“I think I have a right during a pandemic to protect myself however I see fit”: Faculty members conflicted over inability to change method of instruction

On Oct. 8, the faculty received a survey requiring that they report their teaching method preferences — in-person, hybrid or online — for each of their Spring 2021 classes. But recently, faculty members were made aware by Whitman’s administration that they are unable to change their method of instruction chosen in October — barring changes to personal or family health circumstances. 

Some professors remain worried about their inability to change their choice as local and statewide COVID-19 cases increase, while others stand by the policy.

The survey read: “Although we are asking for information as if we are going to be on campus in the spring, there has been no determination made at this time and we are simply planning for all possible options. Please answer the following questions assuming that we will have a full return of all students on campus, either from the start of the semester or after spring break.”

According to Arielle Cooley, President of the Whitman chapter of the American Association of College Professors (AAUP), many faculty assumed those answers were preliminary and amenable to changes as the spring semester drew closer. 

“Faculty were asked in October to express their teaching preferences and at least some faculty were quite alarmed that, by early December, those initial preferences were now being treated as commitments,” Cooley said. “The faculty submitted preferences, in many cases, under the belief that this was a preliminary assessment of preferences and we were not given a second opportunity to review before making a firm commitment for the Spring.”

Andrea Dobson, Associate Professor of Astronomy and General Studies, was surprised that the survey was published for students so early in the semester.

“The survey email was couched in very hypothetical terms,” Dobson said. “It seemed odd to me that something so uncertain was published for students to use at pre-registration, but I could see that once that happened it would make it very difficult for us to respond to changing circumstances.” 

A professor who asked to remain anonymous said there was “never any message that [faculty] could not back out” of their survey-submitted preferences. “I would say though that the message seemed implicit,” they added.

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton said the survey made it clear that the faculty-chosen instructional method was binding. 

“The contingent aspect of this [survey] was the question of the format the college would adopt overall in the spring, not the question of their choice of instructional format, which they were being asked to ‘state,’” Tipton said. 

As COVID-19 cases grew in Walla Walla over the final month of the semester and into the winter, professors ran into difficulty trying to change their preferences to online instruction. In a Dec. 5 email to the faculty obtained by The Wire, from Tipton wrote that changing preferences would require sufficient reasoning.

“[It] is very important for you to continue with the instructional format you indicated for your classes in the spring,” Tipton wrote. “Should you wish to request a change in format, that request will need to go to me, and I will be looking for a significant change in your circumstances in order to be able to approve such a request.”

Tipton’s email elicited uncertainty and surprise from some and annoyance and discontent from others.

AAUP President Cooley found that portion of Tipton’s email “a little troubling” and unclear. 

“I don’t know if it allows for a faculty member to say, ‘my circumstances haven’t changed, but Walla Walla’s have and I no longer feel comfortable with that.’ That is not clear from the email,” Cooley said. 

In a Dec. 18 email to The Wire, Tipton clarified that sufficient reasoning requires changes to personal circumstances irrespective of concern over rising COVID-19 levels. 

“My primary reason to grant a change would be a change in health circumstances for the faculty member or their family,” Tipton said. 

Most professors that The Wire talked to said that they should have the authority to switch from in-person teaching should Walla Walla’s COVID-19 levels make them feel unsafe. 

“I still feel strongly though that there should be faculty choice in returning to the classroom in person and that soaring numbers of COVID is a legitimate reason for not returning to the classroom,” Eunice Blavascunas, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies, said in an email to The Wire

Lydia McDermott, Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Writing and Public Discourse, concurred. 

“I believe [faculty] should be able to change their minds. Although I understand the financial impetus for wanting to ‘please the customer’ (students), safety of the community is just more important,” McDermott said in an email to The Wire. “Even if I didn’t [have a medical condition or live with someone who does], I think I have a right during a pandemic to protect myself however I see fit. We have proven that we ‘can’ do our jobs from home, even if it is not ideal.”

“I was very troubled by [Tipton’s] email,” said a professor who asked to remain anonymous. “It made no mention of the change in circumstances that we are all experiencing collectively: the devastating winter of COVID. To pressure faculty to stick to our prior decisions, without acknowledging the present circumstances, is insensitive to say the least.”

When the teaching preferences survey was distributed on Oct. 8, there were approximately 40 active COVID-19 cases in Walla Walla County, according to Whitman’s Math Department COVID-19 tracking website. When Provost Tipton sent her email to faculty on Dec. 5, there were nearly 400 active cases. 

“Our concern,” AAUP President Cooley said, “is that, precisely because of those changing conditions, faculty really need to have autonomy to assess the risk and teach their class in a way that is appropriate to their situation.”

However, Tipton argued that faculty would not be at risk when teaching in-person so long as every member of the Whitman community follows safety protocols. 

“Our epidemiologist says there is no evidence of transmission of [COVID-19] through classroom contact when following safety protocols,” Tipton said. “This has also been reported in journals of higher education. Thus, a faculty member deciding that in-person instruction is unsafe for a person of normal health is simply not paying attention to the scientific evidence.”

When asked to provide the referenced scientific evidence, Tipton forwarded an article that Professor of Physics Kurt Hoffman had circulated.* The article summarized a recent study at Indiana University that found “that infection risk was not higher among students [enrolled] in more in-person courses,” assuaging fears of in-class transmission.

While some professors desire more freedom to change their method of instruction, others believe that the faculty need to follow through with their earlier decision.

Professor of Physics Fred Moore believes that if Whitman’s COVID-19 protocols work, faculty should stick to the method of instruction they indicated in the fall.

“Given my understanding of the epidemiology there’s a set of conditions after which it’s no longer advisable to do ‘hybrid’ or socially distanced ‘in-person’ instruction,” Moore said in an email to The Wire. “So long as Whitman’s COVID protocols are effective then I think faculty should be asked and expected to follow through on the methodology to which they committed back in [October].”

Tipton similarly stated that it would be unrealistic for faculty to have complete discretion over their teaching methods and infeasible due to physical limitations.

“There has to be a limit to how much an employee gets to unilaterally decide the conditions of their own employment,” Tipton said. “[Faculty] had the opportunity to consider that format again before students registered. I do not consider it reasonable or professional to expect a third opportunity to choose their instructional method, a decision that will have serious consequences for students.”

Moore added that we may receive new information from epidemiologists and new state regulations. This could translate to changes in format for certain classes.

“I can imagine some classes turning out to be simply impossible in the planned-on format. The State’s rules may change, we may learn more from the epidemiologists,” Moore said. “The plans an instructor might have had last fall may simply prove to be impossible given January’s new reality.”

Tipton addressed students’ dependence on the faculty’s chosen method of instruction in her email to The Wire

“Students picked instructional format not just to be ‘pleased,’ but for reasons of geography, disability, access, academic success, and mental health,” Tipton said. “Denying them the opportunity to take classes that they believed they could take is a serious breach of trust.”

Brian Dott, Professor of History and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, said that while he thinks it is important that faculty have a fair amount of leeway in choosing their method of instruction, some students are dependent upon the method that was chosen in the fall.

“We’d have to figure out what’s going to work for the students, but I think there’s a way to do that as well as respect the choices for how people want to teach,” Dott said.

Dott pointed out that international students require an in-person component to classes because of visa restrictions, while student athletes require online classes. Faculty members have to figure out how to make their classes work for every student.

For example, Dott is co-teaching a class on the Silk Roads with Professor of Biology Heidi Dobson this spring. Both athletes and international students registered for the class, so Dott and Dobson had to try to alter the class to be both online and in-person.

“It’s also important that we figure out ways we can adapt,” Dott said. “There’s varied, differing needs for different groups of students.”

Overall, Dott hopes that “no student and no faculty [member] will be forced to do a format that they don’t want to do.”


*The Wire is in the process of contacting Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey and the aforementioned epidemiologist. We will update this article when we receive additional information.