The Illinois State University Board of Trustees on Friday was met with praise and condemnation from faculty members in its decisions on how to proceed with the fall semester amid the pandemic.
Mathematics professor Fusun Akman was one of about a dozen faculty members to address the board. Akman said the university is facing two crises—the “derisive treatment” of faculty and the absence of “meaningful safety measures” to protect students, faculty, and staff—that will “likely burden ISU with massive liabilities, tarnished reputation, and low morale.”
Akman said the actions of administrators have minimized the fears of faculty. She said President Larry Dietz has failed to respond to an open letter signed by more than 500 campus community members, criticizing administrators for not including them in the decision-making process and putting their health at risk.
“We’ll undoubtedly have to go fully online within a few weeks of in-person teaching, and you’ll have to answer for lost health (and) lives,” she said. “I would ask the trustees to consider the human, and not just the external, costs of these unilateral decisions.”
Other faculty members reiterated the health risks of in-person instruction, the unsavory publicity the university could face for handling the pandemic response poorly, and the disproportionate effect a COVID-19 outbreak could have on communities of color—on and off campus.
But other faculty members countered the administration has been attentive to their concerns and is moving forward with what they believe is the best plan available.
Jeri Beggs, marketing professor and NCAA Division I board member, co-authored a separate letter commending the university’s efforts to safely return to campus.
“My department chair has been in constant contact, asking for our teaching preferences and any accommodations we needed,” Beggs said. “At the university level, I have received multiple emails asking faculty to serve on working groups related to these issues. It was frustrating that the criticism was the only voice being heard.”
Despite uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges in recruitment, Dietz said fall enrollment appears to be in good shape.
“As of July 17, registration for the fall semester was just 1% below registration this time last year,” Dietz said. “The number of full-time college students have also dipped a little bit, but only modestly.”
Board of Trustees chair Julie Annette Jones said that may be in part because of the board’s vote to hold tuition and room and board at the previous year’s rates in an effort to keep school affordable for students.
Dietz said the fall return plan remains fluid and he’s continuing to solicit input from students, faculty, and staff. He said he hasn’t responded to the letter issued by concerned faculty members because he wasn’t sure of the best venue to address the matter.
Dietz did not specify certain criteria that would trigger a move to remote learning, but said the university would work closely with the McLean County Health Department to consider factors, including the positivity rate and hospital bed usage, among others.
Separately, the board approved a $37 million bond issue to pay for campus renovation projects. ISU has used reserves to do work on the air ventilation system in Watterson Towers, and to rehab a building for the new campus Multicultural Center.
Dietz said paying back those expenses using revenue bonds will provide the university financial flexibility in uncertain times. The residence hall work ended last November. The pandemic has delayed Multicultural Center completion until spring.
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