Faculty Senate hosts special meeting to discuss faculty questions about pandemic

September 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In a special meeting held Sept. 29, the Penn State Faculty Senate hosted a robust discussion on faculty questions and concerns related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and engaged in collaborative conversation with members of University leadership.

Faculty Senate Chair Beth Seymour said she called the special meeting to create “a forum for the discussion and sharing of ideas” following the Senate’s regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 15, in which multiple senators raised questions to University leadership about elements of Penn State’s efforts to create safe and healthy campus environments across the commonwealth as part of the University’s “Back to State” plan.  

Topics of discussion at the special meeting Tuesday included Penn State’s testing and virus mitigation strategies; the University’s COVID-19 dashboard; plans for the spring semester; and concerns over certain language in fixed-term faculty contracts.

On the topic of virus testing, multiple senators asked if the University plans to change or adjust its pre-arrival testing strategy for the upcoming spring semester; if Penn State plans to adopt testing strategies used by other institutions; and how Penn State plans to test students ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday and break.

Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones affirmed that Penn State faculty expertise continues to shape the University’s decision-making, and Penn State does monitor strategies used by peer institutions. While the pre-arrival and surveillance testing strategies used in advance of the fall semester were very robust, according to Jones, the University continues to refine its processes to  enhance the health and safety of Penn State and surrounding communities.

Jones also noted the University plans to use “a hybrid approach of both quarantine and targeted testing strategies” in advance of the Thanksgiving break, and that Penn State is following public health guidance to mitigate the spread of the virus. He also shared that on-demand testing for faculty and staff is newly available at University Park, and that plans are currently underway to implement on-demand testing for faculty and staff at all Commonwealth Campuses.

Senators also raised questions about the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, with some senators questioning the interval of time between when a test is taken and when the results are uploaded to the dashboard. Penn State President Eric Barron said that the University remains committed to providing timely information and noted that Penn State is consistently searching for new technologies to improve its testing and reporting processes, including the potential use of rapid testing technology, which is being investigated.  

Another area of consideration was the University’s plan for the spring semester. Jones said that Penn State will build on the successes of the fall semester, and will continue working to refine its testing and mitigation strategies to maintain a safe and healthy campus environment for the spring. Jones shared that the University aims to release its spring academic calendar within the coming week, and affirmed that Penn State remains committed to supporting its faculty during these difficult times. He encouraged all faculty to talk to their unit leadership about their individual needs, and stated that academic leadership has been asked to offer as much flexibility as possible to faculty members. “We are trying to be as supportive as we can of our faculty’s preferences,” Jones said.

Senators also raised concerns over language that was recently added to fixed-term faculty contracts, which states that fixed-term faculty could potentially be furloughed if given 12 weeks of notice. Jones, who has addressed this concern on previous occasions, explained that this language was introduced over the summer during a period of intense financial uncertainty, in which some departments had expressed reluctance to offer full-year contracts at a time when budgets were unclear. By adding in this new language, Jones said, the University was able to help assuage these concerns and that “we ended up having very few fixed-term contracts that were not extended or renewed.”

Barron and Jones both thanked the senators for sharing their questions and concerns, and said they remain committed to finding ways to continue partnering with the Senate and incorporating faculty input into University decision-making.

Following the conversation, the meeting concluded with the introduction of a new resolution asking the University to share additional COVID-related data with the Faculty Senate and asking Penn State’s leadership to consider several specific testing and virus transmission mitigation strategies. The senate will debate and vote on this resolution at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 20.


Last Updated September 30, 2020