- Beginning Monday, Georgia faculty from at least 16 colleges will begin week-long demonstrations in hopes of pressuring administrators to institute mask and/or vaccine mandates.
- More than 1,000 American colleges are requiring the vaccine, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
- The University of Minnesota issued a vaccine requirement only after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received full FDA approval this month, a frustrating delay for faculty who want stronger leadership.
Joseph Fu knows it’s a bold move, but the University of Georgia math professor is fed up.
At UGA in Athens, there are no mask or vaccine mandates – unless you’re in one of Fu’s calculus classes, where he’s requiring masks for all students who show up in person. That’s at odds with the Georgia state university system’s rules, where they’ve told instructors they can’t require students to wear masks, but merely suggest it.
Fu ignored that instruction, instead writing the classroom mask rule into his syllabus. In doing so, the tenured professor who’s spent 36 years at UGA admits he’s essentially daring the administration to fire him.
His colleagues, Fu said, “think I’m a little bit crazy. But a lot of them are also afraid” about being on a campus where there are no mask or vaccine mandates. “I see the fear in them every day.”
Across the country, frustrated college faculty are reaching a breaking point, furious about being forced to teach in person on campuses where COVID regulations are non-existent or barely enforced. One professor walked out of class, quitting on the spot.
More than 1,000 American colleges are requiring the vaccine, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But that leaves hundreds that are not. In Georgia on Monday, at least 16 colleges spanning 19 campuses are planning week-long demonstrations in hopes of pressuring administrators to institute mask and/or vaccine mandates. Organizers are adamant that the protest is not a work stoppage; strikes are illegal in Georgia, and participants would be fired.
Matthew Boedy, a rhetoric and composition professor at the University of North Georgia and president of the state’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter, said the ultimate goal is an immediate mask mandate at all state schools. Faculty also want more control to move classes online as COVID case counts rise.
“A mask mandate could be done immediately and make an immediate impact,” Boedy said. “They instituted a mask mandate last year against the governor’s wishes, then they took it away. I’m surprised the state university system isn’t doing its job, because it did it last year.”
Georgia faculty protest begins Monday
Protests and demonstrations are popping up across the country, particularly in the South, where COVID-19 is raging and hospital ICUs are close to capacity. Faculty at the University of Tennessee protested in Knoxville last week, while University of South Carolina faculty launched a social media campaign on Sept. 7.
At Columbus State, a small public school with about 6,000 students in Columbus, Georgia, faculty and students demonstrated last week, holding signs that read “Mask it or casket” and “Don’t make CSU = COVID Spreader University.” They chanted slogans like “Safer teaching! Safer learning! Move online when COVID’s burning!” and “Faces showing, cases growing!”
Shannon Godlove, an English professor who helped organize the Columbus State protest, said she’s exposed to about 65 students each week. She’s fully vaccinated, so she feels pretty safe – but she worries for colleagues teaching larger classes and colleagues with children too young to be vaccinated.
“Our activism is for those faculty, their families and their children,” Godlove said. To her, the decision by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and the state university system to not require masks or vaccines “is a failure of moral leadership.”
“It’s clear that politics are more important to them than the safety of faculty, staff and students across 26 institutions,” she said.
At the University of Minnesota, school administrators issued a vaccine requirement, but only after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received full FDA approval in early September, a delay that frustrated faculty. Why did it take so long, when other Big Ten schools including Indiana and Michigan, announced requirements this summer? What’s more, faculty at Minnesota say there’s no real enforcement of the vaccine requirement.
“You just have to cross your heart that you did it,” said Nancy Luxon, a political science professor. “There’s no verification process, no enforcement and no effort to follow up with students or staff in instances of non-compliance.
“That’s not a mandate, that’s a pinky swear.”
University spokesman Jake Ricker said students have until Oct. 8 to complete a vaccination form, medical exemption or religious exemption. Students who fail to comply will have a hold placed on their account, preventing registration for future classes. Additionally, students who provide false, misleading or incomplete information would be “subject to sanctions,” he said.
One of Luxon’s classes this semester has 58 students in a classroom meant to hold 60. Add in Luxon and her TA and there’s no chance of social distancing. The building, she said, has aging windows that have been permanently sealed, which means air circulation is practically nonexistent.
On her first day of class last week, Luxon asked students what they were looking forward to and nervous about this school year. The response was overwhelming.
“They’re most hopeful for being in person, but it also makes them the most anxious,” she said. “Students want mandates with a backbone, too.”
There’s data to support that claim: According to a Student Voice survey in June conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 69% of students polled support colleges requiring vaccine mandates to attend in-person class.
“The students know this isn’t normal or safe, just like the faculty,” Luxon said.
Last week, the Minnesota’s AAUP chapter submitted a letter to university administrators with more than 600 signatures from faculty, staff and students asking for a stronger vaccine mandate and more flexibly to move classes online. They’ve yet to get a response.
‘A big game of chicken’ for colleges
Boedy, the organizer of the upcoming week-long Georgia protest, knows he and his fellow AAUP members are asking a lot of faculty. He understands the hesitancy some non-tenured folk have about publicly condemning their bosses. College faculty are like everyone else, he said, experiencing severe pandemic fatigue. Attending a protest is just one more thing on an already exhausting to-do list.
“Faculty protests are not what they used to be,” he said. “There’s deep, wide burnout. And I admit it might not change anything.”
More colleges are requiring COVID-19 vaccine. Some are starting to kick out unvaccinated students.
But the best thing Boedy and others like him can do, he said, is keep public pressure on decision-makers – even if there’s “no sign they’ve been listening so far. They’ve made it clear that there are no number of cases, hospitalizations or deaths too high for the Board of Regents to change their mind.”
Fu, the professor who’s bucking university rules and requiring masks, isn’t sure how it will all play out. But he’s willing to keep pushing back.
“It’s a big game of chicken,” he said. “They expect we’re going to back down eventually. I don’t know where it’s going, frankly. The hope is that we can embarrass them to the point that they’ll change their mind.”
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