Yesterday, March 15, 2022, the Penn administration announced significant policy changes that eliminate indoor masking and other Covid-19 safety measures on our campus. To express the concerns and objections of many of our colleagues, AAUP–Penn’s Covid Response Task Force and the AAUP–Penn Executive Committee immediately drafted the following joint statement, which we sent to the Interim Provost and Interim President as well as the Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs today, March 16th:

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Dear Interim President Wendell Pritchett, Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, and Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs William W. Braham, Vivian L. Gadsden, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson,

Having heard from colleagues alarmed by the University’s March 15th announcement regarding policy changes that remove Covid-19 safety measures, the Penn chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP–Penn) writes to share our collective concerns, and to ask the administration to reconsider these policies and provide clarification.

These abruptly announced policy changes are troubling and unsubstantiated by public health science:

  • Screening testing is now required only for those who are unvaccinated, are not yet fully vaccinated, or have not uploaded their booster information.
  • Masking is now optional in most indoor public spaces on campus, with the temporary exception of classrooms
  • Masking will no longer be required in classrooms after March 28.
  • Visitors to campus are no longer required to be fully vaccinated. 

March 28th is less than a month from the end of the academic year. We are unclear as to why there is such a rush to unmask at this late date in the semester, and these new guidelines raise a number of concerns. In particular:

Our students travel widely during spring break, including to countries with rapidly rising Covid-19 rates such as the UK (despite very high vaccination rates) and other countries that have considerably lower vaccination rates. In addition, wastewater testing shows case rates in the U.S. rising at 38% of testing sites over the past two weeks; 15% of wastewater sites tracked by the CDC showed an increase in Covid-19 levels up to 1000%. This data suggests, despite a temporary lull, that the pandemic is not over. Why eliminate screening testing altogether, rather than modify testing policy and wait to gather data about infection rates on campus? Penn claims to rely on its own scientific expertise, yet the findings of its clinical group that supposedly meets regularly to assess OpenPass guidelines and other Covid-19 policies are never shared. Relying for guidance on the city of Philadelphia, which may be basing its decisions on political pressure as much as public health information, seems out of keeping with the knowledge-driven mission of a research university like Penn.

Booster effectiveness has been shown to drop dramatically after 4 months, causing Pfizer to seek approval for fourth boosters for those 65 and older, a population that includes a significant number of faculty members. Although Penn may have set a deadline of January 2022 for boosters, many faculty, graduate students, and staff received their booster shots when they were first available in October 2021. Such personnel are likely much more vulnerable to the new BA.2 variant. Additionally, students who are immunocompromised or not comfortable going maskless may feel self-conscious about wearing masks in class once they are no longer required. The welfare of our students is a top priority for faculty, and we are concerned for vulnerable members of our classes. We are equally concerned for the safety of staff and campus workers, particularly those who work in densely populated indoor spaces.

In light of the above, many of our colleagues ask for and urgently need further explanation and reconsideration: 

  • Will instructors have the option to require students to wear masks in the classroom, even if Penn’s guidelines make masks optional?
  • Will faculty, grads, and staff with caregiving responsibilities for those in high risk categories, such as the elderly and children under 5 who cannot be vaccinated, be able to shift their teaching or work online if they can no longer expect students and those around them in their workplaces to wear masks? 
  • What steps are being taken to ensure that all students feel safe in common spaces, including immunocompromised, disabled, and other high-risk students? 
  • What steps are being taken to protect the health of staff in high-traffic spaces? 

We realize that some members of the Penn community may be eager to go “back to normal,” and we sympathize deeply with that wish. But we cannot wish away the recurring risks or the impact of the pandemic on the lives of faculty, grads, students, and staff. Some of us have lost family members to Covid, and many of us currently care for elderly parents. Some of us live with partners or family members who are immunocompromised, or are older or otherwise medically vulnerable ourselves, and a very large number of faculty and staff have children under 5 who are still unable to be vaccinated. A non-trivial proportion of contingent faculty who teach Penn students and an even higher proportion of subcontracted campus workers may not even have employer-provided medical coverage if they get sick while working on our campus; what will Penn do to keep them safe? From the start of the pandemic our chapter has asked the University to prioritize the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our community. Removing even the most minimal forms of mitigation such as masking in our shared spaces now feels like organized abandonment. 

In the interest of our entire community, we urge Penn’s central administration to rethink and reverse these premature policy changes.

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Yesterday, the AAUP–Penn Executive Committee issued this statement in a joint proposal with the LGBT Faculty Diversity Working Group to the Faculty Senate to extend parental leave policies to those bringing foster children into their homes:

On behalf of the American Association of University Professors chapter at Penn, we write to express our support for the proposed revisions to the faculty handbook regarding foster care. We agree with our colleagues in the LGBT Faculty Diversity Working Group that the current faculty handbook contains an oversight regarding foster care, which should be treated equally to other forms of bringing a child into the home in terms of parental leave. Correcting this oversight will have a positive impact for faculty of any identity who wish to bring a foster child into their home. But addressing this omission is even more important given that foster care affects some faculty more than others. In particular, the omission has a marked impact on LGBTQ+ faculty, who are up to 15 times more likely to be fostering a child than cis heteronormative faculty.

We urge the Faculty Senate to take action addressing this inequality and provide support for faculty who choose to become foster parents. At the same time, we would push the Faculty Senate and Penn Administration to address the egregious disparities in parental leave policies–for adoption, birth, and fostering–between standing and contingent faculty, as well as graduate students.  We believe that the benefits Penn offers to tenured and tenure-track faculty should be available to everyone who teaches and works at Penn.

In solidarity,
AAUP–Penn Executive Committee

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AAUP–Penn stands with the many graduate student workers at Harvard who walked out of classes on February 14th in solidarity with their colleagues Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava, whose harassment complaints against Professor John L. Comaroff are now the subject of a lawsuit against Harvard. The details of the case are outrageous; you can read the full text of the lawsuit here. Not least stunning is the disclosure that Harvard allegedly obtained confidential records from the private therapist of one of the complainants and gave this private mental health information to her harasser. The failures of the Title IX system are evident in that office’s apparent complicity in Harvard’s mishandling of complaints. This is why HGSU-UAW has called for neutral, third-party arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination at Harvard—a key provision that SWC successfully won in their recent first contract with Columbia

The circling of wagons around Comaroff by 38 prominent senior faculty who signed an ill-informed letter in his defense was deeply disheartening. We take more encouragement from the thousands of people at Harvard and elsewhere who signed this letter denouncing it and supporting the complainants, and from this earlier statement signed by over 100 Harvard faculty in solidarity with grads (in November 2021, prior to the current suit) supporting HGSU’s demand for real recourse. This case bears out the need for it, and the student editors of the Harvard Crimson make the same argument in this editorial.

These issues are pervasive, often entrenched in status hierarchies that make graduate students vulnerable—especially in cases of harassment by an advisor on whom their careers may depend and about whom they cannot complain without serious professional and personal consequences. Gendered and racial inequity and power imbalances exacerbate these problems for grads and, indeed, for faculty on and off the tenure track as well. In the politicized climate of the past six years, threats against the academic freedom of women and LGBTQIA faculty, and faculty of color, often take the form of sexual harassment. Graduate students and student workers, faculty, and staff at Penn are justifiably concerned about how our own University handles cases of workplace harassment, sexual and otherwise. An op-ed from last spring by Penn students on national Title IX review and the need for Penn to take more active steps to prevent sexual assault and harassment attests that this concern is longstanding. Anecdotally, too many of us know of complaints of discrimination and workplace harassment that have been swept under the rug. An overreliance on the often dysfunctional Title IX apparatus is part of the problem. We need assurance from the Penn administration that the University is committed both to preventing harassment, assault, and discrimination in the first place and to pursuing complaints in a serious and impartial manner.

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AAUP–Penn strongly endorses the faculty request, signed by more than 150 colleagues, that Penn support our international and especially Chinese/Chinese American colleagues facing racial profiling by the U.S. Department of Justice under the China Initiative. The increasing restrictions on international scholars’ and students’ visas and on international scientific collaborations as well as the unfounded accusations against U.S.-based researchers all pose threats to Asian and Asian American faculty members’ research, employment, and safety. (See, for example, the fabricated charges against Temple University professor Xiaoxing Xi.) 

On February 8th, AAUP–Penn’s Executive Committee asked the Faculty Senate to agree to present the Penn Faculty Letters on the China Initiative to the University administration on behalf of the entire Penn faculty. Members of Penn’s central administration have now agreed to meet with the letter’s primary authors to answer questions. We hope that a more public statement of the University’s support of the seven requests outlined in the letter to the Faculty Senate will follow, since Penn’s response to the China Initiative is a matter of concern to our entire community. Our colleagues deserve the full support of the University, and we encourage all members of the Penn community to voice their own support by signing and sharing these letters.

We also encourage all our colleagues and students to read this article in the Daily Pennsylvanian about the faculty letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on the DOJ to overturn this highly discriminatory and harmful policy.

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It is uplifting to see Student Workers of Columbia signing their SWC-UAW cards this week after voting by a supermajority of 97.6% on January 28th to ratify their 1/7 tentative agreement with Columbia—the union’s first contract with the University. This victory is as hard-won as it gets, after nearly ten weeks on the picket line. SWC’s significant contract wins are worth celebrating in detail. They include retroactive compensation raises of 6% for PhD students, bringing 12-month appointment minimums up to $43.1k for AY21/22 and $44.4k for AY22/23 and 9-month appointment minimums to $32.3k (AY21/22) and $33.3k (AY22/23); pay parity (bringing PhD students’ pay in the School of Social Work and School of Public Health up to the level of pay in other divisions); dental care covering 75% of premiums for PhD students and their dependents; child care subsidy increases of $4,500 per child for AY21/22 and $5,000 per child for AY22/23; and access to neutral arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment.

These victories not only improve the quality of life for Columbia’s student workers but also raise the bar for other universities. The indirect effects of the Columbia strike are already evident in Princeton University’s recent announcement of a very significant (25%) stipend increase that brings fellowship funding for doctoral students up to $40,000 on average. That raise is unquestionably a win for Princeton grad students. Meanwhile, compensation alone (important as it is) does not remedy power imbalances and inadequate labor protections that graduate students, instructors, and researchers face. This of course includes a widespread lack of real recourse in cases of harrassment, as we have also seen just this week in the appalling details of the lawsuit against Harvard for its longstanding indifference to multiple sexual harrassment complaints. These issues are systematic, and they extend to our own campus as well. 

As a chapter of the American Association of University Professors, AAUP–Penn strongly supports the principle of workplace democracy in higher education and the rights of all workers to organize and to bargain collectively for fair terms of employment. These rights are protected by federal law and have been upheld by the NLRB in their application to grad workers. The need for such organizing is great particularly for those whose positions make them vulnerable, including student workers, contingent faculty, and contract staff. With all of these concerns immediately in view, we stand in solidarity—as ever—with graduate students’ concerted actions to secure better working conditions, fair pay and benefits, and protection from harassment and disrimination on all university campuses, including here at Penn.

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On behalf of the American Association of University Professors chapter at Penn, we write to express concern about the planned return to in-person classes and campus-based work on January 24th and to inquire about the basis for the decision to proceed on that timeline. If the shift to remote instruction for the first twelve days of the semester during the Omicron spike was a response to the extremely high level of transmission, we would ask whether this level has changed sufficiently to warrant a return to full density on campus. What evidence is being used to support the conclusion that such a plan is safe? 

In addition, we ask what policies regarding quarantine will apply to students, faculty, and other employees who test positive. The 13.2% positivity rate reported at Penn for the week of Jan. 2-8 alone is alarming. Will Penn be following the CDC’s recently reduced quarantine guidelines (which have forced people back to work while still contagious) or setting its own? 

While the University may maintain that its decisions are based on the unlikelihood of classroom transmission, we note that those who teach at Penn do not simply exit their homes and enter the classroom but in many cases must commute via public transportation, eat in shared spaces if they do not have private offices, and assume many other exposure risks as part of the requirement that they be present on campus. We also note that childcare and school closures (and quarantining children) are already significantly impacting many members of the Penn community, a situation that will require some faculty, graduate students, and staff to teach or work remotely as a matter of necessity. We thus urge Penn to provide clear guidance and support to instructors and staff facing such issues.  

Since many Penn employees and students have medical conditions themselves or vulnerable members of their households, we ask yet again that those who need reasonable accommodation be granted it promptly. Colleagues have shared troubling accounts of obstacles to their requests for accommodation. In one instance, an instructor with documented health issues was finally granted permission to teach online on the last day of the fall semester, only to be told that a new process for accommodation would be required and a fresh application would need to be submitted for the spring term. Experiences shared by our colleagues point to an accommodation request system that lacks transparency and consistency. Requests to teach remotely for reasons that have been approved in one program or division have apparently been denied without explanation in another, or have been approved by OAA only to be turned down by a dean. We are concerned that the process Penn has set up is both inequitable and overly burdensome, constituting more of a roadblock than a path to supporting student instruction.  

The needs of students with medical vulnerabilities and disabilities are also being deprioritized by the return to in-person classes. What measures is Penn taking to ensure that our students do not have to choose between their academic progress and their health?

Finally, we underscore as a matter of academic freedom that it is the decision of instructors as experts in their fields what pedagogical methods and formats are most appropriate for delivering the material they teach. We further support the right of any instructors and staff who feel unsafe working on campus to work from home when circumstances warrant it. 

If there is insufficient scientific evidence that the Omicron threat is significantly reduced at present, AAUP–Penn recommends an extension of remote teaching and work until conditions decisively improve.

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UPDATE (12/4): Compounding their previous withholding of wages and stipends, Columbia University’s HR Department sent an email on December 2nd to striking student workers in SWC threatening to withhold their teaching and research appointments or replace them permanently if they do not break the strike by December 10th. AAUPPenn stands in solidarity with Columbia’s student workers against this shameful (and likely illegal) threat of retaliation by the Columbia administration, and we support the 3,000+ SWC members holding the line into the sixth week of their strike—the largest strike in the U.S. at this time.

We are heartened to see colleagues at Columbia responding to the University’s threat by organizing a faculty-led walkout and rally on Monday, December 6th at 12:30pm at the Sundial (see below), and we continue to urge faculty to join the picket line and take a stand against these retaliatory tactics.

Since student workers already struggled to pay rent on earnings from Columbia that are well below the living wage in New York City (the lowest grad stipend, adjusted for cost of living, of 10 of Columbia’s peer institutions), and those on strike are facing withheld wages and threats to their livelihoods, we urge all colleagues who can afford it to contribute to SWC’s Hardship Fund.

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ADDITIONAL UPDATE (12/7): In response to Columbia’s retaliatory threat (in violation of the National Labor Relations Act; see 29 USC §163) against student workers engaged in protected concerted labor action, SWC members are asking all supporters (including those at other institutions) to sign this letter to save Columbia teachers’ and researchers’ jobs. We encourage our colleagues at Penn and everywhere to sign and everyone in the area to join the picket line and support student workers’ strike for a fair contract.

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Lecturers across University of California campuses in UC-AFT achieved signifiant contract wins today and were able to avert a multi-campus strike that was set to begin November 17th. These contingent faculty members, who teach approximately 1/3 of all undergraduate courses in the UC system, had been stuck in contract negotiations since April 2019. They have now reached a resolution to two of the unfair labor practices by UC leadership that prompted UC-AFT’s strike authorization vote, and they have won multi-year contracts for all UC lecturers after the first year of teaching, rehiring rights, 20% raises over the next four years, and a $1500 signing bonus. Congratulations and solidarity!


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Student Workers of Columbia, a union representing over 3,000 graduate and undergraduate student workers in UAW Local 2110, goes on strike starting November 3, 2021. AAUP–Penn stands in solidarity with SWC as they demand a fair contract that includes a living wage, better healthcare, childcare, union recognition for all student workers, and grievance and neutral arbitration for sexual harassment and discrimination.

As ever, we urge colleagues at Columbia not to cross the picket line and to cancel classes where possible. Allies in the area can walk the picket line with SWC from 10am-2pm this Wed.–Fri. Those wishing to offer solidarity from elsewhere can support striking student workers by contributing to their Hardship Fund.

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AAUP–Penn stands with Harvard grad workers in HGSU-UAW Local 5118 as they go on strike starting October 27 to demand fair pay that keeps up with the cost of living, real recourse from sexual harassment, and an agency shop that enables student workers to sustain their union. We call on the Harvard administration to bargain in good faith for a fair contract, and we urge colleagues at Harvard not to cross the picket line.

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