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University professor group calls for OU administration's town hall attendance, COVID-19 action, democracy

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An OU flag in front of the Bizzell Memorial Library on July 8, 2020.

The OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors invited OU administrators Tuesday to its next meeting and requested a public informational meeting with student and faculty organizations. 

According to a press release from the chapter, OU-AAUP contacted OU administration in early October requesting action in regard to the pandemic and received no response. The declaration of demands was addressed to OU President Joseph Harroz, interim Provost and Senior Vice President Jill Irvine and Board of Regents members, according to the release. 

The demands included moving all university operations online — including spring 2021 instruction — along with updating the OU COVID-19 dashboard system and “vigorously” enforcing OU's Safe and Resilient policies. The full list of demands can be found in the release

According to the release, OU administration failed to adhere to the proposed safety demands, prompting OU-AAUP to invite the administration to their next meeting from 2–3 p.m. Friday to “listen and respond” to the concerns of chapter members.

When the Oct. 1 declaration was released, the chapter requested action from the administrators "immediately," according to the release. In their most recent request, OU-AAUP invited the administrators to their Friday meeting to be held three days after the request. 

In October, OU political science professor and OU-AAUP President Michael Givel said the short notice was intentional, adding “time’s up” and “we need to get a response now” from OU administrators to address the pandemic in an interview with The Daily. This time, Givel expressed the same concerns, calling the matter a “fire emergency.” 

“Why is it an emergency? We’re in the middle of a very serious pandemic,” Givel said. “Many people are affected, both in Norman, Cleveland County and the University of Oklahoma.”

Givel said the OU administration “has had a lot of time to consider” COVID-19 safety precautions in place since spring.  

“As I mentioned in the interview before, time’s up,” Givel said. “Time is still up.” 

The group's invitation stated that, although the chapter appreciates the transition to online instruction after Thanksgiving break, they are still waiting for a response to previous demands. The “worsened” public health situation makes the requests “even more urgent.”  

In a Tuesday night Norman City Council special session, mayor Breea Clark announced Norman’s IMMY lab location will “run out of state funding for free COVID-19 testing on Thursday.” According to Norman's COVID-19 dashboard, the 7-day rolling average for COVID-19 cases in Norman is at 69 cases per day, as of Thursday. 

In addition to the invitation, OU-AAUP requested OU administration holds a town hall session before the end of the fall semester with representatives from the OU Faculty Senate, the OU Staff Senate, the OU Student Government Association and OU-AAUP, according to the release. 

“We would like to sit and talk and have a discussion with the concerns that we have raised,” Givel said. “That would be the purpose of the town hall. We would like to do it, not just with words, but with data.” 

In a Dec. 1 statement to KFOR, the university said OU “continues to prioritize the safety, health and welfare of all of its community members” and is “working closely” with OU Faculty and Staff Senate executive committees as well as elected representative groups for the OU employee community. 

Givel said the university has “chosen” to talk to certain faculty and staff members. He said since summer, many other organizations and groups have held “numerous rallies and petitions” but have repeatedly been ignored by the administration. 

Givel cited a petition created in July by OU Workers United with over 1,800 signatures from “faculty, staff, students, concerned parents and community members” that he said was also ignored. The petition called for the university to “allow students and professors to choose whether to learn and teach online or in person.” 

“Evidently, the OU administration doesn’t seem to be too interested in meeting with people — and a variety of people — on campus,” Givel said. “They have chosen to meet with a selective group for purposes unknown but there are numerous questions out there.”

In conjunction with the petition, OU-AAUP requested the university allow faculty and staff to have a “primary responsibility” as to whether their class is held online or in person, citing the support of the National American Association of University Professors. 

The declaration also calls for a virtual spring 2021 semester. In an interview with The Daily, Amit Baishya — OU English Department director of graduate studies and OU-AAUP secretary — said moving classes online is in the “best interest” of the OU community as well as trying to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“I've been teaching a hybrid format, and the number of students in my face-to-face classes are falling,” Baishya said. “I think it’s partially because, on the one hand, people are getting infected more than you think they are. The issue also is that people are scared to come to classes in some sense.”

In the invitation, OU-AAUP cited an Oct. 27 email from Harroz stating OU believes “in productive civic engagement — serving causes and communities greater than ourselves” and “in the free exchange of ideas — rigorous thinking and civil dialogue.” The invitation stated an open forum is necessary to “fulfill these ideals.” 

“The OU president has repeatedly said that he believes in instructive engagement,” Givel said. “So we have to ask the question, ‘Why is he not meeting with a variety of groups on campus and having a nice, civil, instructive chat to hash out these issues?’” 

According to Givel, the University of Texas, Austin, has “triggers” for campus to go online. In the declaration, OU-AAUP requests the university to “provide clear trigger criteria for when OU will go primarily and immediately online.” 

“We have asked continuously, ‘What are OU’s triggers? What are the exact criteria for staying open versus going online or partially online?’” Givel said. “We would like to have a nice civil conversation to talk about that. So far, that issue has been not responded to by the OU administration.” 

According to the October declaration, OU administration “misrepresented” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's definition for “close contact” by “excluding the classroom setting from contact-tracing protocols." The university responded there have been “no known positive cases as a result of transmission in an OU classroom or in an OU clinical setting between patients and providers” in the statement to KFOR. 

“Right now, OU claims that there are no documented cases of infection in an OU classroom,” Givel said. “I think that’s a pretty startling claim and it’d be nice if we could see the data that supports that.”

The university has also required employees to “request accommodations to work remotely” rather than granting this option by default, which has “disadvantaged those most vulnerable employees who did not request reasonable remote working accommodations out of fear of losing their jobs,” according to the declaration. 

In response to the OU-AAUP, OU said “extensive flexibility options” have been developed for faculty and staff, in the statement made to KFOR. 

“Importantly, extensive flexibility options to faculty and staff have been developed, meeting all formal requests for flexible teaching modifications and encouraging extensive telecommuting work where possible,” the statement read. “The university recently surveyed faculty and students on preferred instructional modalities for the spring semester, and with those responses announced modifications to the Norman campus spring 2021 academic calendar.” 

Aside from COVID-19-related issues, Baishya said one of the big concerns outlined within the OU-AAUP declaration is the transition from a six-tier health care plan to a one-tier health care plan. The group wishes for the university to “seek broader input from the OU community before implementing any changes,” according to the declaration.

“I think this input should be taken very much into consideration,” Baishya said. “I think this is, overall, what we are concerned with: The lack of faculty governance and staff participation, for instance, in questions that affect the university in general. I think this is one of the reasons why AAUP started to advocate for that as well.”

When the health care changes were introduced in September, OU Faculty Senate approved the Faculty Senate’s Healthcare Benefits Equity Resolution “strongly opposing the proposed changes” of moving to a one-tier system. 

The faculty senate resolution reads, “The (OU-Norman) Faculty Senate strongly objects, based on equity concerns, to the proposed changes to faculty and staff benefits that ultimately would result in a one-tier system by 2022. The abandonment of the six-tier system adversely impacts those with the lowest salary at OU. We ask the administration to reconsider these changes and seek wider input from the OU community.”

Following the resolution, the OU staff senate passed a resolution in support of the faculty senate’s resolution during a Wednesday meeting.  Angela Church, senior associate vice president of human resources and chief human resources officer, said during the meeting the changes were being used as a “recruiting tool” due to the increased amount new employees would pay as opposed to other universities.

“One of the big things ... we’re looking for is to recruit people from other places,” Church said. “Our benefit structure and the way that we pay for that is really outside of the market.”

Church’s comments about the health care changes were met by concerns from OU Staff Senate Chair Crystal Ary. 

“What I just heard you say is, ‘The people you are recruiting … are more important than the people that you already have,'” Ary said.

According to the declaration, the health care plan resolution presented by the faculty senate has since then been ignored and is instead “moving forward with benefits changes that will, in President Harroz’s words, ‘have a negative impact on our lowest-paid employees.’”

KFOR asked whether or not the administration plans to attend the OU-AAUP meeting but has not received a response. 

Givel said the AAUP is over 100 years old and has “set the standard” for academic freedom. According to Givel, in past years, any organization with concerns was allowed conversation within the president’s office. 

“It appears to be a trend and a new change in the way we do university campuses,” Givel said. “Up until the recent past, it was a shared governance model where a variety of groups, individuals and constituents got to have their say and met in a civil and productive fashion to reach solutions.” 

According to Givel, current decisions are more “centralized,” with administrators only consulting with a few faculty and staff members.

“It’s puzzling why a parade of people and groups, starting in the summer until now, have made their concerns known, and none of them have ever been invited to speak with the president’s office,” Givel said. “It’s not just us, it’s students, it’s staff, it’s a wide coalition of OU Workers United, community, parents and faculty of all ranks.” 

As of Thursday, OU-AAUP has not received a response from OU administration, according to Baishya. 

“We are disappointed,” Baishya said. “I think it’s part of the larger structure in which faculty and staff voices tend to be left out in these discussions.” 

Feeling left out of the conversation, Baiysha said he wishes the culture within the university to be “a little more democratic.” He said democratic faculty governance in universities is “slipping.” 

“I think we need to work in cooperation with each other,” Baishya said. “Otherwise, it would be (a) very top-down (governance) and that leaves a lot of people angry and dissatisfied.” 

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