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Georgia Tech Scheller Faculty Push Back Against Reopening Plans

Hundreds of faculty at Georgia Tech have signed a letter urging the school to chart it own course against coronavirus in the fall. Georgia Tech photo

Coronavirus is back — except that it never really left. But with more than 50,000 new cases of the life-threatening virus nationally each day — a number pushed upward by spikes in states that “reopened” too early — there is new doubt about university and business school plans to conduct the fall 2020 semester with any amount of in-person instruction, and a fiery debate over whether they should even try.

Georgia is one of the states where Covid-19 cases are on a dramatic rise, with more than 2,600 new cases each day over the last week according to official data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Yet the University of Georgia system has announced plans to reopen with a hybrid in-person and virtual approach in the fall. Now, faculty at one of the public school system’s top schools, the Georgia Institute of Technology — including many at the Scheller College of Business — are pushing back.

More than 850 of Georgia Tech’s 1,100 professors, including more than a dozen Scheller College professors, have signed an open letter calling for remote delivery of courses to be the default this fall, and for mask wearing to be mandatory for those who are on campus. The letter, dated July 2, 2020, pointedly demands that the university president, Ángel Cabrera, act independently to “safeguard the health and safety needs of the Georgia Tech community, informed by scientific evidence.”

“As academic faculty in a world-class Institute of Technology, we expect our leadership, who understand the culture and needs of the Institute community, to have the authority to develop reopening plans in our collective interest,” reads the letter. “We expect that planning and decisions to be made in accordance with scientific evidence that prioritize the health and safety of the Georgia Tech community and the greater Atlanta community.”

16 SCHELLER COLLEGE PROFESSORS JOIN COLLEAGUES IN SIGNING LETTER

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera. Courtesy photo

Georgia Tech’s Scheller College, with an MBA enrollment of 174, is currently ranked No. 27 by U.S. News & World Report and No. 26 by Poets&Quants. Among the B-school’s signatories to the letter decrying the school’s plan for a hybrid fall semester are Steven Salbu, professor and Cecil B. Day chair of ethics; Lucien Dhooge, Sue & John Staton professor of law; Francis M. Ulgado, associate professor and faculty director of the Scheller Center for International Business Education and Research; Barry Branch, Ledbetter professor of the practice of real estate development; Sudheer Chava, professor and Alton M. Costley chair; and professors Vinod Singhal, Beril Toktay, and Peter Swire. In all, 16 Scheller faculty affixed their names to the letter; Scheller Dean Maryam Alavi’s name was not among the signees. More than 2,000 Georgia Tech alumni, students, and non-faculty staff signed a similar, supporting petition.

“As academic faculty of Georgia Tech, we assert our fundamental professional and ethical responsibility to provide for the health and safety of students and the integrity of the educational process,” the letter reads. “We assert that current reopening plans are inconsistent with a safe return to campus by students, staff, and faculty. Furthermore, we do not feel secure that the education we will be offering to students in Fall 2020 will be free from significant and foreseeable disruption.”

Scheller College of Business representatives did not respond to an email from Poets&Quants seeking comment.

GEORGIA SYSTEM MUST MAKE ‘SCIENCE-BASED’ DECISIONS, FACULTY SAY 

Georgia Tech is employing only remote learning through the summer. According to reports, in late June the University System of Georgia — the sixth-largest university system in the U.S., with approximately 350,000 in 26 public schools — responded to a student-led petition drive by outlining its stance for the fall semester; plans include issuing a pair of washable, reusable face coverings to all students, staff, and faculty “and strongly encouraging their use while on campus.” UGA rules also call for all employees to “self-monitor and acknowledge that they are not aware they have signs and/or symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to campus each day.” It’s a move increasingly counter to the prevailing views about how to handle the challenges of coronavirus in the fall, as demonstrated by Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which announced Monday (July 6) that it would conduct all fall classes online. Harvard Business School, however, rejecting a fully online fall semester, remains on track to employ a hybrid approach.

Speaking to the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, a University System of Georgia spokesperson said the safety of students, faculty, and staff has been a “top priority” from day one, with the system relying on Covid-19 guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta. “Consistent with current guidance from those agencies, we strongly encourage everyone to wear a cloth face covering in areas of campus where social distancing cannot be practiced,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, we encourage those on our campuses to frequently wash their hands for 20 seconds, avoid touching their faces and maintain a safe distance of at least six feet from others. Anyone exhibiting symptoms such as an elevated temperature, cough and shortness of breath should stay away from campus.”

However, according to the letter signed by hundreds of Georgia Tech faculty, contrary to expectations “re-opening plans at Georgia Tech have been shaped based on guidance from outside the Institute, and with limited input from the faculty who are being asked to carry out these plans. We are alarmed,” the signees wrote, “to see the Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia mandating procedures that do not follow science-based evidence, increase the health risks to faculty, students, and staff, and interfere with the nimble decision-making necessary to prepare and respond to Covid-19 infection risk.”

In a statement to National Public Radio, College of Engineering Professor Devesh Ranjan, who helped write the letter, expressed optimism that Georgia Tech’s leadership would agree that an in-person mask-optional return is too risky. “We suspect they would not actively oppose faculty taking the decision to have most courses online,” he said. “In the final analysis, faculty will choose to do what they think is ethically correct.”

READ THE FULL TEXT OF THE LETTER SIGNED BY 856 GEORGIA TECH FACULTY

Georgia Tech, like peer institutions, faces a profound challenge: we are preparing for the Fall 2020 semester amidst a worsening Covid-19 pandemic. As academic faculty in a world-class Institute of Technology, we expect our leadership, who understand the culture and needs of the Institute community, to have the authority to develop reopening plans in our collective interest. We expect that planning and decisions to be made in accordance with scientific evidence that prioritize the health and safety of the Georgia Tech community and the greater Atlanta community. Contrary to those expectations, re-opening plans at Georgia Tech have been shaped based on guidance from outside the Institute, and with limited input from the faculty who are being asked to carry out these plans. We are alarmed to see the Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia mandating procedures that do not follow science-based evidence, increase the health risks to faculty, students, and staff, and interfere with the nimble decision-making necessary to prepare and respond to Covid-19 infection risk.

As academic faculty of Georgia Tech, we assert our fundamental professional and ethical responsibility to provide for the health and safety of students and the integrity of the educational process. We assert that current reopening plans are inconsistent with a safe return to campus by students, staff, and faculty. Furthermore, we do not feel secure that the education we will be offering to students in Fall 2020 will be free from significant and foreseeable disruption.

Therefore, the undersigned academic faculty of Georgia Tech express their belief that the best way forward to ensure a safer start of the Fall 2020 semester is to:

1. Empower the President of Georgia Tech to act independently to safeguard the health and safety needs of the Georgia Tech community, informed by scientific evidence.

2. Make remote delivery the default mode of instruction for Fall 2020 in order to reduce disease transmission risk and to reduce disruption of educational delivery in the event of worsening epidemic conditions. We emphasize that no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working and/or learning on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent.

3. Make on-campus experiences available for the limited number of students who need access to campus residences and on-campus laboratories or other specialized facilities.

4. Make face masks required everywhere on campus, provide large-scale Covid-19 testing, and ensure timely contact tracing of new infections.

Institute leadership and faculty must prepare for a safer opening with academic integrity by communicating a clear and revised Fall plan, in accord with the above points, as soon as possible. Rapid and principled decision making is needed to ensure students can make the necessary travel and housing arrangements, faculty can make their own decisions about the best way to deliver their courses, prioritizing remote instruction over on-campus meetings as necessary to reduce the risk of infection, and staff are safeguarded as well as informed and prepared to work in collaboration with faculty and students to advance the Institute’s mission.

We believe that decisions about how to best educate Georgia Tech students require a detailed knowledge of the challenges and constraints that are unique to Georgia Tech. It is for this reason we feel compelled to express in the strongest of terms that not providing President Cabrera the autonomy to shape Institute decision-making and policies in response to Covid-19 with the input of the campus community endangers our research and education missions and, most importantly, threatens the health, wellbeing and education of students, staff, and faculty.

In closing, we are committed to work with the Georgia Tech Executive Leadership Team to maintain the reputation of Georgia Tech as an institution that rests on the furtherance of scientific knowledge and technological change to improve the human condition, by securing the integrity and continuity of the education process, and by providing for the health and safety of the entire Georgia Tech community. 

Click here to see the full list of signees to the Georgia Tech letter.

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