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Columbia University Asks Professors to “Reconsider” Their Choice to Teach Online, Prompting Backlash

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School of the Arts Columbia University e1595973645807
Columbia University’s School of the Arts (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Amid mounting nationwide uncertainty over the return to in-person instruction this fall, some of Columbia University’s faculty are balking at the administration’s request that they “reconsider the modality of their courses” after the vast majority of instructors “elected to teach online only.” 

In an e-mail sent to staff yesterday and reviewed by Hyperallergic, Amy Hungerford, Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences, asked professors to help the school mount “a more robust offering of in-person or hybrid courses,” citing increased safety protocols at the university; recent ICE rulings barring international students from online-only instruction; and students’ desire to have an in-person academic experience.

Hungerford also adds that Columbia has invited 60% of its undergraduate residential students and General Studies students back to campus this fall, and that “Zoom classes in their dorm rooms and apartments will be a great disappointment to them.”

The email came only three weeks after Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, issued a statement addressing plans for the coming academic year where he said that “the University will not prescribe an approach for individual faculty members.”

“Faculty will have leeway to teach in person, online, or some combination of the two, in consultation with their schools,” Bollinger wrote.

Teodolinda Barolini, the Lorenzo Da Ponte Professor of Italian at Columbia, described the school’s handling of the situation as “dishonest.”

“If they had said from the beginning that they want people in person, I’d have had issues, but the president sent an email to the entire university in which he said that they have not prescribed any policy on teaching and that it will be faculty’s choice,” Barolini told Hyperallergic. “After the chairs had to submit faculty choices, when they saw that so many faculty had chosen online teaching, that’s when they started this pressure campaign.”

In yesterday’s email, Hungerford outlines the new safety measures adopted by the university, including weekly testing of dormitory residents; a new van service for students; and 50% density in research spaces, but Barolini says she did not feel “the least bit reassured” after attending a staff webinar on the protocols. She has had pneumonia twice, in 2018 and 2019, and believes poor ventilation in the school’s Hamilton Hall, which she refers to as an “old and densely packed” building, was a contributing factor.

Still, Barolini says she fears most for young instructors and graduate students, which she worries are “the most vulnerable” members of faculty to administrative coercion. Many of them teach the university’s Core seminar, which Hungerford describes as “a cornerstone of the Columbia experience.”

Evan Jewell, who graduated with a PhD from Columbia in 2019 and currently teaches at Rutgers University, said he was forwarded the email by a friend who is an adjunct at Columbia and felt compelled to share it on Twitter.

“It’s a completely disingenuous message,” Jewell told Hyperallergic. “Trying to guilt trip professors into changing their delivery mode shows a lack of respect for their health and speaks to that increasing commodification of higher education. It shows that [the Columbia administration] haven’t thought through this themselves and how permeable the campus is, how students are not just interacting on campus and in dorms.”

Jewell and others have also expressed concern over Hungerford’s phrasing of Columbia’s new safety protocols. In a paragraph that explains the safety measures in place for the fall term, Hungerford’s says that “the campus aims to be safer than its surroundings.”

“The idea of a hermetically sealed campus is laughable, and the way they phrase it speaks to Columbia’s ongoing poor relations with the predominantly Black neighborhood that surrounds it,” said Jewell.

Regarding Hungerford’s invocation of recent government guidelines mandating in-person teaching components for incoming international students, Jewell thinks the burden should fall on the university to fight for its students regardless of domestic or international status.

“To fall back on that as a catch-all rationale for actually trying to guilt-trip professors into teaching on campus is really poor form,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced a controversial regulation that would have forced international students enrolled in online-only universities in the fall to leave the country. After schools including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed lawsuits, the ruling was rescinded, but ICE recently released new guidelines targeting incoming students.

Hungerford’s email asks that staff reply with their teaching modality preference by this Thursday, July 30. 

Columbia has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.




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