNI to ensure these hard working students, who want nothing more than to get the education they have paid for and been promised, are not the ones being punished,” she said. “As it stands right now, they certainly are — and it is unacceptable to me that in a time already rife with stress these students are being made to deal with this unfortunate situation as well.”
In addition to stripping O’Kane of his in-person teaching duties, the university is requiring he complete faculty “responsibilities” training by Nov. 30; giving him a “needs improvement” performance evaluation, making him ineligible for merit pay; and threatening termination if he doesn’t comply with “university and Board of Regents policies” going forward.
Although the college dean’s Sept. 29 discipline letter told O’Kane, “I will be designating another faculty member to teach your in-person course,” students have told The Gazette that no one at UNI has the level of expertise O’Kane has on the topic.
And they said Tuesday they’ve received no word of any replacement professor.
“I can assure you that they are going to find a solution for students,” Brian Yarahmadi, one of O’Kane’s students, told The Gazette. “They definitely have to find a solution because they assured us that we’re going to graduate without any problems.”
But the solution could involve some sort of independent study, according to Yarahmadi, who said he and his classmates haven’t been and really aren’t able to continue working on course material without a professor.
“We haven't been talking about the course material, just because we really don't know where we’d be at, in terms of the course right now,” he said.
UNI officials did not respond to The Gazette’s questions Tuesday about the class statement.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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