[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 warmly congratulates our friends in Penn Museum Workers United on winning their NLRB election and gaining certification for their union in August 2021. Non-professional Museum employees in PMWU voted in favor of joining AFSCME District Council 47, together with the recently formed Philadelphia Museum of Art Union in the Museum and Cultural Workers Local 397. We wish them all the best!

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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.

Watch the video recording of AAUP–Penn’s 4/23 event, “Community Justice and the Ivory Tower,” featuring Davarian L. Baldwin (author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities are Plundering our Cities, Bold Type Books, 2021), in conversation with Krystal Strong, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, and Jolyon Baraka Thomas. This panel discussion with faculty and community activists addressed the university’s role in gentrifying and policing neighborhoods in cities across the country, with a focus on Penn and West Philly.

Davarian L. Baldwin is the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut

Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad is a Philadelphia-born organizer, writer, and co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Co-op

Jolyon Baraka Thomas is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Penn and an organizer with Penn for PILOTs

Krystal Strong is Assistant Professor of Education at UPenn and an organizer with BLM Philly

Organized by AAUP-Penn, the University of Pennsylvania chapter of the American Association of University Professors

Sponsors: Civic House, Wolf Humanities Center, SNF Paideia

Penn Co-sponsors:  Penn for PILOTS; Police Free Penn; Fossil Free Penn; Latinx Coalition; Asian Pacific Student Coalition; Penn Association for Gender Equity; Lambda Alliance; United Minorities Council; UMOJA Coalition; Penn Community for Justice; GET-UP; University of Pennsylvania YDSA

Community Co-sponsors:  The Paul Robeson House; Scribe Video Center; Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture; People’s Emergency Center

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AAUP–Penn joins colleagues across the profession in protesting Linfield University’s firing of Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner. All reporting on this decision suggests a clear violation of due process. Professor Pollack-Pelzner’s firing is especially troubling as it appears to be the institution’s response to his speaking out about multiple student and faculty allegations of sexual misconduct by Board Members and about antisemitic comments made to him by the University President and by the Chair of the Board when he attempted to raise these concerns internally as a faculty trustee.

Linfield University’s statement of April 27th, 2021, which characterizes this abrupt firing of a tenured faculty member as the result of his “insubordinate” conduct toward administrators, only adds to the appearance of retaliation against a whistleblower speaking up for students and colleagues. Inside Higher Education reported on April 27th that the University shut down its faculty listserv to prevent discussion of this action, a disturbing development in itself. No university can be permitted simply to terminate the employment of a faculty critic without a hearing and then to silence all further discussion of the matter.

We invite those who share our concern to sign this letter in support of Pollack-Pelzner against the Linfield University administration’s decision to fire him.

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In the past week it has come to light that the University of Pennsylvania Museum has for over 35 years held, studied, and at times displayed the human remains of a child named Tree Africa, a member of West Philadelphia’s MOVE organization. The bones of 14-year-old Tree Africa, and possibly also 12-year-old Delisha Africa, were reportedly handed over by the medical examiner’s office to Penn and Princeton anthropologists for forensic study in the 1980s after the May 13, 1985 killing of eleven West Philadelphia residents, when Philadelphia Police dropped an aerial bomb on the MOVE residence and let fires destroy over 60 homes in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood adjacent to our university. 

For decades, neither Penn nor Princeton contacted the MOVE organization and the Africa family about the existence of these remains. Instead, the bones were in the possession of two anthropology professors, Princeton emeritus professor Alan Mann (who worked at Penn until 2001) and Penn adjunct professor and museum curator Janet Monge. The Penn Museum has stated that both anthropologists were attempting to determine the identity of the remains for over three decades. During this time the bones were used for student research, as in the case of at least one Penn undergraduate senior thesis. Recently Monge has been using them as teaching props in a public online course, “REAL BONES: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology,” hosted by Princeton. While the course has now been removed by the distance learning platform Coursera, just last week over 4,000 students were enrolled. The remains have been repeatedly passed between Penn and Princeton, including Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods’ hasty return of the bones to Dr. Mann on Sunday April 18, 2021.

AAUP–Penn stands with the Africa family as they mourn and absorb this devastating news. From our commitment to community and racial justice, we support their demands, which include the immediate return of their children’s remains. 

AAUP–Penn likewise stands with Princeton faculty who have called for university accountability to the Africa family, and calls on Penn to do better than issue an online apology.

On April 26, 2021 the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Museum issued an online apology to the Africa family and stated the institution’s intentions of returning the remains and reviewing the Museum’s “practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains.” This is a first step toward recognizing and repairing the harm done to the Africa family, but the process continues to be flawed, as this apology was communicated to the family via the media at the same time that the family was holding its own live press conference.

Any earnest commitment to community justice begins with showing respect toward and building trust with those who have been harmed. Building trust entails acknowledging the long history of the university’s racism and experimentation on Black and Indigenous bodies by social scientists as well as medical doctors. From Penn Anthropology to Penn Medicine, this history spans from the nineteenth-century Morton cranial collection to the use of the MOVE family remains and the recent medical experimentation conducted by Penn dermatologist Albert Kligman upon the incarcerated people of Holmesburg Prison between 1951-1974, people whose families also remain uncompensated.

Beyond hiring lawyers to investigate how and why the MOVE family remains were used by University researchers, President Amy Gutmann and the Board of Trustees need to commit to a full and transparent process of repair and financial compensation, beginning with direct community involvement in the investigative process. The University, including its senior administrators and the Board of Trustees, cannot move forward from decades, even centuries, of disavowal via closed-door investigations. A transparent process is integral to any just outcome. It is not only faculty who are to blame for such a travesty of scholarly procedure and social justice; that responsibility must be shared across the hierarchy of “overseers” and administrators.

AAUP–Penn further supports efforts to account for the University’s broader effects on and its responsibility to West Philadelphia’s Black communities, including the payment of PILOTs to the public school system. 

AAUP–Penn also calls for a thorough review of all the holdings of the Penn Museum, and transparency around past and current pedagogical, curatorial, and research practices. A commitment to anti-racism requires more than simply teaching about medical ethics or the federally mandated Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It involves collaborative decision-making in consultation with affected community members around the Museum’s and the University’s legacies of slavery and colonial violence.

NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) is going on strike starting today, 4/26/21. AAUP–Penn supports the rights of grad student employees at NYU and everywhere to organize, collectively bargain for a living wage and a fair contract, and strike when the university refuses to bargain. You can join their virtual picket line here, and materially support those on strike by contributing to the hardship fund here.

We are glad that AAUP–Penn’s petition objecting to the extension of teaching time under the unilaterally decided course schedule change has pressured the central administration to state directly that the new schedule will not require instructors to teach the ten additional minutes per class session. The Associate Vice Provost’s response, however, does not specify that the length of each class period should remain as it is at present (despite being officially extended to all appearances) and ostensibly leaves it up to instructors whether to use the extra ten minutes per class. This does not resolve the concern that some instructors—particularly lecturers with heavier teaching loads and grad instructors—may be pressured to teach longer by their departments and programs in the absence of formal guidelines on the length of class sessions. AAUP–Penn is therefore proposing a set of best practices on course stopping times that we recommend all departments and programs follow, in the interest of faculty and students alike.

Read our 4/20/21 guest column in the Daily Pennsylvanian here:

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