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.