June 15 Message from Dean Lang

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Date: June 15, 2020
To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
From: Clarence Lang

Dear Colleagues:

I trust that this message finds you reasonably well, and I ask that you take the approximately 10 minutes needed to read it. 

By now, I expect that you have had an opportunity to review President Eric Barron’s Back to State fall plans for students, faculty and staff. As he has outlined in this release, the fall semester will begin on Monday, August 24, and classes will be held on Labor Day (Monday, September 7). Further, all campus-based residential instruction will end on Friday, November 20, with the remainder of the semester, including final exams, occurring remotely or online after the Thanksgiving break. However, large-enrollment courses with 250 or more students will be delivered online or remotely for the entire semester. 

I imagine that this news may heighten some existing concerns about the University’s ability to “put people first” in preparations for the fall. Clearly, there are a number of decisions still to be made, such as how best to “operationalize” safety protocols in our Liberal Arts buildings. For our college’s part, the plan is to return to a mix of in-person, remote and online teaching and other work. Like other colleges, Liberal Arts will have latitude in deciding how best to deliver courses with enrollments smaller than 250; in all cases, however, let me emphasize that the goal will be to promote and maintain maximum flexibility for faculty and staff in order to prioritize the well-being of tenure-line and teaching faculty, graduate instructors, and staff employees alike. 

Toward this end, you will soon receive a brief survey through your department to assess your readiness to return to on-campus work in the fall; your comfort with different work scenarios; and any needs for temporary workplace arrangements or adjustments you may have that would allow you to carry out your duties and meet the needs of our students and other constituencies. For the purposes of department- and college-level planning, this forthcoming survey will require your identifying information and thus will not be anonymous;  therefore, it will be important that you do not include any personal or medical information that could be considered confidential. If necessary, this type of information should go to Penn State HR Absence Management at absence@psu.edu; if necessary, further, you may hear from Amanda Gallo (amz108@psu.edu) or another member of our college’s HR team. Recognizing that you may have completed or read the results of more surveys recently than you might prefer, I appreciate your tolerance for yet another one – which, in this instance, will have practical application for everyone’s health and safety in our college.

At the same time, health and safety measures for coming “Back to State” will entail more than following physical distancing guidelines, procuring face coverings, enhancing daily cleaning and hygiene in common spaces and offices, and adopting other precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the local and national events that have been unfolding over the past several weeks – including mass “Black Lives Matter” protests that have dramatized the problem of racialized violence, and the charged political atmosphere we can anticipate in the coming election season – our college will need to shoulder due responsibility for making all Liberal Arts students, faculty and staff feel safe and valued at Penn State. According to the results of the University’s Potential Return to Worksurvey, self-identified women and members of underrepresented racial minority groups reported the highest levels of perceived risk to coronavirus. Likewise, female faculty, and faculty of color, have also expressed concerns about the classroom environment, especially when their course materials, assignments, and in-class activities require students to engage theories of social difference, social inequality, and social change. 

As a consequence, the difficult classroom encounters that can happen around social identities under “normal” circumstances could now potentially become an aggravating factor in the efforts of classroom instructors, as well as student-facing staff, to manage the University’s COVID-19 response on the ground. Given that wearing a face covering, or adhering to physical distancing, has become a matter of political and ideological dispute, overseeing these protocols could be a formidable task for our employees. I regret that I currently have no solution to this dilemma;  however, I can assure you that this remains an active point of discussion in regular meetings of the University’s Academic Leadership Council and University Park Council of Academic Deans, and the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs has assembled an enforcement working group to address this critical topic.  

I will close with a belated thanks to those of you who have been involved in issuing public statements, communicating to the provost and president, writing me personally, and taking other steps to share your perspectives and recommendations, and express your solidarities. I view these activities as consistent with the important teaching, research and service that characterize our college and define the liberal arts more generally in the world. I have similarly acknowledged the efforts of our students in a message that I sent to them last week. Further to our mission, I urge you to watch your inbox for an announcement about an upcoming series of virtual roundtable conversations, “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change,” sponsored by the University and featuring several Liberal Arts faculty.   




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