Vaccination Rally

Penn State faculty members and other community members attend a rally in favor of university-wide vaccine mandates at Old Main Lawn on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 in University Park, Pa. The rally was organized by the Coalition for a Just University.

This Monday and Tuesday, approximately 270 faculty members from 16 of Penn State’s campuses opted to teach their in-person classes via Zoom to protest the university’s lack of a coronavirus vaccine mandate.

Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, pledged to participate in the protest hosted by Penn State’s Coalition for a Just University “to show solidarity” with his colleagues in a statement against the administration’s position.

“It was both personal and a matter of public health,” King said of his decision to protest. “We really expected so much more from the administration and the Board of Trustees.”

During a virtual town hall meeting on Aug. 3, President Eric Barron announced the university would not mandate vaccinations, though Penn State "is not impartial to them," and an immediate indoor mask mandate soon followed for all students, faculty, staff and visitors.

King said he gave his students the chance to voice comments or ask questions about the protest during class on Monday via Zoom, and he said he “didn’t really receive any.”

“My students were very nonchalant about it… that just shows the support of the students there,” King said, noting that only one student was absent. “Clearly, they are concerned about this matter as well. We all want to be in the classroom but… with the greatest amount of safety.”

Michael West, professor of African American studies, history and African studies, said he decided to “Zoom-In” to protest the lack of a vaccine mandate because he said via email he wants to urge Penn State’s administration to “respect evidence and reason” — key principles he said all universities are based upon.

“We are in the midst of the greatest global pandemic in more than a century, which the Penn State administration is not treating with the required seriousness and urgency,” West said. “True, the administration, under pressure, declared a mask mandate. That is necessary but insufficient.”

Faculty members should also have a say in the mode of course delivery, whether it be in person or remote, West said.

In April, the university announced approximately 96% of classes will be held in person this semester, and it has not changed the policy since.

“The employee’s preference to work remotely is not, by itself, a sufficient justification for approval for interim remote work,” Penn State said in its “Fall 2021 Process for Return to On-Site Work for Staff” document in April. “Approval or denial of an interim remote work request is not predictive of approval or denial of a longer-term remote work arrangement.”

Penn State said all arrangements approved for this fall will continue to be considered temporary and coronavirus-related.

Currently, faculty members cannot choose their own mode of instruction because it is no longer permitted by the U.S. Department of Education and Middle States Commission for Higher Education, according to Penn State. The consent and provision of remote synchronous classes “no longer exists” as of May 31.

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Michelle Rodino-Colocino, associate professor of media studies and president of the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said she is “very concerned about the health of everyone” in the local area, and she is a State College resident herself.

“[The AAUP is] organizing in support of the vaccine mandate and in support of the demands of the open letter and [to] protect faculty who have the right to exercise their academic freedom to protest COVID policies,” Rodino-Colocino said. “Faculty should not just be informed of a plan but consulted in the process.”

In a letter sent to Penn State academic leaders by Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones last Wednesday, the university said it reopened the process for requesting faculty work adjustments from Aug. 5-12 due to the “changing nature” of the pandemic.

“Requests were reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and those involved in the review were deeply aware of the short time available to confirm changes and communicate these decisions to students,” Jones said in the letter.

Jones explained there were only two cases in which instruction modes could be changed — for courses that can be best delivered through asynchronous remote instruction for reasons unrelated to the pandemic and for faculty members with health needs related to the pandemic.

“Even if students request or agree to an informal change in mode, this is still not appropriate and could create issues for Penn State and our students,” Jones said in the letter. “In other words, it is not appropriate for faculty members to ask students to vote on the instructional mode of the course.”

Rodino-Colocino said she believes around one-third of the faculty has requested course adjustments and hasn’t heard anything back from the university, which is why Penn State’s AAUP chapter launched a campaign Wednesday titled “#WeGotYourBacks.”

As of Aug. 19, Penn State said in a statement that “more than 68% of requests that were not referred or withdrawn were approved.”

In a petition the group will eventually send to Penn State’s administration, senior faculty members are signing their support of the “Zoom-In” protest and faculty members who requested work adjustments in light of public health concerns.

During the town hall, university officials also said Penn State will not offer remote learning options — even for quarantined students — which elicited backlash from faculty members and students alike.

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West said he believes Barron’s legacy will be “largely determined” by how he handles the pandemic, but time is running out, as Barron is set to retire in 2022.

“President Barron’s inaction on the vaccine mandate has effectively handed veto power to a noisy and recalcitrant band of naysayers,” West said. “Barron ought to do the right thing on his way out the door… Everything else he may have done will pale in comparison.”

When dissecting other Big Ten schools’ coronavirus mitigation policies, King said he believes Penn State is not giving “due attention to the science” behind vaccines.

“It appears as though [Penn State] will do everything [it] can to win a football game against Big Ten rivals but not compete with them in promoting the interests of public health with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic,” King said.

On Tuesday, Ohio State became the ninth Big Ten Conference school to mandate vaccines, following Indiana, Rutgers, Northwestern, Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota. However, some of the aforementioned institutions will allow individuals to remain unvaccinated if they are tested weekly.

Furthermore, Indiana’s decision to require vaccines for on-campus students, which was upheld by a federal judge on June 19, was also allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 12.

King also said he believes Barron’s open letter of explanation to the Penn State community following backlash aimed toward the university’s protocol made the situation “divisive politically.”

“Public health… should never be a matter of political division,” King said.

In the letter sent on Aug. 12, Barron said the university's mitigation efforts cover "vaccines, masking and testing" in a way that incites "as little polarization as possible," as there are widely differing opinions across the nation.

"Regulations across the country clearly reflect state-level political realities," Barron said. "State funding of our university requires a two-thirds vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, meaning that our funding relies on strong bipartisan support."

The Board of Trustees issued a statement Aug. 13 to support Barron and the university’s current policies after Penn State’s Faculty Senate met and passed a vote of “no confidence” in the school’s plans for the fall.

Zoom on Computer

Zoom image on a laptop on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Russell Frank, associate professor of communications at Penn State, also said he was “really disappointed” to read the university’s explanation for the situation — specifically about the impact mandating vaccines could have on Penn State’s allocations for the next budget cycle.

Frank said he believes it was even worse for Barron to allude to national polls demonstrating an overall split on the mandating issue.

“We are supposed to be this premier research institution, and if any place should make [a decision] based on scientific expertise, it should be a university,” Frank said.

Though he said he decided not to participate in the “Zoom-In” and instead held his classes in person, Frank said he was very “ambivalent” about making the decision and didn’t know how to proceed at first.

“[My] main concern was… the students wouldn’t appreciate the gesture [since] they’re looking forward to being back in the classroom,” Frank said.

Frank said he wrote to his classes to ask about the “Zoom-In” and received “really thoughtful responses.”

“The majority of them did [want to] meet in person tomorrow even though they said [they] would understand [my] reasoning for not doing so,” Frank said.

Additionally, Frank said he was concerned the group protesting would be small, and he said he didn’t want to be deemed one of the “whiners” in the faculty whose demands would just end up being dismissed by Penn State’s administration and wouldn't have the desired impact.

“I spoke to a colleague a little while ago before making the decision — she didn’t even know about [the ‘Zoom-In’],” Frank said. “That suggested to me that a lot of members of faculty didn’t know about it.”

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Rodino-Colocino said she emailed around 200 people who had already signed the CJU’s Open Letter, which was officially endorsed by the AAUP, to garner more participation for the “Zoom-In.”

The letter, which the CJU “officially” delivered to Penn State’s Board of Trustees and administration during its “Rally to Vaccinate Penn State” on Aug. 13 in front of Old Main, has garnered more than 1,250 faculty and 1,750 undergraduate and graduate students, staff, alumni, parents and community member signatures as of Tuesday night.

Decisions to hold the rally and "Zoom-In" were a result of an emergency meeting held Aug. 5, where 250 faculty members met to express concerns of feeling disregarded by Penn State's administration in its decision making, the CJU said.

Even though she couldn’t participate due to her sabbatical, Rodino-Colocino said if she were teaching she would be “Zooming in… [to] this protest.” She did get a chance to attend the CJU’s rally, though, she said.

The Seven Mountains Central Labor Council, a labor federation that encompasses Centre, Mifflin and Huntingdon counties and local affiliate of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, released a statement Saturday supporting the rally and “Zoom-In” protest at Penn State.

“As the largest employer in the Centre region, Penn State can set the standard for safe and dignified working conditions for our community,” the statement said. “We deserve more than predatory employers and disengaged and out-of-touch political leadership. Penn State can be a leader in fighting for better.”

The labor council said it believes Penn State caved to “funding threats” by “anti-worker legislatures” headed by Republican Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman.

“Anywhere that we can support labor, of course we’re going [to],” Jamie Yurick, president of the Seven Mountains Central Labor Council, said.

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Scott Conklin tweeted in support of the statement and said he stands with Penn State faculty.

“Retaliation from the university must be met with swift condemnation,” Conklin said in the tweet.

Faculty participating in the “Zoom-In” protest could be "subject to disciplinary sanctions," university spokesperson Wyatt Dubois said in a statement.

"It is important for faculty to meet the expectations of our students and deliver the mode of teaching designated for each course," Dubois said in the statement. "Faculty and instructors who do not meet their in-class teaching obligations may of course be subject to disciplinary sanctions."

According to Dubois, Penn State has heard from students and families who are "upset" that some faculty members intend to participate in the protest, and Dubois said the university understands their concerns.

Penn State's Parents Council said in a statement it is "deeply saddened" regarding faculty decisions to participate in the "Zoom-In" protest.

"Students have spent semesters learning online and even from home, and they are anxious to return to as close to a true college experience that the current situation allows in order to rebuild and fortify those relationships," the council said in a statement. "Parents and students are supportive of creating a campus environment that safely supports this return to in-person classes and experiences."

The Parents Council said even though the pandemic is an "ever-changing situation," it encouraged faculty to "reconsider their position" and teach in person as initially planned.

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King said he believes Penn State’s statement regarding possible disciplinary actions is “very unfortunate” and “rather myopic” because faculty has “a right to engage” in the protesting process.

“The Penn State’s administration’s failure to prioritize employee and student safety and their threats of retaliation are a clear violation of public employee rights guaranteed by Pennsylvania law,” the labor council’s statement said. “If Penn State chooses to retaliate against [its] employees and illegally violate their rights, [it] should be held accountable under the law.”

It wasn’t “coincidental,” in King’s opinion, that the U.S. Federal Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine the same day as the first day of the “Zoom-In.”

“[The] FDA gave us [its] full support by passing the Pfizer vaccine on the same day in which we are demonstrating here at Penn State on behalf of a vaccination mandate,” King said. “The FDA’s approval was a vote of confidence.”

Frank said he believes Penn State’s response is “tone deaf” and serves to “further alienate” faculty members.

“Get a clue,” Frank said. “[Warning of disciplinary action] just seems sort of maladroit.”

Statewide public employee labor law provides protection for what is considered “concerted activities for working conditions,” a spokesperson from CJU said in response to Dubois’ statement.

Additionally, Penn State’s own policy protects from disciplinary actions, according to CJU and Frank.

According to Jones’ letter to academic leaders, 24% of in-person mode classes are permitted to be offered remotely, “a flexibility that faculty members may utilize to manage their own absences, whether due to COVID-19 or other unavoidable circumstances.”

Since no faculty members are trying to “completely change” the mode of their course, the CJU spokesperson said they believe “the protest doesn’t violate the policy,” and faculty members participating are “completely in line with the policy.”

Though the CJU said it cannot confidently say no faculty member would be disciplined, it said “it feels really illogical… for the university to threaten or to take disciplinary action against someone for exercising academic freedom.”

The Penn State Faculty Senate, University Park Undergraduate Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Association have all asked Penn State to enforce a vaccine requirement. Instead of mandating full vaccination status, the university has thus far encouraged vaccinations by offering certain rewards and prizes for uploading vaccination cards to health records.

Penn State said 83% of on-campus students provided proof of coronavirus vaccination as of Monday.

Currently, students and faculty who do not provide proof of vaccination with the university are required to take a weekly coronavirus test. Students on and off campus will be tested weekly until they can provide proof they are fully vaccinated.

Overall, West said he believes Penn State’s response to the “Zoom-In” protest “is consistent with the administration’s approach to disagreement.”

“The faculty is asking for a hand of fellowship… but the administration is offering a mailed fist, with threats of punitive action,” West said. “That is not shared governance — it is governing without sharing. In other words, autocratic rule.”

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