A crowd of around 200 faculty, students, and staff gathered in front of Pennsylvania State University’s Old Main building on Friday. The sun was unrelenting as they stood in over 90-degree heat to rally in opposition of the institution’s Covid-19 policies, less than 10 days before the semester begins.
The group taped an open letter to the front door of the administrative building. The letter was signed by more than 1,200 faculty members and over 1,500 students, parents, and other members of the campus community, asking for a vaccine mandate ahead of the fall semester.
The protest came alongside a Faculty Senate vote of no confidence in the university’s public-health plan, and less than a day after the university president defended the decision not to mandate vaccines in an open letter to the community.
In the letter, Eric J. Barron cited the political controversy around vaccine mandates. He said the university’s funding “relies on strong bipartisan support.”
“Our actions at Penn State are designed to achieve the desired outcome, with as little polarization as possible,” Barron said.
But hundreds of faculty members disagree with that approach.
Gary King, a professor of biobehavioral health, said he was disappointed in Barron’s statement. King is a member of the Coalition for a Just University, a faculty organization dedicated to promoting equity at Penn State that organized Friday’s protest.
“The president seems to be digging in his heels to support a policy that is simply not viable or tenable,” King said.
A collection of faculty, staff, and students have asked the administration for a vaccination requirement for everyone on-campus, continued masking and social distancing, random Covid testing, to maintain improved ventilation in campus buildings, a more flexible teaching policy, and improved mental health resources, in an open letter addressed to university leaders.
On August 4, the university announced that it would require university-wide masking in all campus buildings regardless of vaccination status, citing the highly transmissible Delta variant and updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Penn State is strongly encouraging students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated and share their vaccination status with the university as soon as possible, but is not requiring the Covid-19 vaccine. Students and employees who didn’t inform the university that they were fully vaccinated by August 9 will be subject to required testing during the fall semester.
Faculty members say that’s not enough. In their letter, they said the refusal to mandate vaccinations on campus puts the health of the university community at risk, particularly those who are immunocompromised.
“Students who are unable to receive a vaccination due to health conditions — and will therefore run significant risk by being in an environment where many people have chosen not to be vaccinated — are being told that their only option is to take courses online, depriving them of equal educational opportunities,” said faculty members in the letter addressed to administration. “Nor is there a clear policy for faculty and staff who have health conditions that make frequent encounters with unvaccinated students at risk, or who live with unvaccinated children and/or people who are immunodeficient.”
For one professor, the way administration has been handling Covid was the last straw.
James E. Tierney, an assistant teaching professor of economics, submitted his resignation on Monday after his request to teach his class of about 550 students online — like he had been doing for the past two semesters — was declined.
Tierney requested on August 4 to teach his Introduction to Macroeconomics course remotely but was met with pushback from human resources and the dean’s office.
He was told that “simply not wanting to teach in person or not feeling comfortable doing so have not been sufficient basis” for exemption from in-person teaching, he said.
“It was kind of telling me that if I wanted to push any further that I would lose the opportunity to teach that class,” he said.
The university reopened its process for faculty-work-adjustment requests until August 12 and reviewed requests on a case-by-case basis, according to Lisa W. Powers, the senior director of strategic communications. Remote-work adjustments were only considered for immunocompromised individuals or those who either live with someone who is immunocompromised, have unvaccinated children who are at high risk, or, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated.
The fall-2021 semester will be Tierney’s last one after seven years teaching at Penn State. He will provide all course materials, recordings of live-streamed versions of his class, and assessments and exams online for students who are not comfortable attending the class in person or who are isolating after being exposed to or infected with Covid.
“It is appalling to me that Penn State is asking its teaching faculty to continue to teach these large lectures in these rooms with no windows, with no vaccination mandates,” Tierney said.
He was also dissatisfied with Barron’s letter to the campus community.
“They’re trying to convince the faculty and the Penn State community that they are doing everything that they can when they clearly know that they’re not,” Tierney said.
The Penn State Faculty Senate voted in support of two resolutions Friday: a vote of no confidence in the fall-2021 Covid plan and another in support of a vaccine mandate.
King sees this is a hopeful sign and is optimistic that university leaders will change course.
“We are very much looking forward to the university changing its position and taking a much more humane and equitable approach to fighting this very terrible pandemic that we are all confronted with, especially in light of the Delta variant,” King said.