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Email From Columbia Admin Requests That Graduate Students And Faculty Reconsider Teaching Solely Online, Gives Three Days To Decide

At 5 pm on July 27, Executive Vice President of Arts & Science and Dean of the Faculty Amy Hungerford sent an email to graduate students and faculty instructors encouraging them to teach more classes in a hybrid or in-person format, despite the many risks associated with holding in-person classes.

Hungerford’s email, included in full at the end of this post, requires faculty to confirm or update their teaching proposal and modality (online, hybrid, or in-person) by July 30th, three days after the email was sent. It centers in large part on an appeal to faculty to consider the academic experience of undergrad and graduate students.  Some, including Evan Jewell, an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers’ Camden campus who received his Ph.D. in Classical Studies at Columbia, framed this as an attempt to “shame [faculty and grad students] into teaching in person” and put undergraduate student satisfaction before the health of themselves and their loved ones. The email repeatedly foregrounds undergraduate “disappointment” at online course offerings while using Columbia’s success at keeping the virus off campus this summer, when campus is far less crowded, as reason for instructors to return to the classroom.

This call for increased in-person and hybrid course offerings follows an announcement by Columbia that class registration would be delayed by one week to August 3, 2020. In an email to students, Columbia College Dean of Academic Affairs Lisa Hollibaugh cited “the complexity of spreading the curriculum from two terms to three terms, and more recently, to establishing a range of in-person, hybrid, and online courses” as the reason behind the delay. However, Dean Hungerford’s email indicates a more specific reason for the delay: to “accommodate for updates” to faculty and graduate students’ teaching modalities for the Fall 2020 semester after the “vast majority of faculty and instructors” elected to teach online. 

The University previously announced that faculty would be able to choose the modality for their Fall courses at their discretion. However, 60% of CC undergraduates and all General Studies students have been invited to return to campus in September, including all first-years and sophomores, with the promise of in-person and hybrid courses to justify the cost of tuition. Hungerford’s email specifically calls for instructors in Core classes to reconsider teaching solely online, given that nearly all CC students and many GS students on campus this fall will be enrolled in either Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilizations. The in-person, discussion style format of these Core courses has long been a selling point for the administration and Hungerford stresses these “cornerstone[s] of the Columbia experience” in her appeal for more in-person manpower.

Dean Hungerford’s email repeatedly emphasizes consideration for the educational experience of undergraduates. She wrote, “The policy of voluntary return assumed a level of consideration for personal circumstances that embodied our respect for faculty choice and judgment about their particular situations. But that policy also assumed consideration of the needs of our undergraduate and graduate students.” Aside from a general desire by undergraduates to be on campus (which was reinforced by an attached PDF which condensed responses to a survey sent to the University community regarding the online format), she also raised several specific examples, like the situation for international students. 

The email ties the ability of international students to receive visas to study in the US directly to faculty’s decision-making regarding the modality of their course. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has rolled back some of the policy that would have prevented college students with fully online course loads from remaining in the US. Still, the newest update by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) states that “nonimmigrant students in New or Initial status after March 9” will not be able to receive a student visa to attend American colleges and universities. Hungerford impresses upon faculty that if additional in-person or hybrid courses are not offered, instructors “may jeopardize [international students’] capacity to either begin or continue their academic experience,” placing the burden of mitigating federal immigration policy upon University teaching staff.

At the same time, the graduate student union has made increased access to healthcare one of their demands in their ongoing negotiations with University administrators, one that becomes even more pertinent in the face of a global pandemic. Shortly after bargaining began in November 2018, the administration eliminated an enhanced insurance plan that raised out-of-pocket costs for graduate workers and removed approximately $500,000 in benefits, according to the Graduate Workers of Columbia – United Auto Workers (GWC-UAW). Graduate student stipends are often not high enough to meet the cost of living in New York, and high healthcare costs should an instructor fall ill in the first place. Most adjunct professors and contingent faculty are not considered full-time employees and do not have health insurance; for those instructors, COVID-19 is not only a health risk but an economic risk as well.

When reached for comment, Andrew Bishop, a member of the Bargaining Committee for GWC-UAW Local 2110 reiterated the union’s commitment to ensuring the safety of its members as planning for the fall continues. “We have fought vigorously in many forums for both the rights of international students and the rights of workers to a safe workplace. As planning for the fall continues, we will continue to insist the University ensures any in-person instruction at Columbia is done safely. We will also continue fighting for fair health insurance coverage and [the] right to paid leave.”

While CU has taken precautions for the safety of students and staff members, the University’s request comes as many media outlets have reported COVID-19 outbreaks traced back to college parties and summer athletic practices. New York State has been cleared to enter Phase 4 of reopening, which includes schools and educational facilities as long as they adhere to health guidelines. However, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic, there are more than four million confirmed cases in the United States, and the national trend is that cases—and deaths—are climbing. 

Additionally, COVID-19 hospitalizations and fatalities are concentrated disproportionately among adults aged 60 and older. As The New York Times recently reported, 37% of tenure-track professors are over 55 and they are more than twice as likely to stay in their positions past 65. Though graduate students and adjunct faculty may skew younger, survival rates for COVID-19 do not solely depend on age. Moreover, many patients report long-term effects from the virus. The long term effects of COVID-19 are still not fully understood, and its complications can range from pneumonia to organ failure. One drug, Remdesivir, has been approved by the FDA for emergency use in severe cases, but there is no other proven treatment cleared for general use. There is no approved vaccine for COVID-19 available to the public.

Bwog has reached out to Columbia Communications for comment. This post will be updated upon response.

Editor’s Note 7/29/2020, 12:03 pm: This post has been updated with comment from the Graduate Workers Union.

Dean Hungerford’s email can be read in full below:

Dear Arts and Sciences Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors,

Thank you for working with your departments in recent weeks to communicate your preferred teaching plans for the fall. We are writing today to follow up on those plans. Looking at the curriculum as a whole—and considering some new conditions that have emerged—we write today to ask you to reconsider the modality of your courses.

In short: We are calling for your help to mount a more robust offering of in-person or hybrid courses to meet important student needs. This has again become essential for our international students, and, beyond this, would significantly enhance options for in-residence first and second year students in the Core curriculum. We are asking for a reply by Thursday of this week, July 30th.

In initial course submissions, we found that the vast majority of faculty and instructors elected to teach online only. There are some notable exceptions—in Economics and in some introductory languages. Around the university, there are also other strong examples—Business is looking at about 60% hybrid courses; even the Dental School and CUIMC generally, where risk is greatest, have returned safely to in-person clinical education.

The provost and many deans had expected that faculty would be eager to return to the classroom if they did not have health or childcare considerations. The policy of voluntary return assumed a level of consideration for personal circumstances that embodied our respect for faculty choice and judgment about their particular situations. But that policy also assumed consideration of the needs of our undergraduate and graduate students. It is the latter that we want to expand upon today.

We have invited back 60% of our undergraduate residential students as well as our General Studies students. We have let graduate students know that they are welcome to campus whenever they are able to arrive or return.  This decision has been enthusiastically received by all groups.  The fact that first- and second-year undergraduates will be here in the fall means that Core seminars—a cornerstone of the Columbia experience—will have every opportunity to convene in person or in hybrid modes.

We have also worked diligently to establish public health protocols for the reopening to provide the safest campus experience possible for all.  After attending some of the online webinars on public health preparations for the fall, faculty commented on how their sense of confidence about the reopening of the campus has been buoyed up.  As detailed in the provost’s message last week (attached here, in case you missed it) the campus aims to be safer than its surroundings. Our public health experts have affirmed that given weekly testing of students in dormitories, among the many other protocols in place for the fall term—which include new van service being planned for the 5 boroughs and the suburbs—we will be safer in class than at the grocery store. But foremost in the minds of many students who will be on the campus is the desire to have some dimension of their academic experience be in person.

It is now clear that some proportion of in-person instruction continues to be required to underpin the visa status of international students. Despite the reversal of the ICE decision last week, the latest SEVP guidelines from late last week specify that “Nonimmigrant students in New or Initial status after March 9 will not be able to enter the United States to enroll in a U.S. school as a nonimmigrant student for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online.”  In other words, new visa holders must not only be enrolled in a hybrid degree program (that is, a program with at least some in-person offerings); they must individually be able to enroll in at least one course with an in-person component.

To invite students back to a prepared campus only to offer them mostly Zoom classes in their dorm rooms and apartments will be a great disappointment to them. General Studies students prize the classroom experience especially, and many simply will not continue their studies without it. And in the case of international students, the lack of in-person or hybrid coursework may jeopardize their capacity to either begin or continue their academic experience.

Faculty in the laboratory sciences have already returned successfully to campus. There have been no cases of COVID-19 found since we began the first stage of the research ramp-up in June. We are now moving to 50% density in research spaces. If faculty and graduate students are able to return to safe research conditions, it stands to reason that they should also be able to return for teaching duties.

To support your ability to teach hybrid and in-person classes, we offer additional resources below, and attach some further analysis of students’ qualitative feedback to the EPPC course survey. We hope that this will prove helpful as you reflect on your teaching experience in the spring and as you reconsider ways to engage with students in your fall courses. 

We ask that by Thursday, July 30, you contact your chair, DUS, and/or DAAF to update or confirm your teaching modality for the fall. The student open registration period has been delayed until August 3 to accommodate these updates. In-person/hybrid Core seminars—to offer students options—and courses for international graduate students are especially needed.  You may also wish to adjust the time of your course offering to take advantage of the full week, including Fridays, and the full range of hours (8:30 am to 9 pm). This will help ensure we have rooms for all the in-person and hybrid classes with required physical distancing.

The individual choices that we all make about teaching go to the heart of our collective mission. As long as conditions in the world allow, we will be able to use our campus as it was intended—for teaching and research—under strictly observed health and safety protocols. We invite you to explore, experiment, and adapt alongside the students who will soon be arriving to join us in this historic year at Columbia.



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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Today the Planning and Policy Committee of the Arts & Sciences, the formally elected representative of faculty to the Arts & Sciences administration, sent the letter below in response to VPAS Hungerford’s letter:

    Columbia University
    in the City of New York
    Policy and Planning Committee (PPC)
    of the Arts and Sciences

    July 29, 2020

    Dear Amy,

    We are writing with regard to the letter you recently sent to all Faculty of Arts and Sciences urging them to reconsider their choice of teaching modality in the fall. We discussed this letter at a PPC meeting earlier today and would like to share the following concerns with you.

    1) Many faculty feel that there is a tension between the principle of choice that Columbia publicly announced, a principle endorsed by many other universities around the country, and the tone and content of the recent letter, which used strong moral language to persuade faculty to move to hybrid or in-person teaching, presumably in order to meet the goal of an on-campus student experience set by the Provost. We were also surprised that the University leadership did not anticipate faculty choices, as most faculty who were contacted in an informal poll through their departmental chairs back in spring indicated that they did not think it wise, for reasons that include public health and/or pedagogical concerns, to teach in person this fall.

    2) More specifically, we are concerned that the pressure to change teaching modalities will be felt most acutely by junior faculty and by doctoral student instructors–by those, in other words, who can least afford to withstand such pressure and who may fear that future performance reviews will take their choices into consideration.

    3) We understand that the university leadership desires to have some appearance of normalcy during the fall semester, with students in dorms and professors in classrooms. We also understand that this is driven partly by concerns that without such an appearance of semi-normalcy, students might not enroll and we would, as a tuition-dependent school, be in serious financial trouble. We wonder, however, what the evidence is that students will make enrollment conditional upon in-person, classroom teaching. Is this the outcome of the surveys of college students that were recently completed?

    4) We also wonder if it is reasonable to ask faculty to trust the effectiveness of Columbia’s health protocols and students’ compliance with them, and to put concerns about their own health into the background in order to provide students with such an experience of semi-normalcy. Many faculty doubt that the current research ramp-up provides the means to assess the health consequences of a campus full of returning students.

    5) According to the latest rules issued by the immigration authorities, new, incoming international students only need to be enrolled in one hybrid course in order to qualify for a visa. Aren’t there already enough such courses that could be cross-listed such that every international student is covered?

    6) We wonder what options you are considering should faculty not react to your letter in the way you hope. Has the Provost or the President set a certain target for in-person teaching that Arts and Sciences needs to meet? Our sense from talking to Department Chairs and DUSs over the past few days is that very few colleagues will change their teaching preferences in reaction to your letter. If this turns out to be true, what steps will you consider next?

    Going forward, we suggest consulting with us about future decisions regarding teaching modalities, perhaps following the model of consultation that you set up for the PhD program pause, which we deeply appreciate. Needless to say, a relationship of trust between the EVP and the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences is crucial for the future, especially now that important and painful decisions will need to be taken in order to address the systemic budgetary crisis of the Arts and Sciences.

    With our very best wishes,

    Andreas Wimmer (outgoing chair of PPC)
    Jenny M. Davidson (incoming chair of PPC)
    Michael Cole
    Farah Jasmine Griffin
    Sidney Hemming
    Mary E. Putman
    Dustin Rubenstein
    Josef Sorett
    Rhiannon Stephens
    Rosalind C. Morris (incoming PPC member)
    Miguel Urquiola (incoming PPC member)
    Katja Maria Vogt (incoming PPC member)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous This email assumes that instructors dont want to teach in person, when many of them would love nothing more than to go back to teaching in a classroom. Instructors who opt for online delivery aren’t lazy or insensitive to students. They aren’t trying to make their students lives more difficult or their education less enjoyable. Thousands of instructors at great cost to themselves are at this moment angonising and overhauling their courses thinking only about to make the student experience as positive as possible.
    Instructors simply understand that this is what we must do to ensure those students and the rest of the university community are around for the fall 2021 semester! I’m offended so much by the tone and inferences of this email by university admin that fails not only recognize or value but also to even at minimum bear witness this vital work of instructors.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Can completely understand how you might be offended, but you need to take a step back and look at this in the broader context. Full discretion regarding return to work when NY is in phase 4 is a privilege, and not an entitlement. While many job functions can be equally effectively performed remotely, university faculty is not among those. The university has gone to great effort to implement safety measures and many students have elected to attend in person with full awareness of the impaired experience that awaits them. A faculty member’s decision to teach remotely has consequences, and the collective decisions have significant consequences. It does no good to insulate the community from this reality. The university summarizes all of this and then encourages faculty to teach in person, which under the circumstances is entirely reasonable. I’d suggest anyone offended by this rethink things a bit.

      1. anon says:

        @anon “Dear faculty, and graduate students whose unionization we fought tooth and nail, please help us satisfy our paying customers. You probably won’t die, and after all, you’re already going to the grocery store! In exchange for the risk we are asking you to assume, we offer you precisely nothing.” (I want to believe they didn’t send this email to adjuncts with no health insurance, but they probably did.) I would not assume that the masked, socially distanced form of in-person instruction actually is superior to online, BTW. It’s mind-blowing to me that you think informed people who read every day about patients with no obvious risk factors dying, and who know that the virus is not well understood, would rationally choose to teach in person if it could possibly be avoided. Who values their own life that little?

      2. RT says:

        @RT Right decision. The value of being accepted by an Ivy League is the i. Person experience with peers and instructors. Otherwise youtube learning is free and more efficient.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous This is not news. If grad students and professors are truly coerced by this email to teach classes, they probably are too weak willed and not free thinking to be teaching altogether. Is this email great? Not at all, but truly this is an article that was purposeless and informed the public about nothing.
    Still professors have the ability to choose (no one is forcing them to do anything). If you’re getting mad at this, you should be getting mad at all in person or hybrid classes because there is literally no difference! The only reason there are in person classes is for students’ learning and enjoyment, so I do not see the difference between classes already in person and this email because they are both 100% elective. This I was weak reporting all around

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Actually, pointing out that the vast majority of CU Professors -do not- want to teach in person is news. It’s also important for new international students who need in-person classes to get their visa.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Anyone else read Columbia Confessions on Facebook?? Please excuse the language, but I thought it important for people to see a student’s perspective…

    5363. I’m so angry!!!!!!!!! The way y’all are acting right now, fall semester is gonna be fucked 2 weeks in. One of my friends just posted a video of them at a party with people binge drinking and doing keg stands????? Are you fucking serious?????? It’s a pandemic and you’re going to risk your life and many others to do this? This is one of many DAILY parties that this person seems to be attending/throwing and it just makes me so mad. And people who I’m really close to and I genuinely thought would be more responsible throughout this are now traveling? And said something about how you have to make a decision about whether or not it’s worth it to put your life in danger. Do you not understand that one persons irresponsibility can directly and indirectly hurt dozens of others???? We are talking about a VIRUS here!!!! Y’all are disappointing and the actual reason the world won’t be open until 2022.

  • anon says:

    @anon Columbia students have been at home since March. Unless they live in New York, there’s no reason to assume their level of exposure or immunity corresponds to that of New York residents.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Anyone else reading this and dying laughing imagining the childish temper tantrum PrezBo is throwing inside his mansion? $1000 says he doesn’t teach his class in person this year.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous NY has been able to keep cases very low since May.

    1. anonymous says:

      @anonymous . . . and when all those kids fly in from Florida and Texas and California, etc., etc., etc., and one kid decides not to self-quarantine . . .

      The email from Prof. Hungerford amounts to this: “We care more about a first-year student’s disappointment than about the health or even the life of an instructor, and we can’t believe you’re not lining up to put yourself at risk for us.”

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Everyone has to get Covid tested and self quarantine for two weeks before entering campus. Students from California, Florida, Texas, etc are mandated to give address where staying and must quarantine for two weeks prior to entering campus. Not as big an issue as you are making it.

        1. anon says:

          @anon I don’t think this is actually true.

        2. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous And if you believe more than 2000 undergrads — that’s the number that would have to quarantine now based on what states they’ll be coming from— will all adhere scrupulously to quarantine rules, or that the university has the capacity to check up on them all, I have a bridge in a nearby borough to offer you. Nationwide, undergraduates have been surveyed on this, and they almost uniformly say they WON’T: follow mask-wearing rules, follow social-distancing rules, report symptoms they have if it means going into quarantine, or follow quarantine rules once there. The Columbia administration is living in a fantasy world, and it’s purely for money.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous That is because all of you left.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Fantastic reporting, Bwog. Put a byline on it!

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