[On 9/11/2021, the Executive Committee of AAUP–Penn issued this statement to the Office of the Provost:]

On behalf of hundreds of Penn instructors and staff who have reached out to AAUP–Penn for support, responded to our poll on safety measures, signed our colleagues’ petition, and submitted questions to the Faculty Senate that remain unanswered by administrators, we are writing to state three basic expectations for workplace safety. There is broad consensus that Penn must institute the following measures if the University expects faculty and staff to work productively and well this semester under potentially life-threatening conditions:

  1. Include classrooms automatically in contact tracing, and notify instructors and staff as well as students immediately of a positive result in a classroom in which they have worked. While Penn’s Wellness Office claims that classroom time does not qualify as “close contact,” we note that instructors, for instance, in a packed discussion seminar room may not be able to distance even three feet from students, and it is not a given that all students are fully complying with mask guidelines. Spending three hours or more per week per course in an enclosed space with large groups of people talking is, despite the University’s claims, not a “low-risk” scenario for transmission; at minimum, we expect to be notified automatically if we have been exposed. Rights to medical privacy can be fully protected while also informing instructors, staff, and students that people in their classrooms have tested positive.

  2. Institute and announce clear masking guidelines requiring a type of mask that provides good protection against prolonged indoor contact. In addition, provide high-quality PPE such as KN95 or N95 masks at no cost to everyone required to work or study on campus: students, faculty, staff and all categories of workers.

  3. AAUP–Penn asserts the autonomy of instructors to decide on the appropriate method of instruction, taking into account both pedagogical and safety needs of all concerned. Moreover, AAUP–Penn asserts the right of all employees—faculty and staff—to work under safe conditions and to adjust teaching formats or shift to remote work if changing circumstances warrant it (as so many of us were called to do during the first outbreak of Covid). As the University seems unprepared to recognize either of these principles at present, we ask the following at a minimum:
    a) Grant immediate exemption from face-to-face teaching or from in-person work to anyone who requests it on the basis of stated medical or familial vulnerability, rather than requiring a lengthy review process or documentation that may not be easily obtainable under pandemic conditions. 
    b) Allow instructors and other employees whose work can be done remotely to do so when circumstances necessitate it. (If, for instance, a child under 12 is sent home to quarantine, no “backup” childcare options will exist for a family exposed to Covid; the University needs to recognize this fact, which could affect hundreds with unvaccinated children in schools and daycare.) While we appreciate that some Penn schools are now acknowledging (on very limited terms) the need for “interludes” of online teaching in cases where the instructor is sick or quarantined, the statements we have seen (from SAS, for example) fail to recognize what teaching entails. Not all classes can be taught on an emergency basis or for an extended time by a “substitute” in cases of illness, nor is there recognition of the amount of additional work, planning, and preparation that this would impose on both parties. The SAS guidelines of Sept. 9 also do not allow instructors to shift classes online in response to students contracting Covid unless the number of cases becomes significant. We insist that the threshold of acceptable risk to our health and to the lives of vulnerable family members should be set by those who are facing such risks. 

The three measures outlined above are, in our view, fundamental. There are many additional measures that we and our colleagues would suggest, and information that is needed, including ventilation reports on all classrooms and more detailed and frequent updates to Penn’s Covid dashboard, once the above points have been addressed. 

But the key principle at issue here bears stating directly: while our levels of comfort with the risks may vary, it should not be assumed that anyone—not faculty, building maintenance staff, graduate student instructors, office staff, cafeteria workers, librarians, RAs, etc.—has agreed to risk their lives and the lives of loved ones in order to do their jobs. We are now being asked to do that, despite the University’s downplaying of the (obviously uneven) risks, and we consequently insist that Penn take the necessary steps to address our well-founded concerns about safety at work and about the health of the community.

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At yesterday’s Faculty Senate Webinar, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé described the coming semester of (mandatory) in-person work during an ongoing pandemic as learning to “dance in the rain.” It was not lost on us when, less than an hour later, our phones lit up with flash flood and tornado warnings. 

We hope you are safe and well. If you attended the webinar too, you will have noticed that the administrators present evaded most of the questions asked. The Q&A chat during the event registered mounting frustration from faculty and staff with the prepared remarks being read.

Meanwhile, as we seek clarity on policies apparently being written and rewritten throughout the day, we note that those of us who have requested exemptions from face-to-face teaching have yet to hear anything back. We find it disturbing that while this opaque review process is pending, Penn would require instructors with medical risks and vulnerable family members to continue going into crowded classrooms for however long it takes for their requests to be approved (in some cases, with copious documentation required first). As a basic measure of trust and respect, in our view, faculty and staff with pressing health risks to themselves or to loved ones should be automatically approved on an emergency basis prior to review if such review cannot be completed promptly. 

AAUP–Penn will continue to press Penn administrators to prioritize the health of the community over other interests and to recognize the autonomy of instructors (as experts in the fields they teach) to determine what modes of instruction are appropriate to their courses. The chapter’s leadership has explained our widely shared views in a short contribution to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Suvir Kaul and other members have spoken with a DP reporter as well.

Since this chapter is a collective effort by Penn colleagues and a member-led organization, further steps we take will rely on your involvement. For now, as a small starting point on the next statement we plan to make to the administration, we are asking you to help identify which safety measures and policy changes would be high priority on your list of demands for the current semester. To do that, we’ll be circulating a brief poll to our contact list and hope you will respond. If you are not on the list and would like to join, you can do so here.

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AAUP–Penn recognizes that the Covid situation continues to develop and change, and that administrators at Penn and elsewhere have difficult decisions to make in the weeks ahead. Having said that, we believe that crucial principles are at stake here, and that policy decisions must stem from them.

At Penn, as a global institution with local, regional, national, and international responsibilities, the Covid pandemic remains a powerful challenge to institutional functioning. Given this challenge, AAUP–Penn remains very concerned about the health and wellbeing of our students, staff, faculty, and community. To take one instance, even vaccinated faculty are very worried that they may carry infection to unvaccinated young children in their homes or neighborhoods.

While the pandemic rages, health and safety must come before all other institutional concerns. Many faculty at Penn and other universities are rightly concerned about university requirements that they must hold in-person classes during Fall 2021 term. We understand that our academic responsibilities are primarily to meet the educational needs of our students, but we also recognize the necessity of protecting each other in dangerous times. Thus, the Executive Committee of the Penn chapter of AAUP calls for the University to endorse a policy permitting all faculty (including graduate student instructors and all categories of contingent faculty) to conduct some or all of their classes online, in-person, or in a hybrid mode. Of course, if it becomes necessary for public health reasons to return to the prior academic year’s model of exclusively online teaching, we will endorse such a policy.

AAUP–Penn supports the right of workers at the Penn Museum to unionize. We further insist that the management of the Museum must maintain neutrality in this election process. As a chapter of the American Association of University Professors we stand unequivocally for workplace democracy and for the right to organize, and we are disturbed by what we hear from allies of the organizers quoted here:

“Workers at the Penn Museum recently filed for an NLRB election to unionize and join AFSCME DC47, Museum and Cultural Workers Local 397. Although a supermajority of eligible staff signed cards authorizing DC47 as their collective bargaining agent, the Penn Museum and University administration have been conducting an aggressive anti-union campaign: bombarding staff with emails full of misleading information; repeatedly encouraging union-eligible employees to vote no; and holding captive-audience meetings with managers to spread anti-union talking points. The University of Pennsylvania prides itself on studying and advocating for democracy, but Museum Workers also have the right to democracy in their workplace.”

Such anti-union activity must cease, and workers at Penn and everywhere must be allowed to organize without interference or intimidation.

Introducing AAUP–Penn
We are proud to announce the formation of the University of Pennsylvania chapter of the American Association of University Professors. AAUP–Penn is a membership organization that advocates for shared university governance, equitable work conditions for all employees, and a just university that meets its obligations to the city and the community. We welcome members from all departments and schools at Penn, and we apply the broadest definition of faculty: all those employed primarily in teaching and/or research at a professional level regardless of title, including standing faculty, contingent faculty, graduate scholars and instructors, postdoctoral fellows, and librarians and instructional technicians whose work is substantially involved in research or teaching.

About AAUP
Founded in 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has advocated for academic freedom and job security, shared governance that prioritizes the voice of faculty, and social equality for over a century. It helps to define professional ethics in higher education and to set pedagogical standards for teaching and learning that foster a just society. AAUP centers meaningful faculty participation in institutional decision-making, defines equitable policies of academic employment and promotion, and builds solidarity across campuses. It represents academic employees of universities and colleges in labor disputes and fights for the economic security of the profession.

Why Join
Penn faculty have come together both in response to local concerns about administrative decision-making and at a moment of wider concern about the future of higher education in the U.S. We take this step in good company, alongside forty other new AAUP chapters that have formed in the past two years. We believe in higher education for the common good, and we stand for a more egalitarian conception of the university, for racial justice and gender equality on and off campus, and for a deeper structural commitment to the Philadelphia communities that enable us to function. Joining our chapter by joining AAUP gives members a direct voice in shaping our advocacy, and it is an important expression of solidarity with colleagues of all ranks at Penn and across the profession.

Our Goals
AAUP–Penn’s broadest goals are to promote meaningfully shared governance, to secure better work conditions for all employees, and to advocate for the most vulnerable members of our community and ensure stronger material support for the city. We summarize under these headings some specific goals proposed by members:

Shared University Governance

  • Faculty involvement in policy and budgetary decisions affecting our work and our community
  • Decision-making at the central and school levels that prioritizes Penn’s research and teaching mission and rejects the call for austerity
  • Greater transparency regarding Penn’s budget

Better Work Conditions

  • Job security, fair compensation, and full benefits for staff and for all Penn workers
  • Clear and stable terms of employment for adjunct faculty
  • Fair pay and job security for lecturers and for all contingent faculty
  • Adequate and affordable childcare for faculty and graduate employees
  • Funding and time extensions to allow all current Penn graduate researchers to complete their programs successfully
  • Better institutional support for junior faculty, many of whom are heavily burdened by lack of childcare and other unaccommodated care demands on top of increased workloads during the pandemic
  • Equitable compensation at all ranks, to remedy glaring inequities in salary and promotion for women and faculty of color 
  • Recognition of uneven workloads and service expectations within ranks, which have intensified during the pandemic for faculty and for instructional support staff

Accountability to the Community

  • Material rather than symbolic commitment to racial justice on and off campus, including the need for Penn’s consistent investment in Philadelphia’s public schools and existing community infrastructure 
  • Cutting ties to the PPD and changing Penn’s approach to community safety

Our chapter has formed committees to address the status of contingent faculty, women and minority faculty, and graduate student-workers; racial justice and university–community relations; and faculty governance. Members with the means to do so have contributed to a fund that subsidizes membership in the national organization for grads, adjuncts, and others needing support. We are one faculty at Penn, and we invite colleagues of all ranks and from all schools to join us in advocating for a more equitable university.

We are energized by the possibility of democratic, consultative governance at Penn that involves not only all faculty but also staff, students, and community members. Our collective desire to help shape the university’s priorities is by no means an unachievable ideal; we pledge to do all we can to make it our reality.