Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Faculty members have criticized the University’s lack of accessibility measures and low flexibility for faculty, and are calling on the University to increase transparency on policy making.

September 2, 2021

Faculty Letters Call for Safety Accommodations, Flexibility Amid University Push for In-Person Learning

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With a hardline in-person teaching requirement, Cornell has pushed its instructors back into classrooms — and more than 100 have organized against its current policies.

Cornell announced to faculty on Aug. 11 that it would only offer in-person classes — denying requests for remote teaching premised on disability accommodations. On Aug. 13, Provost Michael Kotlikoff released a statement saying that deans and unit leaders can grant classroom accommodations at their discretion, as well as suggesting that concerned faculty and staff consider a medical leave.

According to Prof. Celia Bigoness, law, the University’s standards for granting accommodations, who they’re consulting with or how final decisions are made feel unclear.

“[The statement] refers to extraordinary circumstances where some accommodations, like partial or temporary remote teaching, might be provided,” said Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial labor relations, president of the Cornell University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “But this still doesn’t address the people’s needs.”

Faculty Letters to Cornell Administration

On Aug. 29, two faculty bodies submitted letters to Cornell administration calling for revisions to its in-person, limited accommodations policy for the fall 2021 semester. They criticized the University’s lack of accessibility measures and limited flexibility for faculty, asking the administration to provide more  transparency in policy making.

A group of concerned faculty members detailed their concerns in the first letter, and the Cornell chapter of the AAUP under Lieberwitz penned the second. The faculty letter’s signatories, consisting largely of professors in the College of Arts and Sciences, ask Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii to hear the needs of Cornell faculty, staff and students. The AAUP letter, addressing President Martha Pollack, outlines the legal and ethical concerns with the current University policy.

The faculty letter implores Cornell to reconsider its classroom policies on the basis of community safety, calling for the return of classroom measures such as social distancing and improved ventilation, enforcement of the mask mandate and support for immunocompromised and health-concerned faculty. Currently, students attend courses packed in full-capacity classrooms, and Cornell has confirmed 263 positive cases on campus as of Tuesday evening.

“We are concerned that Cornell is not doing more to minimize risk and prevent transmission of this virus,” the faculty letter reads. “We are also very concerned that this acceptance of risk will have the worst impact on the most vulnerable members of the Cornell community, as the efficacy of the vaccine wanes for those in the highest risk groups who received their shots more than six months ago.”

Prof. Kathleen Long, romance studies, started drafting the letter based on the concerns of her colleagues following the mid-August University statements, according to Prof. Celia Bigoness, law. The letter circulated through faculty email chains and accumulated 117 signatures. The professors submitted it to Cornell administration and featured it in The Sun on Aug. 29.

Lieberwitz drafted the AAUP letter as president of Cornell’s chapter. It details legal and ethical concerns with Cornell’s classroom accessibility policies and calls for three specific actions: the reversal of the policy against remote teaching as a reasonable accommodation, the adoption of a newer, flexible policy that responds to changing pandemic conditions and for the administration’s good faith engagement with the Faculty Senate to develop future policies.

Legal and Ethical Policy Ramifications

According to Bigoness and Lieberwitz, Cornell failed to consult with the Faculty Senate before adopting its current policy that limits the use of remote learning for accommodations. According to Lieberwitz, this move violates Cornell bylaws and ethical standards.

“Instead of consulting, as they were obligated to do, Cornell simply unilaterally adopted and announced policies that did not respond to health and safety and needs of faculty, staff and students,” Lieberwitz said.

The AAUP letter outlines how Cornell’s policy may stand in opposition to state and federal laws. Lieberwitz cites the New York State Human Rights Law and Americans with Disabilities Act, which require reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. The federal government currently recognizes immunocompromised individuals under this act.

“If reasonable accommodations will allow those individuals to carry out the essential functions of their job, then the employer is obligated to provide those reasonable accommodations,” Lieberwitz said. “Now, Cornell’s administration has stated that the essential functions of teaching are teaching in person.”

Lieberwitz expressed that there’s nothing normal about the fall 2021 semester, and added that in-person teaching is an unreasonable expectation for at-risk faculty. In the AAUP letter, she describes the ableist implications of the term “normal,” which the administration has frequently used to describe the ideal state of campus.

CDC Compliance

Bigoness also expressed her concern that Cornell hasn’t followed the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for institutions of higher learning. The CDC indicates that masking cannot sufficiently limit transmission alone.

For campuses where some community members remain unvaccinated, the CDC strongly suggests masking, physical distancing, enhanced sterilization procedures and improved airflow, among other safety measures. Currently, Cornell mandates masking in classrooms. 95 percent of people on campus are fully vaccinated.

The CDC also encourages rigorous contract tracing, and some Cornell faculty say they cannot tell if this process is happening effectively. The administration has stated that faculty will not be informed if a student in their class tests positive, unless it determines close contact between instructor and student or the student requests a temporary accommodation from Student Disability Services.

“Right now,” Bigoness said, “the onus is on the students to basically say, ‘Do I want my privacy? Or do I want to tell my teachers so they can maybe give me a way to keep up with class?’”

Policy Goals

Cornell administrators noted in an Aug. 30 email that they’ve received pressure from faculty, students and parents to transition to remote study as cases rise on campus, but the University stood firm in their decision to keep classes in-person. Neither of the letters sent to the administration advocate for a shift to fully remote study as cases spike. 

In fact, many signatories, including Prof. Richard Bensel, government, and Bigoness, said they value their in-person connections with students and dislike the idea of returning to Zoom. However, they believe that they should have a choice and flexibility in their work.

Three out of 15 students in Bensel’s seminar class have tested positive — and he said he wants the option to move to remote learning if half the class goes into quarantine. Bensel said he finds Zoom especially difficult for a discussion-based class, but he wants to keep his class moving forward.

“For many of us, we would want the option to switch to online instruction to maximize our ability to teach,” Bensel said, “and it should be left up to our judgment during the pandemic.”

Bigoness teaches a class and manages a clinic in the Law School. She has to teach in-person, though she said she feels uncomfortable with two unvaccinated children at home. She has limited her in-person meetings to days when she has to teach on campus to restrict her time interacting there as much as possible.

All the classrooms in the law school, Bigoness said, contained devices for automatic recording even before the pandemic. Now, the University has told instructors not to grant access to these recordings unless a student tests positive and asks them directly, according to Bigoness. Even then, professors are not required to do so.

On Aug. 27, Kotlikoff and Nishii released a statement in response to accommodation concerns, noting that faculty, staff and students can still apply individually for disability accommodations.

The statement does not address the faculty’s specific policy concerns, including the return of classroom safety and accessibility measures from last year, such as distancing and sanitizing.

“I would encourage the administration to show like they did last year that they’re willing to be flexible and responsive to evolving conditions,” Bigoness said, “rather than sticking to a policy that was formulated in quite honestly a very different public health environment several months ago.”

Faculty Plans Going Forward

Through weekend correspondence and a meeting on Aug. 30, the Faculty Senate met to share experiences and gather faculty concerns.

“We realized that the letter was very quickly going to be outdated,” said Bigoness, who helped organize this data-gathering initiative. “And so we simply invited faculty to weigh in, tell us their experiences, their concerns, their questions.”

Lieberwitz said she hopes the University will address the policy and equity issues that faculty have made steps to confront — concerns that she said weigh heavier on newer instructors.

“Tenured faculty are going to feel the liberty to speak out a lot more than faculty or staff or grad students who don’t have the same job security and status,” Lieberwitz said.

Going forward, Bigoness said she hopes the faculty can communicate more fluidly with each other and with Cornell administration.

“If we have full participation through good faculty governance and consultation with other governance bodies, then it is far more likely that the policies will be ethically driven,” Lieberwitz said.