OU faculty, student workers concerned about return to campus

Photo courtesy of Oakland University

Photo courtesy of Oakland University

Amid surging COVID-19 cases fueled by the Delta Variant, faculty members and student workers are voicing their criticisms of the university’s proposed return to campus for the fall semester. Many of these concerns arise from derision surrounding the university’s decision on a vaccine mandate, and the elimination of options for employees to work remotely.

OU has taken steps like enacting a mask mandate for everyone regardless of vaccination status on Aug. 5, and requiring students living on campus to provide proof of vaccination. Unlike other major in-state universities University of Michigan and Michigan State University, OU has foregone a vaccine mandate, choosing to encourage and recommend, instead of explicitly enforcing vaccination for the rest of the campus community. 

This decision has been a major point of contention between the faculty union and the administration, as 80% of faculty who responded to a recent survey voted in favor of a vaccine mandate. This issue was raised during last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, and OU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) expressed their concerns in a press release earlier this week.

“With the Delta variant of Covid-19 spreading rapidly across the country and Oakland’s, to date, incomplete campus safety protocols and procedures, faculty anxiety regarding teaching in person for fall continues to grow,” The release said. “The [OU AAUP has] received a flurry of communications from faculty who are afraid for their own health if they have to return to campus for in person instruction. They are concerned for the health of their family members who are particularly vulnerable–the unvaccinated and those with underlying medical conditions, and they want a say in determining whether their courses must meet in person.”

OU AAUP President and Associate Professor of History Karen Miller further elaborated on sentiments expressed in the press release.

“I am concerned that students will come to campus, particularly in the larger lecture halls … 50 or more people, and you don’t know whether or not they’re vaccinated, and one of them comes in with the Delta Variant … we can have a hotspot being generated in one of our classrooms,” Miller said. “I think everyone’s worried, it’s not just faculty … we have students who have had extraordinary family difficulties. They’ve lost grandparents, they’ve lost aunts and uncles. In some cases, our students have been hospitalized. This concerns me. And I think we need to do more to assure everybody in the community that Oakland is as safe as we can make it.”

Given the severity of the Delta Variant, faculty are frustrated that the university is restricting the ability professors had last year to transform their courses from in-person to remotely-held asynchronous class meetings in order to protect themselves and their students from the pandemic.

“Last year, if a faculty member felt unsafe, they could move their classes online,” Miller said. “As we understand the rules right now, and there has been a certain lack of clarity about that, but as we understand the rules right now, if we are scheduled to teach face to face, we are to appear in our classrooms.”

The university started this week allowing exceptions for faculty with specific medical conditions to make their classes remote, but according to Miller, the application and review process for who receives those exceptions is currently unclear.

Student workers are similarly frustrated with a lack of remote options. Last year, there was an allowance for student employees to work remotely and report their hours, and so student organizations established remote infrastructure to keep their employees safe and prevent transmission of COVID-19. This year, that infrastructure is being abandoned, and students are mandated to clock in and out on campus for their hours starting the week of Sept. 2.

It’s been disappointing to see the University disregarding the threat of the virus and especially the variants. I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone to be forced to work in-person if their job can be done remotely,” Legislative Affairs Director of Oakland University Student Congress Jordan Tolbert said. “In Student Congress, we were told that our meetings have to be in person now. Too many of us are extremely uncomfortable with that notion, but it’s been implied that we pretty much don’t have a choice. We’re being told that it’s fine because of mask mandates, but there’s truly nobody to enforce that. In the classes I’ve had in person last semester, many people didn’t wear their masks and professors didn’t tell them to put one on. Even then, too many people were wearing them improperly.” 

Oakland United Student Workers Coalition (OUSWC) representative Jeremy Johnson is concerned with what he sees as a disconnect between the words and actions of the administration, and how that disconnect is going to affect student workers.

“The return to campus plan has seemingly been all over the place. And my fear is that with just about every other change policy regulation, the needs of student workers are going to be left behind or going to be an afterthought,” Johnson said. “When it came to [COVID-19], the concerns of student workers, whether it be for their physical or mental health, which to be fair are the same … should be weighed the same … Those kinds of concerns are always left behind or answered in a way, we’re dressed in a way that is performative. They’re dressed in a way that’s not really intended to fix the problem. My concern would be that student workers are going to continue to not be listened to.”

Worth noting is the fact that student organizations were notified of the university’s change in policy to not accept remote hours back in June, and that policy has not been adjusted despite the spike in cases that has occurred in the last month.

To some this lack of flexibility seems out of step with how proactive the university was in its pandemic response last year. This perception has negatively affected morale on campus and led to speculation on what’s changed in the administration’s approach. The common thread in these speculations being university finances.

“I’ve seen those in charge of this decision speak on COVID-19, they’ve stipulated how much [COVID-19] impacted the finances of OU,” Tolbert said. “Remote classes and work meant that less people were attending university, and therefore less people were paying tuition. That’s not to say that the only reason this is being done is for capital, but I think it should be ‘people over profit’ always. Keeping everyone safe should be the number one priority.”