an urgent letter to President Montgomery and Provost Bott from the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee
August 30, 2021
Dear President Montgomery and Provost Bott:
We, the members of the WMU-AAUP Executive Committee, are writing to you to express grave concerns relating to inadequate COVID-19 safety measures and accommodations. We worry that the WMU community will experience unnecessary and disastrous consequences resulting from a lack of clear and decisive leadership and guidance, and we are alarmed by the growing disconnect between Administration and those of us on the frontlines who interact on a daily basis with students. Our concerns are interrelated, and deal with our Contractual agreement, COVID-19 safety measures, shared governance, and communication. We describe these concerns below.
• Unilateral Dismissal of Item (2) in the June 11, 2020 Letter of Agreement: First and most alarming is the apparent unilateral dismissal of the Letter of Agreement signed June 11, 2020. The second item in this LOA states that “Faculty with accommodation requests- including, but not limited to shifts in the delivery format of their courses related to health and/or safety concerns may use the ‘Request for Reasonable Accommodation’ form to make their requests.” Because of health concerns related to the unavailability of the vaccine for those under the age of 12, rising cases of the highly virulent Delta strain of the COVID-19 virus and lack of social distancing in the classrooms, some faculty members have requested a change in format. Many others are growing increasingly concerned and are watching with great interest to see how these requests are handled.
The language of the LOA is clear – such requests can be made due to “health and/or safety concerns.” As communications with WMU Office of Academic Labor Relations(ALR) make clear, and multiple recent rejected instructor requests confirm, the administration position is that there is nothing in the LOA that extends beyond decades-old rights granted under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, reports from our members are telling us (with email documentation to confirm), that the current Administration position is that no such accommodation request will even be considered unless there is a health condition for the instructor that is supported by a physician’s letter. Importantly, there is no mention in the LOA that “health and/or safety concerns” must somehow manifest in instructors’ own serious medical conditions. The very presence of this language in this LOA makes clear that it does indeed offer something in addition to the federal ADA. Health concerns on the part of instructors aregrounded in science and worsened by recent evidence of the carnage spreading across the country from the Delta variant. For parents with unvaccinated children, for those with immunocompromised spouses or cohabiting elderly parents, the Administration’s response is to turn a blind eye.
The Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) has rejected without review any requests that are not accompanied by a physician’s documentation of the instructor’s own health condition. If such documentation of an instructor’s own health condition is provided, then the negotiations begin, with the Administration beginning with offers of better PPE (hand sanitizer, plexiglass shields—notably, neither recommended by experts) and larger classrooms. Very few such requests to switch instructional mode to virtual have been approved.
We are seeking a dialogue with WMU Administration on how to implement the LOA moving forward that respects the language in the LOA and that supports members of our Bronco family who are experiencing justified and sincere COVID-19-related “health and/or safety concerns.” Specifically, we suggest that a process be put in place, ideally outside the OIE structure that focuses on ADA accommodations, that would facilitate processing these requests and handle appeals.
• Campus Community Vaccination Mandate and University Community Leadership: Second, we are concerned about the refusal to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for those seeking to work or take classes on campus. There is universal agreement on the part of experts that achieving very high vaccination rates is the one pathway to the post-pandemic. University vaccination mandates serve the dual purpose of protecting those on campus and in the surrounding communities, and in sending the message of the singular importance of vaccination. Mandating vaccination on university campuses has been encouraged by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, as well as by innumerable medical experts, public health leaders, and medical associations. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld, via summary judgement, the mandate at Indiana University. At last count, 10 public universities in the state of Michigan have universal vaccination mandates, and well over 800 universities and colleges nationwide. Despite overwhelming faculty support for a vaccine mandate here at Western Michigan University (as indicated in a poll of members taken well before the threat of the Delta variant became apparent and before FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine), the WMU administration has not opted to enact a WMU community vaccination mandate.
Instead of a vaccination mandate (and in the absence of a more limited mandate for on-campus residents), WMU administration has chosen to institute an onerous testing and badge system, with weekly testing (at least through September) for those without documentation of vaccination. This plan was created without any consultation with the COVID-19 Fall Task Force. The lack of transparency about the decision-making process as well as the resources that will be required to implement this policy (including financial, personnel, and enforcement) is concerning. WMU has failed even in the basic task of messaging: conveying the very clear and widely accepted message of the critical importance of vaccination.
• Abandonment of Basic Notions of Shared Governance: Third, the failure to involve faculty in decision-making to design policy that affects every aspect of our professional lives as well as the health of ourselves and our families is of great concern. What has happened to the notion of shared governance? The alternative to the WMU Administration’s unilateral strategy, partnering with faculty, is a pathway that is being chosen by many other universities. Alienating faculty at a time of such turmoil ignores the very real potential downsides, both in hindering the successful developing and implementing policy that affects the university’s bottom line, and in stirring faculty discontent at the very moment that we all need most to feel that we are all on the same team. We are all fully aware of the great challenges that have resulted from this pandemic; at times like these, even small gestures of partnering and mutual respect and support can go a very long way in easing concerns and reaching an institution’s goals.
• Failure to Communicate Clearly and Provide Support: Finally, there is an ongoing failure to communicate clearly with instructors about their obligations with regard to COVID-19 safety measures and strategies for successful implementation/enforcement in classrooms. WMU’s COVID-related policies are communicated with long, narrative style emails directed at multiple constituencies simultaneously, and when available online, they are spread across different websites/links. A deep read of all of these various announcements and emails still does not produce clear guidance regarding what is required of instructors in the classroom. As one example, it was only after much effortthat our WMU-AAUP officers have been able to learn from Academic Labor Relations (ALR) that enforcing the universal mask mandate (the temporary mask mandate enhancement announced in August) is an instructor obligation. What about the vaccination/system requirement for students that is documented with the “badge?” Are instructors required to use this badging system to determine who is permitted to be on campus? The recent language suggests this is optional.
COVID-related policies were developed and implemented by Administration and Administration must take responsibility for communicating expectations to classroom instructors. Given that ALR has indicated that failure to enforce the universal mask mandate could result in Contractual disciplinary action against instructors, it is absolutely imperative that Administration communicate that instructors are required to enforce this mandate in their classrooms. Additionally, we faculty need administration guidance on best practice for implementing this mask mandate. For example, should we cancel class if we cannot achieve full compliance via persuasion? Direct and clear communication of faculty responsibility for enforcing this mandate, along with guidance on how to enforce it, will help us partner with administration on this critically important policy. Being able to inform our students that we are required to enforce the mandate (resulting in most if not all instructors doing so) will help us in our efforts to achieve full compliance.
Even the requirement that faculty document vaccination status or be tested weekly through September (at least) has not been communicated as well as one would expect. Effectively conveying this information directly to instructors likely would reduce the sheer volume of individuals requiring weekly COVID-19 testing at Sindecuse and would reduce the necessity of follow-up for “noncompliant” faculty by ALR. In other words, improved communication is efficient – it’s “win-win.”
• Relevance for the Current WMU-AAUP Contractual Agreement: Article 21.3 of our Contractual Agreement speaks to the requirement that “Prior to the issuance of a formal notice of violation or imposition of corrective action or penalty for alleged violation of these rules by a faculty member, Western shall take steps to ensure consistency of rule interpretation and application.” Surely, the very first step would be to make a sincere effort to communicate the rules to faculty. Whether you believe this is necessary or not, we are informing you now that COVID-19 rules that place obligations on faculty and classroom instructors have not been clearly communicated.
The WMU-AAUP Contractual Agreement with the WMU Board of Trustees, Article 21.2.3, speaks of safe working conditions. Failing to honor the LOA, refusing to mandate vaccination, communicating mixed messages about what is required of instructors and students (even the dates that testing will begin changes from message to message) – we view this package of leadership decisions as a violation of Article 21.2.3 in that it contributes to unsafe working conditions.
Beyond a failure to honor our Contractual Agreement, we are concerned with the implications of these concerns for the potential to have a healthy and successful Fall 2021 semester. The WMU-AAUP is dedicated to partnering in a successful Fall semester at Western Michigan University. We are committed to our students and our profession. But we on the Executive Committee need you to know that, along with this passion for our students, there is a growing sense that recent Administration actions are eroding the extraordinary culture here at WMU. We hear concerned faculty members using language like “increasingly demoralized,” along with very real consideration of resignation to protect beloved family members. Universities thrive when we are all behave as though we truly believe that we are on the same team, fighting for a shared vision. We can’t let expediency and hesitation guide leadership decisions.
We have made our best effort to communicate our grave concerns to you as clearly and respectfully as possible. We do not know how else to express to you that these concerns reflect leadership decisions that carry great cost – great cost as measured in student learning and enrollment, great cost in time and effort on the part of ALR and the WMU-AAUP, trapped in a black hole of disciplinary procedures for faculty who did not even know the rules, and most important, great cost as measured in unacceptably high risk of unnecessary illness and loss of life.
We await your response. We are anxious to learn how you will handle, moving forward, LOA-related requests for a change in mode of instruction, and we await clear communication (to be sent to all instructors) regarding instructor obligations and support. And we implore you to reconsider your position on the universal vaccination mandate.
The WMU-AAUP Executive Committee