Fifty-two University of Kansas department chairs have signed a letter challenging the school’s requirement that most classes this fall be offered in person. The faculty members insist they should have the option of teaching online.
The letter, addressed to Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, was sent after Chancellor Douglas Girod announced last week that KU would hold in-person classes starting on Aug. 24 as part of a shortened semester ending before Thanksgiving. Students will be encouraged to leave the campus after the holiday to minimize the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.
Under the plan, instructors can ask for an exemption from the in-person class requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The letter from the department heads calls that process “impossibly unwieldy, discriminatory and perhaps illegal.”
“The process raises weighty confidentiality concerns, and we believe that many urgent questions remain to be answered about” complying with the ADA and federal anti-discrimination and safety rules, the letter states. “The plan asks instructors to divulge personal health (including mental health) information that is not in fact counted as a disability by law in order to learn that our request may have been denied.”
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.
Wednesday was the deadline for faculty chairs to submit a spreadsheet indicating how their fall classes will comply with KU’s in-person class mandate.
The letter was emailed to Bichelmeyer on Monday and signed by 38 department chairs. Since then, another 14 have signed.
The signatories, some of them outgoing chairs and others incoming, comprise a majority of the 57 departments in KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Bichelmeyer did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The dilemma for a school like KU, the state’s flagship school, is that without in-person classes its local monopoly advantage disappears. On the one hand, the Lawrence campus faces competition from cheaper online schools. On the other, it faces competition from more elite, better-resourced schools.
And it faces a real financial dilemma as well: the prospect of students withdrawing because they’re not getting the college experience they expected.
But the letter says that professors and instructors shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice confidentiality concerns in order to safeguard their health and that of their students.
“We would like the university to allow faculty to make their own decisions about the way that they want to teach in the fall,” said Nicholas Syrett, chair of the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Many faculty don’t qualify for ADA exemptions, Syrett said, but they may be caring for an elderly relative or a child or simply may not wish to disclose their medical condition.
“None of those faculty have the option of making the choice for themselves,” Syrett said. “And I would say this is also important — it's not just faculty, it’s graduate teaching assistant instructors and lecturers and adjuncts lecturers, anyone who teaches.”
Ani Kokobobo, another signatory to the letter and chair of the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Literatures, said she wastorn about whether to teach in person. She's a single mother and worries about balancing the safety of her son against her allegiance to KU.
“And then I have people in my unit that are vulnerable that I would love to be able to advocate for and give options to beyond myself,” Kokobobo said.
In the end, she said, it came down to a matter of KU failing to consult the people directly affected by the in-person mandate.
“I’m here weighing my family’s welfare and my university’s welfare together and, yes, sure, I’ll do whatever you need me to do,” Kokobobo said. “I’ll sacrifice in some way. But ask me, at the very least, because of the risk that is involved.”