CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa faculty, instructors share fall fears with students

'We're scared'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Monday, Sep. 17, 2018. (The Gazette)

On the eve of a University of Iowa live presentation regarding fall plans for COVID-19-affected academics and classrooms, dozens of UI faculty and instructors aired concerns about the upcoming semester in an “open letter to our students.”

“We’d love to say that we’re eagerly anticipating meeting you this fall, but we have to be honest. We’re scared,” the group of 45 UI teachers wrote Tuesday. “We write this on the twelfth consecutive day of new, double-digit COVID-19 cases in Johnson County. We’re scared for our health and yours, and we’re deeply concerned about the direction in which our university is headed.”

READ THE LETTER: UI instructors write open letter to students about university response to coronavirus

The university is rushing to get ready to welcome back to campus this fall 30,000-some students it sent home mid-March to complete courses online per COVID-19 concerns. But it’s doing so in the face of troubling financials, with coronavirus-related losses and expenses projected at more than $76 million through August, plus less tuition from enrollment declines and state funding cuts in the millions.

With students pining for the traditional collegiate experience — including dorms, football games, cram sessions, and lively classroom debate — UI, like many other campuses locally and nationally, is rolling out a swath of measures aimed to giving students what they want in the safest way possible.

That includes mandated masks. Socially distanced dining halls. Hand sanitizing stations. Residence hall rooms reserved for quarantine and social isolation. Testing. Contact tracing.

And it means large lectures tantamount to the traditional college experience — accounting for a majority of many undergraduates’ courses in the early years — will remain online. Regarding those classes prioritized for in-person instruction in that they involve fewer than 50 students, spaces will be socially-distanced and, at times, relocated into larger classrooms.

It’s those classroom-specific plans, among others, that some faculty are concerned about.

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“Our university has promised that classes will only be held in classrooms that can accommodate twice the number of students, to allow for safe distancing,” the faculty and instructors wrote in their open letter. “We can attest to the fact that those classrooms don’t exist.

“There aren’t enough classrooms on campus to support that plan, much less space in the hallways and corridors where you’ll be waiting for your classes to begin.”

More on the University of Iowa’s COVID-19 response:

UI says it ‘will not be liable’ for COVID-19 spread in residence halls

Hawkeye sports shave millions from budget; Ferentz and Barta take pay cuts

UI council for women airs concerns about disproportionate layoffs

The faculty have raised a spate of questions about whether they’ll be asked to divide their classes into two sections; whether they’ll be compensated if they do; whether they could be asked to shift online mid-semester, or at the last minute; and whether they can choose to start online if they have personal health concerns.

At the same time they’re airing those concerns about heavier workloads, less compensation, and personal stresses, colleges across the university are imposing furloughs, pay cuts, delayed or deleted raises, and layoffs.

In the UI’s largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dean Steve Goddard recently announced three tiers of cuts aimed at saving up to $25 million over several years. And he laid out “certain” measures underway now, including eliminating 15 non-tenure-track lecturers.

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The faculty and staff letter on Tuesday noted administrators cited the “budget crisis” in opting not to renew those lecturers’ contracts.

“And so, the deans, provost, and president — who each make well over $300,000 — have decided to fire instructors who make under $50,000 in order to save money,” according to the letter.

“We worry that a similar fate will befall us when our contract is up for renewal,” the faculty and staff members wrote. “And, because we’re human, that sense of foreboding will inevitably affect our demeanor. As your public servants, we promise to be mindful of that stress when we walk into the classroom. Our administration has been less mindful.”

UI officials for months have warned that hard decisions are coming without ramped up state support. But rather than meeting the Board of Regents ask for an $18 million boost in the new budget year, lawmakers recently slashed $8 million from its public university appropriations.

Measures the UI campus has taken to absorb those cuts and losses have departments staffed with “far fewer faculty than is necessary,” according to the letter.

“What does that mean for you?” they asked. “Well, it could mean that your classes will be larger than they should be. Instead of 20 other people, you may be sharing space with 25 or 30 people, an irresponsible move during a global pandemic.”

It could also mean “already-overworked instructors” will be stretched further without compensation.

“For you, that means less attention, less feedback, and fewer opportunities to meaningfully connect with our incredibly smart and accomplished faculty,” according to the letter.

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They noted in the letter a commitment to their instructional and academic pursuits, even in the face of personal risks and demands — with many parenting small children, living with underlying health conditions, battling cancer, or caring for elderly partners or parents.

But they admitted to feeling “disposable” and demanded UI President Bruce Harreld, Provost Montse Fuentes, and Dean Steve Goddard “explain why they treat your most essential faculty as their most disposable employees.”

They asked students to join them in contacting UI leadership “to demand answers about the COVID-19 budget cuts.”

“After all, you pay their salaries, which have yet to be cut at all. If they treat faculty as disposable during this crisis, how will they treat you?”

UI administrators are hosting a series of live presentations this week and in the coming weeks aimed at addressing academics and the classroom experience, the student experience, human resources supports for employees, and research.

Wednesday marks the first of two sessions on the academics and classroom experience.

Where to watch: https://www.youtube.com/user/universityofiowa at 10 a.m.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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