Faculty voice their concerns about virtual classes' effect on students during the March 12 Faculty Senate Meeting.

Ashley He / Sun Staff Photographer

Faculty voice their concerns about virtual classes' effect on students during the March 12 Faculty Senate Meeting.

March 13, 2020

Coronavirus and Divestment Dominate Discussion at Packed Faculty Senate Meeting

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The Faculty Senate convened for its monthly meeting on Wednesday evening, a day after President Martha E. Pollack’s announcement calling for the transition of all classes online starting April 6. While coronavirus was inevitably on the agenda, the senate also passed a resolution calling for Cornell to divest from its ties in the fossil fuel industry.

Following Cornell’s decision to transition to online classes, professors must become accustomed to a relatively new system of teaching within two weeks. However, barring a few concerns about the logistical support that the IT department would be able to provide and the fate of international research, the senate focused most of its discussion on the announcement’s impact on their students.

“Some students have serious financial stress. Are we turning people out on the street who would have no funds to live elsewhere?” Prof. Ken Birman, computer science, questioned.

Birman, one of the senate members who was remote, called into the meeting via Zoom –– the video conferencing software that is to be used once the transition to virtual instruction is complete.

Birman’s concern about the financial and logistical repercussions of the decision taken by the University were echoed by several other faculty members present.

Prof. Jamila Michener, government, talked about how she was especially concerned about low-income students and those who did not have access to material resources. Michener felt that even if Cornell was taking steps to accommodate these students, people were not aware of it since it was “buried somewhere in one of these websites.”

“My sense thus far from my students is that they have no idea where to go with those various problems short of calling a hotline, and many of them don’t feel like they’ve been getting the kind of help there or from the financial aid office that they need,” she said.

When kicking off the freeform discussion on the novel coronavirus, Prof. Charles Van Loan, engineering, dean of faculty, reminded everyone that while logistical concerns are bound to arise surrounding the University’s closure, it was necessary to remember why the steps were necessary –– one-third of the faculty are above 60 years old and hence an at-risk group for COVID-19.

A reminder in the same vein was sent out by Pollack shortly after the meeting adjourned. In the email she said that while students would probably recover from the virus, it was necessary to act as a community.

“We have thousands of faculty and staff — as well as the local community with whom we interact — many of whom are older and/or have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable were they to be exposed to a carrier of the virus,” Pollack wrote in the email.

Another logistical issue that was brought up by faculty at the meeting was storage space — with professors wondering if Cornell would be willing to bear storage costs since all students living on-campus are expected to return to their “permanent home residence” after spring break unless they petition to stay.

“Most of my students are actually talking about paying for storage. They don’t know when they are coming back. It seems strange to me — I didn’t think of it at all,” said Prof. Suman Seth, science and technology studies.

Prof. Jodi Murcowski, English, pointed out that since currently Cornell is not expected to be reimbursing students for their housing, she wondered if at least their storage costs could be covered with the same funds.

“You know, when faculty or staff get quarantined we’re on paid leaves. So just thinking about the logistics of pay –– is that fair? At least [provide] storage space if they can’t stay here,” she said.

Faculty additionally requested more clarity on what made a student eligible to remain on campus if they did submit a petition. They were concerned that students from heavily-affected areas like Westchester did not want to go back, but were unsure if they would meet the criteria allowing them to stay on.

Students in on-campus housing were sent a survey on March 11 and have been asked to complete it by Friday. Those filling out the form are expected to summarize their reason for staying on in 300 characters –– little more than a tweet.

While some students are preparing to move out, faculty were concerned that many others were not taking enough steps. Prof. Chris Schafer, biomedical engineering –– who also serves as the faculty-in-residence for Donlon Hall on North Campus –– highlighted that parties and mixers were continuing despite the call for social distancing.

“As of last night, there were large scale parties evidently, because I saw the same ritual of younger students being picked up by parades of cars to go to mixers,” Schafer said.

Schafer was largely concerned that the events these freshmen were being taken to were hosted by fraternities and sororities which is why he requested the administration issue a directive in conjunction with Greek life that put an end to all such events.

In the latter half of the meeting, a resolution urging the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels also passed, making the senate the fourth out of five shared governance bodies to do so.

Members of Climate Justice Cornell and the Student Assembly had attended the meeting and presented to the faculty on why divestment was necessary.

“As faculty, you have prepared cohorts of students to enter the real world and to make it a better place,” Indigo Pavlov ’22, vice president of external affairs for the Student Assembly, said. “At the same time, Cornell’s investments are contributing to the demise of that world, destroying what we’re supposed to be improving.”

Speaking to The Sun after the meeting, Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology, who introduced the resolution to the senate, said that he was happy it went through “powerfully.”

“If it was [passed] 50-49 I would still be happy, but it’s good to have some more power,” he said.

According to current policies, the Board of Trustees will consider a proposal for divestment when either the University president forwards a resolution passed by one of the bodies, or all five of the assemblies pass a resolution. Currently, Student Assembly as the fifth governance body, is set to vote on it Thursday evening. The next trustee meeting on investments is on March 18.