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LETTER TO THE EDITOR | We want this semester to work

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Letter to the editor

This letter was written by Michael Bérubé, an Edwin Erle Sparks literature professor at Penn State.

I did not participate in the “Zoom-In” last week. But I support my colleagues who did, and I suspect that the event has been widely misunderstood — especially by students and parents who felt that professors holding classes on Zoom, even just once at the beginning of the semester, were effectively refusing to show up for work and depriving Penn State students of the full benefits of face-to-face (or masked-face-to-masked-face) instruction.

So I am writing to students, parents and our leadership in Old Main. Please understand this: the point of the “Zoom-In” is not that faculty would prefer to teach remotely. We did that last year, and for the second half of spring semester 2020, and for many of us, it was excruciating — as it was for our students.

We all burned out, we all experienced Zoom fatigue. We all struggled with spotty internet connections; faculty and students in the performing arts, in kinesiology, in agricultural sciences, and in many other fields felt as if they were experiencing video game versions of what they wanted to teach and learn.

Of course, some immunocompromised faculty members, and people with vulnerable family members at home, have requested to work remotely, as they should have.

But the rest of us wanted and expected to teach in person. No one wants to return to last year. No one. I told my students at the outset of each of my classes last week: I do not want to go remote. I do not want to go hybrid. I want each and every one of you to stay healthy. I want us to get through this semester in class, in person, and I want each and every one of you to get the most out of your college experience — in every sense of the term, this term and every term.

The best way to do that is to issue and enforce a vaccine mandate. This is not controversial. It is simple science. It is like saying “the sun will rise tomorrow in the east because of the Earth’s rotation around its axis in its orbital path around the sun.”

Now, I understand that some of my fellow Americans, and some of the elected officials of our fair commonwealth, disagree. They insist that the sun orbits the Earth, not vice versa, and that this belief is a matter of personal preference. I respect their beliefs, but I do not think we should conduct policy in accordance with those beliefs.

In all seriousness, I am at a complete loss to understand why President Eric Barron and Provost Nick Jones have refused to issue a vaccine mandate. The UPUA voted for a mandate 25-10-1 in April, and Faculty Senate followed suit two weeks later, 113-31. These are supermajorities.

I chaired the Faculty Senate in 2018-19. I met often with Barron and Jones in my eight years in the Senate. We had very good working relationships; together, Old Main and the Senate achieved a great deal, making Penn State a stronger university in many ways. Even when I disagreed with them, I never doubted that they were good stewards of the university who had the best interests of Penn Staters at heart. And I never saw them ignore supermajority votes from faculty and student bodies.

Of course, everyone assumes that the pressure comes from elsewhere. But so what? No matter where it comes from, surely it is pressure worth resisting. Barron, in his final year of what has been a successful and even restorative presidency, could plausibly stake his claim, and his legacy, to the cause of being right on the side of science, and right on the side of justice. That option remains open. And now that the Pfizer vaccine has FDA approval, there is all the more reason to take that option.

But speaking for myself, I will just say this — and it is what I said to my students last week. The whole point of the faculty protest is that we want this semester to work. We want this academic year to work. We want to return to the pre-pandemic “normal” as best we can — with masks, for now — and as soon as possible.

For what has happened this past year is really a tragedy beyond belief. We came up with mRNA vaccines in an astonishingly short period of time (by contrast, the polio vaccine of the 1950s took years to roll out after decades of waves of polio infections) and they proved to be stunningly effective, with only minor side effects.

It was a triumph, one of the most impressive scientific breakthroughs our species has ever achieved. But because of partisan divisions, ideological obsessions and social media disinformation campaigns, we squandered that breakthrough. As a result, now we are dealing with a more contagious variant of COVID-19.

So please, don’t blame faculty who participated in the “Zoom-In.” They were, and are, protesting a policy that makes no sense whatsoever. And please, please, please—for your sake, for our sake, for the sake of the unvaccinated children to whom so many of my colleagues and staff associates return every day—get vaccinated. And let’s all get through this thing together.

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