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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Are we REALLY all in this together?

COVID-19 policies further threaten UF’s reputation and relationship with faculty

I am a retired member of the UF faculty — College of Business. Although these are my own views, I write this based on my experience as co-chair of the COVID Task Force of the United Faculty of Florida - UF Chapter and UF Graduate Assistants United. 

The task force was formed in Spring 2020 to provide a focal point for concerns over the then-new (and not well understood) coronavirus. We hoped to be equal partners with the college’s administration and government leaders. Through surveys and interviews, we learned a great deal about how faculty members personally experienced these challenging times.

The administration had to devise an appropriate campus management strategy, which led to students studying remotely. Faculty and graduate assistants quickly pivoted to online instruction, and staff stepped up to support the new workload (not easy). At that time, for better or worse, we were “all in this together." Later, not so much.

As Fall 2020 progressed, there was increasing divergence on many issues between faculty/GA requests and demands and the response of the UF administration. UF announced Spring 2021 plans to return to on-campus learning, offering as many (or more) in-person class sections as were originally scheduled — even though there was no vaccine available at the time. 

Faculty and GAs raised grave concerns about the spread of virus on campus. Their requests for accommodation or exemption from teaching in-person were often denied, and considerations of effective teaching requirements were regularly ignored. Faculty and GAs rightfully felt ignored and disenfranchised.

A foundational concept of a "university" is that of a community of scholars (and students) sharing governance with an administration. Many faculty feel that this shared governance covenant has been violated in favor of an increasingly expansive administrative structure, apparently beholden to corporate and political interests.

Faculty are also disappointed about what they see as unfulfilled expectations after joining UF.  This is a common theme among both new faculty and long-term members. They have expressed a sense of isolation, obviously exacerbated by necessary COVID-19 protocols (or sometimes a lack thereof).

Several experienced faculty members say they are actively looking for positions at other institutions — ones that are seen as more participative and open. UF cannot afford to lose droves of valuable faculty members. They provide quality and substance to a school that wouldn’t be successful without them — “Top Five" status or not.

People are, simply put, tired. This has been an extraordinary time, and faculty/GAs have been asked to make extraordinary shifts in instructional design and plans, including reversals — even against their own advice and concern. While faculty/GAs have tried to do what is needed for both students and their own professional commitment, exhaustion takes a toll.

Finally, faculty were profoundly offended by the remarks by the UF Chairman of the Board of Trustees. He publicly berated faculty members as selfish and disloyal, mixing issues of faculty freedom of speech and COVID-19 policy compliance. This further compounded a sense of exclusion from faculty's role in policy and governance, leading to an added sense of being disrespected.

UF's reputation is under threat. There is a serious breakdown of trust and faith in the school’s academic governing process, the very concept of collegiality and respect for the role of faculty.

It will take years to repair the damage.

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