With Pomona College yet to release a decision regarding in-person fall semester academics, students are not the only ones anxiously awaiting the news — professors are in a similar state of concern.
While some professors wish to return to face-to-face instruction provided safety precautions are taken, many have already decided they won’t be teaching in person come fall semester, even if students return to campus.
A baseline decision on reopening will be released July 1 after Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr meets with the Pomona Board of Trustees, Starr said in an interview with TSL last week. Students can expect guidance on registration, housing, room draw and the academic calendar, followed by a series of town halls, she said. She also said it’s possible the 5Cs might not make a unified decision about reopening.
The risks of in-person instruction
Faculty have been given the option to choose between teaching online or in person without the need to provide a medical justification for their choice, Starr said. At a faculty meeting last week, around half of the faculty present said they would teach at least some of their course online, though Starr and a professor who attended the meeting said the poll was confusingly worded and not determinative.
Pomona religious studies professor Oona Eisenstadt said she will most likely teach online in the fall and that among the professors she talks to, most are “dead set” or “leaning towards” not going face-to-face if Pomona invites students back to campus.
“I know the majority of the faculty feel that Zoom classes are a really poor substitute for face-to-face classes — that said, they are worried that if we go face-to-face there will be sickness and possible death,” Eisenstadt said. “Not only do the faculty not want to die, they sure as hell don’t want to kill anybody.”
History professor Victor Silverman will also not be teaching in person this fall — he doesn’t believe it’s safe.
“Certainly among older faculty, there’s a lot of misgiving. There’s a lot of fear and trepidation about in-person teaching,” Silverman said.
“Not only do the faculty not want to die, they sure as hell don’t want to kill anybody.” — Oona Eisenstadt
Rachel Levin, a professor of biology and neuroscience who is at risk and has a hearing disability, said that teaching in person would pose problems beyond just the health risks.
“With my hearing disability, the only way I can hear my students is by having them speak into a handheld microphone and that’s not going to be possible,” she said. “ … [with masks on] I can’t see their faces and 80 percent of your understanding of speech comes from the face and visual.”
Anne Dwyer, an associate dean, language professor and the director of Oldenborg, said language classes would not be as effective while wearing masks. Her fall classes would be predominantly online, though she would still consider some in-person instruction one-on-one or in small groups.
“It’s important for my students to see mouths and teeth and tongues and to imitate sounds. Masks don’t work for this kind of teaching,” she said via email.
Levin said many people in her department are brainstorming ways to do labs remotely, such as sending students the materials they need by mail. ITS has been offering workshops for faculty to gain skills with online tools and pedagogy this summer. Around 50 percent of faculty members have been involved in workshops, Faculty Executive Committee chair and chemistry professor Dan O’Leary said.
Still, some faculty said they would teach in person, provided precautions are taken.
“For me, personally, I would love to be back in person and have the students back in person,” said Pierre Englebert, a politics and international relations professor. “I miss the classroom and the contact with the students a lot more than I had anticipated.”
Clarissa Cheney, a Pomona biology professor, also said she would prefer to teach in-person — with appropriate safety measures.
“I would like to teach in person, face-to-face, if I can feel that it’s safe,” she said. “I much prefer that. Our joy of teaching is interacting with the students … Zoom is great one-on-one but group meetings of Zoom are just not the same as when you have them in person.”
But Cheney added that the latest COVID-19 spikes in California, which recently recorded its largest one-day jump, along with the anti-masking movement in LA’s surrounding suburban areas, have “absolutely” caused concern for her.
Can students stay safe on campus?
Levin said she is “deeply concerned” about bringing students back to campus, and worried about the possible spread of the virus resulting from student travel and not being able to keep campus fully sequestered.
“I think there’s a fair amount of scientific evidence that suggests that we’re not meeting the right conditions that are optimal for bringing people back to campus, not we the 5Cs or Pomona, [but] as a country. And if anything, evidence is to the contrary,” she said.
But Starr said Pomona’s contingency planning might mitigate some of the risks of in-person teaching.
“We’ve been working with epidemiologists and with some mathematical modeling that shows that depending on our testing regime and contact tracing, some of the risks are not as high as people would think,” she said.
Some professors remain unsure that stringent social distancing policies will effectively prevent the spread of the virus. Levin said that it’s “asking a lot” to expect students to social distance 24/7 and therefore there will be health risks.
“It’s sort of like living in a martial state. I know I would be dying to come back to campus myself if I were a student,” she said. “But I think the reality is that the success of the experiment lies on the people who come and go to campus … and the willingness of the 18- to 22-year-olds on campus to comply. And I think what’s being asked of you is a tremendous amount.”
Eisenstadt said that while she trusts students to follow the rules, it doesn’t seem possible to prevent the spread of infection.
“There’s no way if people are all living in the same building that they can prevent the spread of infection,” she said. “It’s crazy, a dorm is a petri dish.”
Starr said that breaches of social distancing requirements will likely be handed to the student judicial board. However, Starr said she believes students will follow the rules.
“Nobody would willingly put, in this community, anyone else in harm’s way and that’s what not social distancing and not wearing a mask does,” she said.
Job security in the balance
Starr said they are doing “everything we can” to avoid furloughs, but did not commit to retaining all faculty and staff currently employed by the college.
“We could not indefinitely employ people if we had a severe continued economic contraction, but we will do our very best to avoid furloughs because that’s not what we want to do,” she said.
Some professors were concerned that junior and visiting faculty would feel pressure to teach in person in fear of poor teaching evaluations and contracts being ended.
Levin expressed worry for staff who are “at the bottom of the power differential unless they’re in Alexander Hall.”
“[There is] the social pressure, inadvertent, unintentional bullying of especially junior colleagues who might feel like they have to come to teach on campus because their jobs are insecure,” she said. “And what happens to that person if they say, ‘Oh, I need to work from home.’”
However, Starr said faculty’s choice to teach online will not impact job security. The tenure clock has also been extended, she said.
Starr said a dip of 15 to 20 percent in Pomona’s operating revenue would be needed to consider furloughs, but suggested furloughs might be crucial for the college’s longevity. If 20 percent of students chose to take a semester off, Starr said, the college would likely suffer a significant financial hit.
“We have an obligation not just to this generation of students but the next generation of students to keep Pomona financially solvent,” she said.
Starr indicated that if campus remains closed for the fall, staff positions would be vulnerable.
“There’s always the question of how long we can pay people on staff who do not have work,” she said.
Many of the professors TSL spoke with said they want to see the administration issue a statement that it will avoid layoffs and furloughs, especially for the school’s lowest-paid workers.
“The resources of the school [should be] used to protect those who are most vulnerable, not to insulate those who are the best off,” Silverman said. “ … It would only be fair for my salary to be hit before the administrative assistants, before the janitors, before the dining hall workers, and certainly before people are laid off.”
Who gets to decide?
The ultimate decision of whether to reopen campus lies with Starr, in consultation with the board of trustees.
While some professors expressed dissatisfaction about the degree to which the administration and trustees have considered faculty, staff and student input in the decision, others have found the decision-making process fairly responsive to faculty voices.
Starr said the faculty have had the chance to voice their opinions through town halls as well as the Faculty Executive Committee. The newly created Online Teaching and Learning Committee also has faculty and staff representatives.
But some faculty say they wish for greater involvement in the decision to reopen.
“I think that it’s really important that there be a unified approach, and that the approach be decided by the appropriate body, which is, in this case, the faculty, with the approval or the modification of the trustees,” Silverman said.
Silverman emphasized his support for a more democratic process.
“Right now it would be much better [if we had collective decision-making], we would be empowered, we would feel that we’re all being heard, that we are actually making the decision. As opposed to it’s being handed to us,” Silverman said.
Starr said the administration has tried to include faculty considerations but they can never be “perfect” about involvement.
“Given the complexity of the process we are trying to have the faculty as involved as we can,” O’Leary said.
Eisenstadt said the input process had been thorough, given its limitations.
“I think the administration are doing their best and I think their best is pretty good,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s a good option in this scenario. Not for them and not for any of us.”
Some faculty proposed alternative ways for students to get academic credit during the fall semester, while not needing to be on campus or taking Zoom classes.
“It’s really too bad that the college has not, and the faculty have not, spent enough time this spring and now in the summer thinking about creative ways to have distance learning in the fall,” Silverman said. “A lot of effort has been expended trying to figure out ways to have in-person education be safe. And it just seems like a fool’s errand at this point.”
Silverman suggested a scenario in which students could participate in social service for credit, participating in opportunities such as contact tracing or delivering food to seniors in their communities.
“A lot of effort has been expended trying to figure out ways to have in-person education be safe. And it just seems like a fool’s errand at this point.”
— Victor Silverman
Eisenstadt also supports the college crediting self-directed student projects.
“Most of those projects could be directed at the things most important in the country at the moment — the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements and the question of police brutality and defunding the police,” she said.
“I think there might be ways in which the college could be a real social leader and say, ‘No, we are not going to put at risk the health of our students, the health of our faculty and the health of our staff,’” Eisenstadt said. “The college should say, ‘We refuse to put even one life in jeopardy and we would like to turn our resources in one way or the other to the development of projects for good.’”
Starr said these alternatives would need to be approved by the curriculum committee and would not need to go through the president’s office.
Silverman said if there aren’t alternate options, he “completely understands” why students are considering taking the semester off and encouraged students to slow down from their usual fast pace.
“Let’s take a little time. Let’s reflect. Let’s try these other kinds of things,” he said. “I’ve always been an advocate of students taking time off from their education, I think it’s a very healthy thing to do. It’s good to have wider experience.”
However, Starr said she would like to avoid students interrupting their learning.
“There’s a huge amount of educational research that shows that interruptions to students’ learning decreases their chance of finishing, and we definitely don’t want that,” she said.
While incoming first-years who haven’t submitted plans for a gap year will not be allowed to defer, Starr said other students have not been restricted from taking time off.
Silverman said that while holding an entirely remote semester might pose financial difficulty to other Claremont Colleges, Pomona could support remote, self-directed student learning.
“Pomona is in a very lucky position, a very privileged position, because it gets a relatively small percentage of its revenue from student tuition,” Silverman said.