UF professor Stephen Mulkey said he wouldn’t be surprised if he lost his job for criticising the university administration's COVID-19 response.
But, that didn’t stop Mulkey and other faculty from sharing their complaints about UF’s in-person class requirement at a faculty union, United Faculty of Florida-UF, news conference Feb. 3.
The perception of safety has been lost at UF, Mulkey said.
“Because of the mandates handed down, the UF workplace has become dangerous,” he said. “Many of my colleagues agree.”
UFF held the meeting to lay out five demands aimed at university administration. The requests mainly center around in-person teaching and how it endangers faculty at a time when COVID-19 cases are still high, a more contagious variant of the disease is in town and students are still flocking to bars and clubs on the weekend.
The demands included: immediately vaccinating all faculty members who teach in-person courses; expansion of accommodations for faculty who request ADA accommodations; more flexibility for staff to organize courses; prioritizing the use of the GatorSAFE app for safety of staff and students; and to restore faculty’s shared governance.
After UF invited about 40% of undergraduates back on campus for in-person classes for Spring semester, faculty feel they should have had a bigger say in whether their courses are online or face-to-face. The GatorSAFE app caused controversy earlier in the semester because of a feature that allowed students to report professors for not teaching in-person. UFF demanded the app be used for safety concerns only. UFF also wants to see UF uphold its promise of shared governance with faculty, which is in the school’s constitution.
UFF has been vocal about its opposition to the university’s handling of the pandemic. It has demanded UF reverse its reopening plans several times in addition to requesting the university accept ADA accommodations. UFF filed a chapter grievance against UF’s Spring 2021 face-to-face teaching regulations and UF’s rejection of ADA accommodations requests.
UF spokesperson Hessy Fernandez wrote in an email that there is no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms, so far, due to the implementation of UF Health’s advice and CDC guidelines.
UF Health is distributing vaccines based on the governor's executive order, which prioritizes seniors 65 and older for vaccination, Fernandez wrote.
Fernandez did not directly respond to questions asking whether UF will be meeting any of UFF’s demands and that UF plans to continue the semester with the current guidelines in place.
Mulkey, a lecturer at UF’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, talked about the distrust present among faculty.
After sending UF an ADA accommodation request and proof that he is a current stage four cancer patient, Mulkey waited to hear back. He said the university did not respond to him until the week of the deadline to receive an accommodation, and he was told there wouldn’t be a plan in place for weeks to accommodate his ADA request.
“Since this was the week of the final deadline to hear about the accommodations, I was extremely alarmed,” Mulkey said during the meeting.
He eventually got the accommodation a week after the deadline passed, but only after persistently pursuing UF, Mulkey said.
Some professors weren’t lucky enough to get the same accommodations Mulkey got, but many fear losing their jobs if they speak up, he said. UF denied 144 requests from professors to teach online in the Spring.
Mulkey is not currently tenured and said UF could choose to not renew his teaching contract for speaking out against university policies.
UFF-UF president Paul Ortiz wrote in a text that fears of speaking out among faculty are common not just at UF, but in all of higher education.
The lack of faculty representation in decision-making was also a big issue on the mind of Danielle Hawk, a Gainesville activist who runs a Facebook group protesting UF’s in-person classes.
“UF should be giving them a seat at the table and allowing them to have a say in what’s happening,” Hawk said. “Not just a symbolic seat at the table, but actually considering the consequences to the community.”
Staff at UF has been forced to write open letters, start petitions and engage in protests instead of having an open conversation with the decision-makers at UF, Hawk said.
That same Facebook group put a cardboard tombstone display on the corner of University Avenue and SW 13th Street last week to protest UF’s reopening policies.
“UF is making decisions that deeply affect our community, and they are not our elected officials,” Hawk said. “We need to hold them accountable.”
UF’s rushed reopening plans not only put faculty and students in danger, but also the community at large, Reina Saco, a Gainesville city commissioner, said during the meeting. UF has a responsibility to Gainesville to meet the demands, she said.
“The demands made today are reasonable and thought out for all, not just for UF,” Saco said at the conference. “It makes UF a good neighbor, and I hope UF listens to those demands.”
Students make up one of the groups of community members who are more directly affected by the university’s policies, and some students spoke out at the news conference as well.
Jacob Giner, a 19-year-old UF anthropology sophomore, said during the meeting that hundreds of people party just outside his apartment in Midtown every night, and these same people may be attending classes in person at UF.
The fact that students aren’t notified if a classmate tests positive unless they come into close contact with them is troubling and distracts from the learning environment, Giner said during the meeting.
“The HyFlex model has been nothing but detrimental to my education,” he said at the meeting.
The conference ended with a speech from Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. She applauded the courage the faculty showed at the news conference and denounced UF’s decision making.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Pringle said during the meeting. “Our most vulnerable educators must be given accommodations.”
Contact Alexander Lugo at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexlugo67.
Alexander is a fourth-year journalism student at UF. This is his first semester at The Alligator where he is covering university administration. In his free time, he enjoys taking hikes and going for bike rides.