Opinion: In campus COVID battles, veteran professors lead the charge

Professors from several Georgia universities rallied Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta against state policies on COVID-19 and tenure. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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Professors from several Georgia universities rallied Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta against state policies on COVID-19 and tenure. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Politicization of COVID could damage standing of Georgia’s public colleges

In most wars, the young are dispatched to the front lines. That’s not the case in the battle between state leadership and public college faculty over COVID-19 safety measures in Georgia. Those risking their careers to fight for stronger protections tend to be veteran professors.

Shielded in part by tenure, their ability to find work elsewhere and their academic firepower, established professors are leading the charge against irresponsible and politically driven COVID-19 safety policies of the Board of Regents and University System of Georgia.

The USG does not allow its institutions to enact mask or vaccine mandates but encourages vaccinations and the wearing of masks indoors. Georgia’s masking laxity isolates it from neighboring states, most of which are Republican led. The flagship universities in Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina require masks in classrooms. Among the more than 1,000 U.S. campuses with some mandatory vaccine policy are Emory University, Agnes Scott College, Oglethorpe University, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College.

At the University of Georgia, tenured life science professors — including those in biology, biochemistry, genetics, immunology, botany, neuroscience, pharmacology, virology — are defying the Regents and enforcing masking in their classes to protect themselves and their students.

Co-organizer Jeff Bennetzen, the UGA Giles Professor in the Department of Genetics since 2003 and one of 16 elected Georgia members to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, has attracted more than $18 million in grant support to UGA from federal funding agencies and corporations. He is an asset that UGA would hate to lose.

However, the willingness of these faculty members to flout unsafe edicts is not without consequences. Some professors on some campuses are paying a price in letters of reprimand, reduced wages and threats of suspension or worse.

But students are also paying a price.

The sanctioned professors bring not only their expertise but their contacts that can help their students land internships, graduate school admissions and jobs. And when these professors quit or are pulled from their classes, there are not comparable replacements at the ready, meaning students are stranded for weeks.

Consider the carnage thus far from the Regents’ decision to follow Gov. Brian Kemp’s political lead to outlaw mask and vaccine mandates to placate the COVID-19 deniers and minimizers the governor sees as key to a second term.

Georgia State professor Dan Immergluck is a nationally recognized expert on affordable housing issues who’s written four books and sits on the editorial boards of four peer-reviewed academic journals. Immergluck filed a federal complaint after GSU denied his request to teach remotely despite a serious heart condition that his doctor told the university could be worsened by COVID-19.

When Immergluck appealed the university’s denial of his request to teach virtually, Georgia State pulled him from teaching his classes this semester and docked his pay by 40%.

Georgia College & State University professor Meridith Styer asked students in her rhetoric class to wear a mask because she had a family member for whom COVID-19 could be fatal, but a single student balked and went to the dean to complain. Styer was a popular professor with 4.93/5-star student rating. Even the young man who complained about her mask policy told me he was “excited to take her class because of her reputation.”

Now, Styer is gone, resigning from Georgia College because of a USG policy that she said made her choose “between her job and her family’s health.”

Styer’s departure hurt an already short-staffed Georgia College Communication Department. Her rhetoric students went without a professor for two-and-a-half weeks. “We only had one in-person class with Dr. Styer before she resigned and that was on Aug. 19,” said senior Caitlin Banks. “We began class again on Sept. 7, though it is important to note this included starting the class over with a new syllabus, a new introductory speech, and needing a new textbook. This also resulted in more lost time.”

It didn’t help staffing when Georgia College journalism professor James Schiffman was removed from teaching two one-hour sections of senior career development that he shifted to online because he felt it worked better and was far safer for students.

“This is a class where I work one-on-one with students. The best way to teach this particular course is on Zoom,” said Schiffman, who teaches his other classes, including TV newscast, business journalism and reporting, in person.

“This is a required career development course for our seniors where they research a company, write a cover letter, craft a resume around the job they want and create a website with an ‘about me’ page, references and work samples. It gives them an online profile that they can build on as they move through their early careers,” said Schiffman.

Schiffman’s sanctions led another high-profile faculty resister to come to his defense. University of Georgia math professor Joseph Fu has been open about requiring masks in his classes. While Fu has been warned, he’s not had classes taken from him.

His calculus students praised his mask policy, writing in the independent UGA student newspaper The Red & Black, “Because the Board of Regents, the USG and the leadership at UGA do not seem to have the health and safety of the students as a top priority, we support Dr. Fu’s actions, which have become necessary only after all levels of leadership have failed.”

In defending Schiffman, Fu told Georgia College Dean Eric Tenbus in an email, “Justice, ethics and rationality have a similar character, with the difference that these principles will endure. I urge you to stand for the right in this matter, and act to defend Professor Schiffman. Your actions have direct repercussions for faculty throughout the USG, and our eyes are upon you.”

So are other eyes. At a seminar last week on critical issues in higher education sponsored by the Education Writers Association, Scott Jaschik, editor of the widely read publication Inside Higher Ed, suggested there could be repercussions to Southern campuses from the politicization of COVID-19.

“If you are in the Northeast or California or the Pacific Northwest, you probably think that most of the policies being adopted in your state by your colleges make sense to you,” said Jaschik. “Not everyone is going to agree on vaccine mandates, but they’re doing what the scientists are saying they should do. If you are in Texas, or Florida, or Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, you are not seeing that.”

“You are seeing governors boast of their own rules on COVID. Governors boasting about not, frankly, helping their colleges and their students,” he said.

How will this affect colleges?

“It will affect new students and their parents,“ Jaschik said. “I think a lot of parents in other parts of the country may not want to send their kid to the South, and it will affect faculty searches.”

While faculty may not have aligned with Kemp in the past, they were somewhat removed from his political posturing in their labs and classrooms. Not so with Kemp’s COVID-19 policies, including a dilution of tenure protections.

“Now, governors are doing things that are literally life and death to students and faculty, and I think there’s going to be a different attitude,” said Jaschik. “I am just sensing the beginnings of this … but this is going to be a big issue.”

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