Georgia State professors: Stop treating faculty as collateral damage in COVID

09/13/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Wendy Simonds holds a sign that reads “The [Georgia] Board of Regents Makes us Sick” during a demonstration at the Georgia State University Campus in Atlanta, Monday, September 13, 2021. Faculty members and students from about 20 public colleges and universities in Georgia started a weeklong series of demonstrations demanding tougher COVID-19 safety measures, such as a mask mandate, in all campus buildings. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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09/13/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Wendy Simonds holds a sign that reads “The [Georgia] Board of Regents Makes us Sick” during a demonstration at the Georgia State University Campus in Atlanta, Monday, September 13, 2021. Faculty members and students from about 20 public colleges and universities in Georgia started a weeklong series of demonstrations demanding tougher COVID-19 safety measures, such as a mask mandate, in all campus buildings. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

GSU faculty warn failure to mandate masks damages University System’s reputation

Faculty at public colleges across Georgia are speaking out against the refusal by the Board of Regents to require masks. The 19 Regents, who are political appointees, align with Gov. Brian Kemp, who encourages students to mask, but opposes any requirement that they do so.

This statement about the Regents’ policy is from the American Association of University Professors at Georgia State University. The GSU chapter of the organization, a nonprofit membership association of faculty and other academic professionals, has 37 members.

The GSU chapter writes:

As the delta variant fuels the fourth and most virulent surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, those 18 to 29 years old are for the first time being hit hard.

In response to this new COVID-19 dynamic and amidst a death toll of approximately 23,000 Georgians, the Board of Regents is encouraging but not requiring masks on the University System of Georgia’s 26 campuses. This has led an unknown but anecdotally significant number of faculty to retire, resign, be fired -- or face the prospect of disciplinary action for requiring their students to mask up. Others USG educators, fearful of losing their jobs, have made the Hobson’s choice of working under conditions they know could put their lives and those they love at risk.

Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities, including private ones in Georgia, have mandated masks and vaccinations for students and faculty. But at Georgia’s public universities, educators are collateral damage. They also are the tip of an iceberg that threatens not only the lives and well-being of USG faculty, staff, students, and their families, but also the reputation, stability and future of public higher education in Georgia.

The exodus of faculty from USG institutions due to its mask policy has received considerable news coverage across Georgia and the country – none of it positive. A recent Washington Post headline proclaimed: “Georgia professors are quitting over their universities’ lax mask rules: This is a matter of life and death.”

CNN, Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education and other national outlets have reported on the faculty fallout from the USG policy, as have many of Georgia’s news organizations, including The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia Public Broadcasting, the Georgia Recorder and other news organizations.

It goes without saying that the USG’s stance flies in the face of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and science – an indefensible position for any institution of higher education. But the Regents, in line with the governor’s directives, have refused to budge, despite on-going faculty and student protests on and off campus, negative news coverage, and numerous petitions and statements from faculty and students -- including a letter signed by 34 Georgia State University public health doctoral students. Both the American Association of University Professors and the United Campus Workers of Georgia have supported the protests.

Besides the inevitability that the Regents’ intransigence will result in more COVID cases in Georgia -- and very likely more than a few deaths -- another predictable consequence is long-term damage to the reputation of USG’s institutions and the quality of student education.

With faculty leaving rather than teach in a patently unsafe environment, those who remain are stretched thin. Understaffed and under-resourced, these academics will still do their best to meet the needs of more students and an increased workload, but the increased institutional demands they face will, in all likelihood, lead to more stress and even more departures.

It is a truism in academia that a university’s reputation is responsible for the quality of students attracted to it, the excellence of job applicants seeking to fill the ranks of its professoriate, and the amount of funding obtained through research grants and foundations.

Top-ranked undergraduate and graduate students, who are most likely to win awards and prestige for their university, are unlikely to apply to a college seemingly indifferent to their well-being and known for the resignation or firing of faculty.

And top candidates for academic positions will understandably apply elsewhere given the regents’ apparent commitment to an unsafe working and learning environment on USG campuses. These are the scholars most likely to obtain honors and external funding to offset the costs of higher education. In addition, the recruitment and training of new faculty to fill vacancies caused by the departure of USG educators are both time-consuming and expensive processes.

Once begun, the downward spiral of reputational damage is difficult and expensive to reverse. If the Regents are so inclined as to disregard the health and safety of faculty, staff and the students entrusted to them by Georgia parents and families, perhaps they can be moved by the predictable loss of both money and prestige. If not, they will be undermining the hard-won stature and quality of public higher education in Georgia, now and possibly for generations.

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