Opinion: Georgia professor says he quit over lack of COVID safety

Georgia College & State University professor James Schiffman, who worked at both CNN and the Wall Street Journal, quit today over state COVID-19 policies that he believes endanger students, faculty and staff.

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Georgia College & State University professor James Schiffman, who worked at both CNN and the Wall Street Journal, quit today over state COVID-19 policies that he believes endanger students, faculty and staff.

He says System didn’t let him set reasonable safety guidelines

Georgia College & State University faculty member James Schiffman resigned this week, leaving a job he loved and expected to remain at for at least two more years.

A veteran journalist who worked at CNN and the Wall Street Journal, Schiffman quit over COVID-19 policies that he believes endanger faculty, staff and students at Georgia’s public colleges.

“The primary thing is the omicron variant and the prospects of going through this whole business again in January,” said Schiffman, who has been at GCSU for a decade. “I’m double vaccinated and boosted so this doesn’t stem from great personal worry. But, if omicron is bad or it turns out the vaccine doesn’t work quite as well, I could see myself in January taking my courses online, in which case the administration would crack down on me quickly.”

Omar Odeh, GCSU’s associate vice president for strategic communications, said the university does not comment on personnel matters.

“We understand the anxieties many of us have with respect to preventing the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “The number of COVID positive cases on our campus has been trending much lower in recent months. We continue to provide robust testing services for our students and are encouraging all members of our campus community to get vaccinated at our Student Health Services clinic.”

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Schiffman had already run afoul of the University System of Georgia COVID-19 policies. His decision this semester to shift one-hour sections of senior career development online led GCSU to yank the classes from him. As such, Schiffman became one of a few professors disciplined for violating the USG’s “back to normal” edict.

A possible reason was Schiffman’s openness about his rebellion. In a guest column for this blog, he wrote that public college faculty were teaching in “COVID factories.” He accused the Board of Regents of failing at its No. 1 task of creating a safe environment for students.

Other professors, including several at the University of Georgia, also blasted the regents but faced fewer repercussions.

“Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia probably have more clout within the system,” said Schiffman. His own campus leaders may feel “they have to go along with everything even if they feel it’s wrong,” he said. “I can tell you morale at this university is at the lowest point I have ever seen it in my whole time here. In private conversations, people tell me that if they could retire, they would do it in a heartbeat. Faculty, in general, feel we are just sort of field hands and are treated that way.”

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I have seen that attitude in reader emails that mock faculty for asking students to wear masks or for seeking to teach online. A typical comment is, “If professors don’t like it, they should quit.”

The problem is professors have quit. A colleague of Schiffman’s resigned at the start of the semester over COVID-19 concerns. Schiffman’s resignation means the small communications department is down two professors, both of whom had glowing student reviews.

Schiffman regrets his resignation leaves his department “in a world of hurt. I felt I really had no choice. The system didn’t give me the option of setting reasonable safety guidelines for my students,” he said.

“The first thing you learn in journalism is that nobody is indispensable. I am certainly not indispensable. But I have 30-plus years in print and television journalism. And I have a Ph.D, which is required to teach, and there aren’t that many people who have those qualifications.”

He leaves some ambitions unfulfilled. ‘What I really wanted to do was get the journalism program here on better footing.”

Schiffman is starting to inform students that he won’t be back in January. “I am telling them that I am going to miss them and wish things had turned out differently, but I would like to stay in touch.”

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