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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[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.