Faculty leaders blast KU’s return-to-campus policies, and a few refuse to comply

An aerial photo of Kansas University’s campus as it looks in August 2015.

Dozens of department leaders at the University of Kansas are demanding more transparency from administrators about plans to reopen campus after a COVID-19-induced shutdown, and a few of them have refused to comply with a mandate that requires instructors to document their health conditions in order to get an exemption from in-person teaching, the Journal-World has learned.

When KU announced a slate of reopening-related measures earlier this month, it mentioned that faculty members could opt out of in-person instruction if they could show under the Americans with Disabilities Act that they would be at high risk of serious complications if they contracted the virus.

But KU administrators also asked department leaders to tell them within nine days which faculty members would be opting out of in-person teaching — and a few of the leaders said they wouldn’t be fully complying with the request, according to emails obtained by the Journal-World.

And in a letter sent to Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer on Friday, more than 240 instructors made a host of demands related to other parts of the reopening plan — transparency, communication, finances and more.

It capped a tumultuous week of simmering anger and fear among KU faculty.

Joseph Harrington, a KU English professor, told the Journal-World that the communication issues between faculty and administrators were hardly surprising.

“I’m not surprised people are confused, as we’ve been getting mixed messages from different levels. For instance, (interim College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean John Colombo) told us instructors could choose an all-online option for course delivery,” Harrington said in an email. “But the University then told us that the dean misspoke. In other words, the Administration is not only secretive and non-consultative with students, staff, and faculty — they don’t even talk to each other.”

• • •

After the ADA exemption mandate for teaching remotely was announced on June 15, many faculty members began voicing privacy worries and a host of practical concerns about how the mandate would work.

In a June 23 letter to Bichelmeyer, 49 department chairs across the university wrote that the “problematic” mandate would force many faculty members to divulge private medical history to their supervisors, and that it simply wasn’t necessary. The letter also took issue with the fact that ADA exemptions in the case of COVID-19 would not apply to faculty members who live with people who are immunocompromised or are at higher risk of complications.

“The necessity for deliberation on, for example, the accommodations available to instructors with eldercare responsibilities or with children with special needs is completely left out of the ADA model,” the letter reads. “We believe that a statement from an instructor indicating that they do not trust that they are returning to a safe workplace be accepted as sufficient reason for not returning to in person teaching.”

Bichelmeyer responded to the letter just before 8 p.m. Friday — three days after it was sent — in an email obtained by the Journal-World. The provost apologized for not providing the information instructors need to make informed decisions about the fall semester.

“This information should have been made available to you much earlier in the summer and prior to this process. There has been a group working hard to review and propose ideas to address your concerns, so that I might begin a conversation with you to modify the process,” Bichelmeyer wrote. “I anticipate you will have an email in your inbox first thing (on) Monday morning so we can work together to make this right.”

Another one of the faculty members’ concerns was timing. On June 15, Bichelmeyer’s office asked school deans to provide information by June 24 about which instructors would be teaching which classes, and where, in the fall semester, but multiple faculty members told the Journal-World that it would take longer than just nine days to obtain an ADA exemption. They said the application process is cumbersome even under normal circumstances and usually requires a doctor’s visit.

No faculty members contacted by the newspaper had been told how many exemption requests KU’s ADA office — which is staffed by only two employees — had received since June 15. A KU spokesperson did not respond to a request for the figure, nor did the ADA office director.

• • •

Some of the department chairs went further than just voicing their disapproval of the mandate — they refused to comply with it.

The Journal-World obtained correspondence from several of the department chairs who signed the letter to Bichelmeyer, and a handful of them wrote that they wouldn’t require instructors in their departments to have an ADA-approved exemption on file. Instead, they wrote that they would let their subordinates choose whether to return based on whether they felt safe.

The Journal-World obtained all of the correspondence from department chairs via sources other than the chairs themselves.

Nicholas Syrett, of KU’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, told graduate student instructors that the option to teach in-person or remotely was entirely theirs. In his email to them, he said that submitting a spreadsheet to Bichelmeyer’s office with the various statuses of instructors’ ADA exemption requests, as all department chairs had been instructed to do by June 24, “… now seems absurd.”

And Michael Vitevitch, chair of the KU psychology department, told his subordinates via email when he submitted a spreadsheet that it had been a “pleasure” to serve the department as chair — in case, he said, the justifications for instructors teaching remotely were “received poorly by the Dean or Provost” and he was asked to resign.

David Roediger, the outgoing chair of the KU American Studies department and a Foundation Distinguished Professor, told Colombo in an email that he wouldn’t submit a spreadsheet indicating the department’s plans for the fall.

Roediger wrote that it was hard for him to comply with the mandate from the provost’s office for a number of reasons. First, many teaching roles in his department are filled by graduate students, who work under a union contract and would “rightly” resist changes forced on them without negotiation.

Second, Roediger said, when it became apparent several weeks ago that KU would be “forcing” faculty and graduate student instructors into the classroom, he consulted an outside attorney in his position as chair. That attorney, Roediger wrote, indicated that since department chairs at KU know the epidemiological risks of reopening, they shouldn’t sign off on a still-unspecified fall plan for “liability reasons.”

• • •

Another letter to top administrators shows that the ADA exemption mandate isn’t all that instructors are upset about.

On Friday afternoon, the Journal-World received a new list of demands and an open letter to Girod and Bichelmeyer. The letter was signed by more than 240 KU instructors — ranging from full professors to graduate student instructors.

The group, which dubs itself “Concerned Faculty of the University of Kansas,” said in the letter that it uniformly rejects the idea that a return to in-person teaching should be KU’s top priority this fall.

“We understand that we are living in unprecedented times and that the already-compromised state of KU’s budget deepens the impact of this crisis,” the letter says. “Nonetheless, we are united in our view that our first priority must be the safety and health of all members of our campus community and Lawrence.”

The letter’s seven demands are related to communication, transparency, finances and more, and they were compiled by various faculty interest groups “out of anger at the failure to present us with a serious, thoughtful and safe plan for returning to on-campus teaching in the fall,” the letter says.

One of the demands is for greater transparency from administration about plans for testing and contact tracing on campus. The Journal-World has asked similar questions for weeks and has been told plans are still in development.

The group also calls for more “sincerity” from administrators about what truly is driving a return to campus; a more equitable scaling of salary cuts that were announced earlier this month; and more ability for faculty to give input into KU Endowment’s financial decisions.

Regarding the latter, the group insists that KU Endowment produce emergency funds to help fill the gaps of the potential $120 million budget shortfall facing the university in the coming fiscal year.

“We see a link between the one-size-fits-all approach (to reopening campus) and the failure to acknowledge KU’s importance beyond the areas where it generates revenue,” the open letter reads. “Many of us have taken exception to this approach as it has come to characterize our administration long before this crisis.”

Contact Conner Mitchell

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