BU Professors Ask for Flexibility This Fall

BU Professors Ask for Flexibility This Fall

by Grace Ferguson

This fall, Boston University is launching a hybrid learning program, but some professors have their doubts about it.

The program is called Learn from Anywhere, and it’s part of the university’s plan to let students come back to campus. Under Learn from Anywhere, or LfA, students can choose to go to class in-person or online, but the university has not given professors the same option. Professors are expected to teach in-person, and BU leadership told faculty that there will be very few exceptions.

Two BU philosophy professors published an open letter about LfA earlier this month. Russell Powell and Daniel Star say faculty should be able to make a personal decision about whether or not to come back to campus, just like students.

“If there’s going to be Learn from Anywhere, there should be Teach from Anywhere,” Star said.

Powell and Star aren’t alone. They started a petition for their cause, which has over 1100 signatures. On the list of names are BU professors, BU students, faculty at other universities, and other members of the public.

There are many reasons why professors might want to teach from home. Some faculty are on the older side, or they have medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19. But beyond that, some faculty have to care for elderly parents. Some have young children who they can’t quarantine away from. Right now, BU doesn’t have a process for letting professors in any of those groups teach from home.

“The fact that they didn’t even make any attempt to take into account medical risks of faculty is quite shocking to the conscience, I think, of many or most faculty members,” Powell said.

The university could offer medical leave to tenure-track faculty, but the two professors say that’s not enough. In that case, grad students and adjunct faculty would have to teach in their place.

“That’s not solving the problem, that’s just creating a further injustice,” Powell said.

There is an obvious incentive for BU to push for in-person classes. Universities are bracing themselves for enrollment declines this fall as they launch partially or fully online programs. Students prefer an in-person learning experience, especially when that’s what they signed up for. According to one survey by the research firm SimpsonScarborough, up to a quarter of high school seniors might change their college plans because of the pandemic.

Powell and Star say student perspectives aren’t so simple as they sound. Some students might not have thought about the implications of reopening campus, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t, the professors say.

“Students who have read our letter find it important, compelling. [They’re] like ‘Let’s talk about this, let’s try to figure out what we can do together to get through this difficult period,’” Powell said. “It’s not like students are just these consumers that are just looking for their services and are annoyed they’re not getting them.”

Some students have already voiced their support for a Teach from Anywhere approach. Jaclyn Tayabji is a law student at BU. She started a petition just for students and alumni, which has 170 signatures. More than 400 of the signatures on Powell and Star’s petition come from students as well. 

“If students are willing to kind of put aside their own self interest and really advocate for the faculty and for the wellbeing of our community, then I think that that shows a lot about where the university’s priorities should lie,” Tayabji said.

Tayabji had been thinking about the fall since BU announced that her program would be taught in a hybrid model. But she said she hadn’t thought about the moral perspective until she read Powell and Star’s letter.

“I think the overall response I’ve gotten is students just haven’t thought about it, or [they] assumed that the hybrid model would also apply for faculty,” Tayabji said. “So having this petition written, I think, really started to open up a lot of students’ eyes as to what does this fall look like.”

Eileen O’Keefe, chair of BU’s Faculty Council, said she thinks BU’s current plan is a strong model for keeping everyone safe. The university is launching a large-scale testing and contact tracing program this fall.

“I think it’s one perspective that faculty should have flexibility. I’m not sure how realistic that is for all faculty,” she said. “I think if we take into account CDC guidelines and those who are at higher risk, and allow flexibility for those people, I think that’s a reasonable approach at this time.”

O’Keefe said BU is still working on its reopening plan, including how it will accommodate faculty.