Faculty member who quit: State policy ‘literally becomes teachers die trying’

Dr. Meridith Styer says system shows callous disregard for safety amid COVID surge

When Dr. Meridith Styer asked a rhetoric class at Georgia College & State University to wear masks because she had a family member for whom COVID could be fatal, she said one student declined, left the class and told the dean that she had kicked him out.

Unlike Emory University, Morehouse, Spelman and Agnes Scott colleges, the University System of Georgia does not require masks in classrooms, which has angered staff and faculty across the state who feel their health and that of their students are being sacrificed to a political agenda. Every day, the AJC is hearing from unhappy faculty, across USG institutions, about what they deem unsafe and dangerous conditions at their campuses.

Styer, who holds a doctorate in rhetoric and political culture, resigned last week over her institution’s response to the incident in her class. “I am leaving because of USG policy and the way it’s being enforced on Georgia College’s campus,” she said. “The USG’s policies caused me to make this choice and I would make the same choice to put family above my job again.”

In an interview Friday, the Georgia College student who did not comply with Styer’s mask request said he reminded the professor that the policies of Georgia College and the University System of Georgia left masking to his discretion, and “I respectfully decline to do it.”

(The student asked that his name not be used due to concerns about retaliation.)

”She told me, ‘Then I would encourage you to find another class,’” he said. “While she did not explicitly say I was kicked out of class, her body posture, her pointed facial expression and her tone of voice made that clear,” said the student, who took Styer’s course because of her reputation as an excellent professor.

The student’s reasons for failing to put on his mask? He was not required to do so by the college, and “it was time to get back to normal.”

A college student may lack the maturity to recognize that Georgia is far from normal with surging COVID cases and that his lack of a mask endangers others, but the Board of Regents and Gov. Brian Kemp should know and should be putting politics aside to protect college staff, faculty and students.

“When it became clear that the university was going to seek ‘both sides’ instead of supporting me, I decided my chosen side was to resign,” said Styer. Her message to the leaders of Georgia’s higher education system: “We cannot be preeminent institutions if our first concern is the governor’s politics.”

Georgia College senior Caitlin Banks witnessed the student walk out of the class, which has yet to resume. “Dr. Styer, who I have had before, is an amazing professor and I am very sorry to see her go. The student was never kicked out of class. She told him he may be uncomfortable in her class and encouraged him to find another, but this was after already making students aware in a video and a message that we would be asked to wear masks,” she said.

Banks said mask wearing at her campus is inconsistent, with only one of her classes, philosophy, fully masked. As is happening across all campuses in the state, some Georgia College professors are showing photos of their young children who cannot be vaccinated and pleading with students to wear masks to protect them. In a class where the professor made such a plea, only one of her unmasked peers put on a mask, said Banks, who wears face covering to all her classes.

“It makes me feel better about going to class when students wear masks. I am not sure why everyone is not doing it for their own benefit and for each other,” said Banks.

In response to questions on Styer’s resignation, Georgia College spokesman Omar Odeh said, “Georgia College strongly encourages all faculty, staff and students to wear face masks while indoors regardless of vaccination status. We also continue to make vaccines available for students and employees, and will continue to follow guidance from the University System of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the CDC. Please note that Georgia College does not comment on personnel matters.”

Styer’s resignation is not just an academic setback to her students and mentees. Campuses invest thousands of dollars and hours of staff time to recruit and hire tenure-track professors, an effort that involves reviews of stacks of applications, a winnowing process, multiple interviews and campus visits. It is an investment that Styer sought to repay.

She arrived at Georgia College two years ago with impressive awards and credentials — borne out by the popularity of her classes, strong student reviews and growth of the major. Her loss will be felt, according to colleagues. The department, they said, was already down two tenured-track faculty and an instructor before Styer resigned.

“It is not just that the college lost someone to teach four classes,” said Styer, in a telephone interview. “Middle Georgia is losing a dedicated professional who wanted to make this her home, and all because USG policy makes us cannon fodder, in opposition to all science and reason. The USG policy literally becomes teachers die trying.”

In her two years at Georgia College, Styer founded and directed the Lake Sinclair Safe Center to provide shelter for victims of domestic violence. She became involved in the community, working with leaders in health care, business and charitable groups. She served in the University Senate. She reached out to rural students.

“I am everything they want junior tenure-track faculty to be, and they lost me because I didn’t feel safe in this environment,” she said. “The USG’s policy choice also endangered at least two of my students who identified as medically compromised, were unable to get accommodations, and had to be in classrooms with other unmasked students. I want to be very clear, I resigned because of USG policy that made it unsafe to work at Georgia College as a faculty member or to learn at Georgia College as a student.”

Styer said at least eight tenured and longtime lecturers reached out to say they wish they could follow her example. She recognizes that not all faculty can afford to resign or even speak out.

“I am in the privileged position of being able to pay my bills even after resigning my job,” she said. “The policies the USG has enacted will continue to cause faculty to leave. I’m able to do so now, but many many more are looking to do the same thing. The USG will lose top talent continually until it enacts policies that respect professors’ autonomy and science.”