Professors want to know how to prepare for fall


University Senate President Chris Bonneau assured the May 5 Faculty Affairs committee meeting that a special early-June Faculty Assembly would see a three-tiered plan for fall classes — entirely online, entirely in-person, or a hybrid — but that nothing was settled today.

“We all want answers. We all want certainty. We can’t give you any now,” Bonneau said, noting that three University-wide task forces are working through May, including one on “Reimagining Pitt Education”. “The chancellor has charged us to be as bold and as creative as possible,” he continued, adding the caution: “Every decision one makes has all kinds of second- and third-order effects down the line.

“There is no university that doesn’t want to return to face-to-face classes,” he said. “But we want to balance public safety” with the urge to return to normal. A plan for all in-person classes won’t work if the state ban on full reopening continues, for instance. And even when campuses reopen, some faculty, staff and students may be more medically vulnerable than others and still require some degree of social distancing.

“There are a lot of cascading implications that have to be thought through,” Bonneau said. “This is a big deal that we have to get right.

“The longer we can delay the more accurate information we can get” about COVID-19 from epidemiologists, said Tom Songer, an epidemiology faculty member in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Question about fall, but few answers

In the meantime, Faculty Affairs committee members had many suggestions and questions about planning for fall teaching.

If the University’s teaching task force makes recommendations in May, and the administration makes its decision by early July — as Bonneau suggested — then faculty will have only six weeks to plan fall classes, said Yodit Betru, a faculty member in the School of Social Work.

The University Center for Teaching and Learning offers best practices for designing an online course under normal circumstances, which includes planning as much as one-semester ahead, Betru noted. While her school has already brought in a consultant to help faculty better prepare, could the University offer such consultants to faculty in general? Can the administration also provide coaching to help faculty motivate students to learn online?

“Somebody ought to have a clearinghouse for lessons learned,” offered Jay Sukits, a business faculty member.

“I would like to see, even if it is in a modified” way, faculty have access to teach from their classrooms, perhaps without students present in-person, he said. “I think it would lend an air, an aura, of realism for students.”

“Everything is on the table,” Bonneau replied.

When faculty will be allowed back in their offices is another variable to be decided, Bonneau said: “The University has to ensure everything is clean and safe and sanitized. There may be shifts to keep social distancing. You may have to sign up” for specific office times. “The short answer is, ‘as soon as it’s safe to do so’ … We’ve not been given any timeline. Right now, we’re controlled by the state.”

As of May 15, Allegheny County and the other counties where Pitt has branches are all under the state’s “yellow phase” for reopening. Under these rules, working from home must continue where feasible and all schools are closed for in-person instruction.

If some students remain off campus for safety reasons, Bonneau said, larger courses may be split into in-person and online sections, perhaps with different instructors.

“In Arts & Sciences that can be pretty tricky,” said committee co-chair Lorraine Denman, a faculty member in French and Italian in the Dietrich School. “Who’s paying for that second section?”

“There will be some costs the University will be willing to bear,” Bonneau replied, since the administration will have in mind not just the situation in the fall but Pitt’s long-term success. “We don’t want to have a sub-optimal experience, because reputation follows.”

Suzanna Gribble, a biological sciences faculty member, reported that her chair already secured limited access to a lab room for single-lab faculty at specific days and times, which allows for teaching from labs and for cleaning staff to sanitize the area afterward. “We’re using these as test cases for what we can do in the fall,” Gribble said.

“We’re not running online courses,” she added. “We’re putting courses online. There is a huge difference.”

Looking at longer-term plans

Are the task forces planning just for fall or for all of 2020-21, Denman asked.

“We haven’t explicitly discussed that,” in the education task force, Bonneau said. “The hope is if we get this right it will be a more general pandemic plan.” Decisions for the spring 2021 semester will be determined “by November, maybe,” he said, depending on whether, by then, there is a second wave of COVID-19, a vaccine, or both.

“I don’t see the downside to plan for” all-online courses, said Pat Loughlin, faculty in the Swanson School of Engineering. “It seems like it is a safe bet to assume that right now.”

On the Greensburg campus, said Frank Wilson, assistant vice president for academic affairs and Senate liaison to the committee, fellow faculty are attending workshops now to prepare for online-only classes in the fall.

Asked whether promotions in rank and to the tenure stream were still going to be considered in September and following, Bonneau assured that, first, promotions from assistant to associate professor are governed by University bylaws, and that no one in the administration had broached any such changes in his presence.

“I would be very, very surprised if things aren’t continued on,” he said of promotions. “That would be something I would push back hard on.”

The hiring freeze may affect the level of salary increases associated with such promotions, he said. Some faculty may believe it best to hold off on a promotion, aiming for a larger initial salary in a future year — “but I think we can overthink this,” he said. Take the promotion and raise now, he suggested, since they compound over time. “I’d advise people not to game this.”

Asked whether Pennsylvania could delay, reduce or even eliminate its annual appropriation to Pitt and other state-related universities, Bonneau replied: “Anything’s possible … (but) I don’t see that. … I think we’ll know about that well before August.” Any issues with the state support of Pitt “would be incredibly disruptive. I think that this is a low-probability outcome … but I’m not going to tell you that is not going to happen.”

“Thus far the administration at Pitt has been committed to keeping everybody employed,” he volunteered.

Overall, he said, dealing with COVID-19 “is viewed as not a long-term problem. … You don’t want to cut core programs or things that will take you a decade or more to rebuild. … Preserving the core of what we do in our mission is key.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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