Bwog uncovered that President Lee Bollinger as the head of the University administration suggested the possibility of pressuring non-tenure-track instructors, in particular, to teach in person for the Fall 2020 semester. Additionally, we uncovered deep cracks in the administration, exposing tensions between Dean James Valentini and the President, then-Interim Provost, and Executive Vice President.

For some students at Columbia, the overnight switch from an in-person to an online fall semester over the summer of 2020 came suddenly, erasing several months of planning and preparing for a socially distanced reopening. And while some knew that the decision to remain online came after months of the University attempting to convince faculty to return to the classroom, much of the administrative decision-making, especially regarding non-tenure-track instructors, was left out of public view.

Throughout the summer of 2020, President Bollinger and other high-ranking Columbia administrators pressured faculty to work in-person at the University campus for the Fall 2020 semester. This pressure was particularly aimed at faculty not on the track to obtain tenure as the administration had “greater leeway to expect [them to agree to teach] in-person.” 

Then-Interim Provost Ira Katznelson and Executive Vice President (EVP) Amy Hungerford both agreed with Bollinger that more faculty should teach in-person than the amount who initially opted to do so. Columbia College Dean James Valentini was also asked to partake in this decision; however, he pushed back on the idea of pressuring educators, stating he did not have a preference towards in-person or online teaching.

This disagreement between Dean Valentini and the trio of President Bollinger, EVP Hungerford, and then-Interim Provost Katznelson demonstrates the lack of cohesion in the University’s bureaucracy, exposing the instability at the core of this administration.

Note: Dean James Valentini is referred to as ‘Jim’ in many of the emails referenced in this article.

General Addresses to Faculty

Tensions within the University administration began in late July 2020, a few weeks after President Bollinger announced that first- and second-year students would be welcomed back to campus in the Fall 2020 semester. Furthermore, according to a July 23 email from then-Interim Provost Ira Katznelson, the University had already begun outlining a plan to ensure on-campus safety, promoting a return to campus with the re-opening of lab research, clinical medicine, dentistry, and nursing. At the time, the administration gave professors the choice to teach online, completely in person, or a hybrid between the two, accommodating COVID-19 health measures. Consequently, many professors, regardless of whether or not students would live on campus, chose to teach classes online for the semester.

At 5:19 pm on Monday, July 27, 2020, however, EVP Amy Hungerford asked the Arts and Sciences Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors to reconsider their preference for teaching solely remotely for the Fall 2020 semester. The email asks this group of instructors to reconsider their already communicated preferences in the hopes that in-person or hybrid courses would be offered instead of a strictly remote curriculum. EVP Hungerford cited the importance of in-person or hybrid teaching for international students and those living on campus partaking in the Core. This plea for reconsideration gave faculty only three days to “update or confirm [their] teaching modality for the fall.”

Tensions Between Top Columbia Administrators  

President Bollinger and then-Interim Provost Katznelson emailed Hungerford and Columbia College Dean James Valentini on July 26, 2020, at 2:13 pm to discuss the teaching mode for the Core for the Fall 2020 semester. Bollinger and Katznelson asked Hungerford and Valentini to consider three things, the third of which was that “the instructional faculty for the Core is largely composed of non-tenure-track individuals, which means we should have greater leeway to expect in-person instruction, if that’s what we deem best.” 

In response to Bollinger and Katznelson, Dean Valentini emailed the next day to provide a faculty perspective on teaching in-person, calling into question the effectiveness of on-campus Core courses with COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures in place. He addresses the style of the class, which is meant to enhance student-to-student interaction, and how that might be difficult in a masked and socially distanced classroom. On a pedagogical level, because these specific courses are more discussion-based, he writes, teaching online would not be a significant threat to the quality of the students’ education. But the most poignant concern Dean Valentini shared was one of ethics. When reflecting on prior communications to faculty and how abruptly different this effort for in-person teaching would be, Valentini said that “faculty were given the choice [of modality], and to retract that now would be unethical.” He added that his “ethical concerns are only compounded by the singling out of non-tenure-track instructors.”

At the same time on the same day, at 1:37 pm, Valentini emailed Hungerford and copied GSAS Dean Carlos Alonso and GS Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch to declare his unwillingness to sign the letter that would eventually ask faculty to reconsider their teaching modality choice. 

At 3:52 pm on this same day, Hungerford emailed the group—Bollinger, Katznelson, and Valentini—to address the deviation between her viewpoints and those of Dean Valentini. She believed that the modes of instruction should be more evenly distributed between online-only, hybrid, and in-person. She also acknowledged that the letter she planned to send to faculty would only come from herself, as Dean Valentini decided not to join in singing it. 

At this point, EVP Hungerford’s request for faculty to reconsider their choice of teaching modality had been sent, as outlined at the beginning of this article. 

Later that evening at 7:15 pm, Katznelson rebutted Valentini with an email expressing a desire to have more evenly balanced course modalities to provide as many in-person options as possible to first- and second-year students who were invited back to campus for the fall semester. Katznelson stated that “we all agree to respect the choices faculty will make” but asserted that it was also acceptable to inform faculty about the changes made to campus for COVID safety and to offer faculty “perspectives that would help bring about a more appealing balance of modes of instruction.” Katznelson concluded this response to Valentini with a direct address, stating that he hoped Valentini “would suspend a sufficient measure of [his] disbelief to assist this process, or at least not impede it.”

At 10:12 am on the following day, July 28, 2020, Valentini replied to Katznelson, vehemently insisting that he has no preference for the mode of instruction of any course, instead requesting that the Committee on the Core should be listened to regarding the mode of instruction for Core classes, as they work most closely and most often with the Core. Valentini advised Katznelson “not to pressure any instructor into changing their now chosen and already recorded mode of instruction,” citing the faculty’s feelings of being inadequately supported and informed by the institution of Columbia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Valentini expressed his fear that pushing the faculty to reconsider their decision of teaching modality would “worsen our current situation, and cause significant damage, and long-lasting damage, to Columbia.” 

Katznelson replied to Valentini later that day at 2:16 pm, reiterating the importance of having “open and thoughtful conversations” with faculty as “a mark of respect and judgment” in making difficult decisions. Yet, the then-Interim Provost denied any intention to pressure instructors into changing their choice of mode of instruction, despite expressing the opposite in prior emails. He incredulously remarked that he didn’t know what Valentini thought he might do: “exercise undue personal pressure or impose a mandate or sanction?”

On July 29, 2020, at 9:53 pm, Valentini emailed Katznelson to address the plea for consideration sent to Arts and Sciences faculty from EVP Hungerford. Valentini said this message from Hungerford “doesn’t to me read as initiating an open and thoughtful conversation with faculty” about their choice of modality. Valentini continued to criticize Hungerford’s message as a public indictment of faculty for opting into an outcome that administrators disapproved of. Valentini then referenced a different letter from Hungerford sent to Department Chairs on July 24, 2020, where she said that faculty cannot balance personal wishes with academic responsibilities toward students. Valentini denounced this claim about disregarding student needs, reaffirming the point that the administration gave faculty members a choice for instruction and that they must respect that choice. He concluded with an assertion that this “attack” on faculty is unethical. 

This back-and-forth quarrel closed with a reply from Katznelson on July 30, 2020, at 9:01 pm where he called Valentini’s description of Hungerford’s letter to Arts and Sciences faculty to be a “mischaracterization.” Katznelson upholds his sentiment throughout the argument that faculty have a voluntary choice to teach in-person or not and that the effort to educate faculty about campus changes for a safe teaching environment provides greater context and updated information from which faculty may make a different decision. 

The top University administrators, then, divided themselves into two camps: first, then-Interim Provost Katznelson, EVP Hungerford, and President Bollinger, who all wanted to open campus to as large a degree as possible, focusing mostly on in-person course options. On the opposing side stood Dean Valentini, who wanted to uphold the initial University policy of letting the professors choose their own method of instruction, prioritizing faculty concerns, including considerations of health and pedagogical standards.

The Committee on the Core Gets Involved

In August 2020, few University courses gave students any type of information on how classes would be conducted, even though course registration for the Fall 2020 semester took place in June. Katznelson was still unclear about the consensus of the Committee on the Core regarding what they considered to be the best teaching modality. In an effort to gain clarity, Katznelson asked Valentini three questions on August 2, 2020, at 11:33 pm. 

First, what was Valentini’s plan to address Core courses with no assigned instructor, and why were those unassigned courses listed in the directory as operating virtually, if the ultimate decision of modality lay in the hands of the individual professor? Second, had the Committee on Instruction truly accepted the Committee on the Core’s decision for Core courses to be conducted fully remotely if 6% of instructors had already chosen in-person or hybrid modes of instruction? Third, why was Columbia College set to teach 80% virtually when, according to Katznelson, more than half the courses in SEAS and in Business and over a third in GSAS will have faculty teach in a classroom?

In response, Valentini emailed back the next day, explaining that class sections without visible instructors in the Directory of Classes are not necessarily without an assigned instructor. Next, Valentini discusses his position as the communicator between the provost and the Committee on the Core and lists the various back-and-forth messages he has given and received, resolving to ask the Committee on the Core to substantiate the “accuracy of [his] message”—that is, the message that all Core courses would be taught remotely. Finally, Valentini surmises that he is ill-suited to analyze the varying choices of teaching modality across the many programs that encompass the University, if working alone and under strict time constraints. Thus, he cannot elucidate to Katznelson the discrepancy between modes of teaching across different schools. 

Valentini, with a desire to cease being the “intermediary,” forwarded his correspondence with Ira Katznelson to members of the Committee on the Core: the faculty Chairs of Art Humanities, Contemporary Civilization, Frontiers of Science, Literature Humanities, and Music Humanities. This email sent on August 3, 2020, at 8:16 pm, was meant to align Valentini and the Committee on the Core to ensure everyone was on the same page. Valentini also sought help in answering Katznelson’s questions. 

Three days later, on August 6, 2020, at 1:31 pm, Chair for Art Humanities Noam Elcott emailed Hungerford, Katznelson, and Bollinger with the other Core Chairs and Valentini copied. This lengthy email detailed the decision-making process of the Committee on the Core in choosing to teach remotely and discussed with great consideration the factors the Committee had to weigh to reach such a decision. The Committee proposed to opt for online learning with an in-person supplementary component, like going to museums or seeing movies outside, for those students living in New York. Due to the interactive nature of the Core, which is based on student-led discussions, the Committee decided Core courses would be best suited for online learning where students did not have to wear masks or shout across a distanced classroom. 

This email from the Chairs also addressed the anxiety many instructors felt after EVP Hungerford’s July 27 email calling for faculty to reconsider their choice to not teach in-person, and the Chairs call this request a “pressure campaign.” The Chairs end with a powerful appeal for support when they say “we need the President, Provost, and EVP to listen to the pedagogic imperatives of the Core and to help us implement them, rather than dictate to us how we should be teaching.” 

In response, Katznelson emailed the group of administrators and faculty Chairs of the Core on August 9, 2020, at 6:15 pm, immediately addressing the idea of pressure being placed on faculty to teach in person. Katznelson says that none of the top administrators “ever entertained the idea that faculty should be compelled to teach in person.” He then reiterates a sentiment seen in many of his emails: it is reasonable and fair that faculty should and would voluntarily reconsider their decisions as new information becomes available and as discussions with other academics occur. 

Katznelson proceeded to compliment the Chairs for their deep care and thoughtfulness when considering the best mode of teaching for the Core, but he took issue with the assertion that one mode of instruction will work best compared with others. Katznelson expressed his own preference to “run a comparative experiment” in which half of the Core instructors opted to teach in-person and half of the Core instructors opted to teach online or something similar, with the willingness of faculty; in doing this, “empirical experience” about teaching the Core with different methods could be gained for the future. Finally, Katznelson wished for more communication between the Committee on the Core and the administration as the decision of the Core’s mode of instruction was being discussed.

Bwog reached out to the six involved faculty Chairs on the Committee on the Core for comment, and we will continually update this article if provided with more statements. Below is the one statement we have obtained thus far, from professor David J. Helfand, Chair, Frontiers of Science.

The letter from the Core Chairs reflects accurately the conclusions of hundreds of person hours of work by the Chairs, the Dean’s office, and others during the summer of uncertainty last year. Within a week of this exchange, the debate was rendered moot by the announcement many of us had expected — that the campus would not open in September (especially for the primary Core audience of first- and second-year students).

The faculty efforts on optimizing Core pedagogical approaches in these difficult times was proven to be effective; in Frontiers of Science, for example, our Fall student evaluations were the highest we have received in the 16 years the course has been offered. That said, I had the opportunity to teach a Frontiers section in May to 24 three-dimensional students in a real classroom, an experience that reinforced for all of us the irreplaceable value of in-person instruction to which we all hope to return this fall.

So, even though the Chairs of the Core Curriculum and Dean Valentini had directly addressed the administration of their intention to remain online for the Fall 2020 semester, then-Interim Provost Katznelson continued to push for more hybrid options for students, yet again contradicting his own claims that the administration never pressured faculty to teach classes in person. 

One Year Later: Tensions in the Administration Still Remain

Although the correspondence discussed above was sent and received almost one year ago, the ramifications of these tensions and assertions of power reach into the present day. These emails are brought to light after a year of the same pattern on repeat: the administration seemingly ignoring faculty concerns. This past year has been loaded with distrust of and frustration with the administration, particularly in regards to its treatment of faculty and their inclusion in key decision-making processes for the university, culminating in some of the many frustrations outlined in the graduate student strike and the general exclusion of broad faculty input into the University’s current undergraduate expansion efforts. 

Additionally, the discrepancy between what Ira Katznelson claims to be true on August 9, that no senior administrators compelled faculty to teach in-person and the statement Lee Bollinger writes, that non-tenure-track instructors would grant administrators greater leeway in expecting teaching in-person is deeply concerning. The national decline of tenure-track faculty and the rise of non-tenured instructors, who often teach similar courses as tenured faculty without the same job securities, as seen reported recently in The Chronicle and Forbes, invites administrators to disregard non-tenured employees’ needs and concerns with little to no consequence. Bollinger’s statement accepts that invitation.

It would appear that in a more public-facing email to top administrators and six faculty Chairs on the Committee of the Core, Katznelson took a more protective approach in reasserting that the administration would not compel anyone to teach in person who did not wish to. However, in a more private email only between top administrators—Hungerford, Bollinger, Katznelson, and Valentini—President Bollinger spoke more freely in his consideration of the malleability of non-tenure-track employees. These discrepancies in private messaging and slightly more public messaging speak to the administration’s lack of transparency in decision-making. 

Not only did President Bollinger suggest that the administration pushed faculty toward a decision that suited them, but Katznelson also hinted at the pliability of non-tenure-track instructors. In a July 28 email, the then-Interim Provost remarked that allowing discussion around faculty’s choice to not return in-person is a sign of “respect for reason.” The Chairs’ collective plea for written assurance that their faculty of all ranks would continue to have free choice in course modality also demonstrates the pressure faculty felt from the administration. 

With the trio against Valentini in discussions of modality of instruction for Fall 2020, and with the CC Dean reportedly being the only administrator to support faculty in discussions of expansion recently, it is unclear how this administration can function as a cooperative unit in a way that doesn’t actively undermine faculty and/or students. 

This administration has proven to be dysfunctional behind the scenes, and the contradictions amongst each individual and between the trio and Valentini leave us asking, “what comes next?” With former SEAS Dean Mary Boyce starting her new role as Provost this past Thursday, we stand to witness how the transition of the role of Provost from Katznelson to Boyce will impact internal administrative relations. Even so, only time will tell how these four major University players can collaborate in the pursuit of pedagogical excellence when they fail to share the same values and goals.

Bwog has reached out to the administration for comment, and we will continually update this article if provided with any statements.

Reporting contributed by Lauren Kahme, Caroline Mullooly, and Aditi Misra

Low Library via Lauren Kahme’s iPhone