Position: Tenured professor, University of West Georgia
Started: Late 1990s
Quit: Summer 2020
Salary: Prefer not to say
As told to Kiera Butler
I felt that the handling of things last March was quite sane. When they announced that spring break would be extended by one week to give professors time to reorient their classes to an online format, I thought, “Bravo. That’s really good.”
But then on May 11, we had a communication that made it clear that there would be an on-campus instructional presence in the fall, with accommodations for faculty and students as needed. So I’m thinking, “Wow, it’s so far from the fall, and they’re already telling us there’s a commitment to on-campus presence.” Now, knowing that I’m in the state of Georgia, knowing that the chancellor of the university system of Georgia is appointed by the governor, I was immediately very uncomfortable about what the future portended. I felt that there was not going to be a sane response to the pandemic in the fall. And that there would be some sort of allegiance to an economic priority. I think that turned out to be the case.
There was a lot of communication from the new president who had started in April. He was basically saying: We’re going to follow the science, we’re going to follow the CDC, and we’re going to follow the governor’s office. Then, at some point, there was kind of an odd video message. He announced that we were going to open in the fall, and he was sort of cheering. I’m thinking, “Oh great, you’re going to kill people, yay.”
I was very unhappy about it. At that point, they had already intimated that there might be an early retirement opportunity. There was also a suggestion that we would be able to opt out of teaching face-to-face, that we could do everything online. I didn’t know if they would ultimately offer the retirement incentive. In fact, when it did come out, there was a disclaimer that there was no guarantee you’re going to get it if you apply for it. I was very interested in the teaching online option, so I pursued that.
Someone in Human Resources told me that the university system in Georgia would allow accommodations to faculty and staff who themselves have a high-risk designation. But not if you have family members with a high-risk designation. The human resources person said that even though that’s the policy, the University of West Georgia will try to accommodate people who have family members who are high-risk designation. So I went ahead because my spouse is in that category.
A few days later, I got a phone call from HR asking me about the accommodation. I explained again about my spouse’s situation. And then—this was a little surreal—not five minutes later, I got an email from the same person. It was a form message telling me, “we received your request for this accommodation, sorry to tell you that we’re not able to fulfill it.” I was like, why did they even call me? It was very strange. And the letter says something to the effect that it’s because we have too many requests. I know people who are in the same situation I was in: They were denied.
I felt anxious. I thought, “What if I don’t get the retirement?” I’m imagining if I have to teach, I’m going to need to make some kind of alternative living arrangement, so that my spouse is not exposed. And that was my major concern. I really was feeling like, if my spouse gets COVID, I don’t know that they would survive. This is a scary thing. I talked to a different person HR who encouraged me to seek an exemption for myself. So I actually did have a tele-session with my doctor. I explained the situation to him, and he wrote a very general note about me. I resubmitted a form for myself, and it was approved.
So, I breathed a sigh of relief that I would not have to teach in the classroom. But my colleagues who didn’t have an accommodation to teach online were told they me had to design their classes both online and face-to-face, in what they called a “dual modality, delivery mode.” What that really means was so vague, and it was always changing. It was crazy. Sometimes they would contradict the thing they just said the week before. There was a meeting where the provost said something to the effect that if you have a graduate class, and all the graduate students want to meet online, they can. But then a few days later, he came back with an email saying it had to be face-to-face. And then they started making it hard for students to opt-out of face-to-face classes. What I found so absurd about the situation is that we have never, in my time at the university, been required to have an attendance policy that requires students to come to class. But now we do.
All of this creates a tremendous burden on all the professors who themselves are having to deal with this pandemic in their own personal lives—and without any compensation for doing that. Several years before the pandemic, the University of West Georgia was developing its online learning capacities. They were offering professors $5,000 to train over the summer—to have formal training on how to teach online. (Editor’s note: The university disputes this claim. “UWG is not aware of recent institutional incentive programs for online instruction,” a spokesperson said. But another faculty member reached out to Mother Jones after the publication of the article to confirm that instructors “did receive [financial] incentives for training in online instruction over the summer.”) And now you’ve got people who’ve never taught online or very rarely taught online who are just thrown into it. It’s a tremendous amount of work.
I realized I could teach for another couple of years, but not in a way that is fulfilling to me. Even though I had the online teaching accommodation this semester, I was still employed by the university, and I didn’t know what awkward or uncomfortable situation I was going to find myself in eventually. It really felt to me like I was now operating under an authoritarian sensibility. This whole idea of faculty governance—we’ve seen such an erosion of it. It used to be, former presidents would consult faculty to get their input on things. But the new president—it’s like he doesn’t even understand the concept of faculty governance. He was asked in a virtual town hall, “How many faculty did you consult in this reorganization? And how many will you consult moving forward is as plans unfold?” His response was basically, I won’t tell you how to do your job and you don’t tell me how to do my job. (Editor’s note: A spokesperson for the university said this characterization “is not correct” and that the president seeks input from faculty. “We have depended on the input of hundreds of faculty and staff members to research, develop, and implement our plans,” a spokesperson said. But the UWG chapter of the American Association of University Professors backed up the retired professor, saying the university has “not consulted with faculty about any of the COVID-related decisions that have been made.” A faculty member also reached out separately to dispute the university’s claim, in an email. “I can confirm firsthand that faculty were not consulted in the reorganization [of my department],” they wrote.)
It is true that the administration had to deal with a massive reduction in the budget. And when they announced initially that they were managing to do this without firing anybody or letting any of the faculty go, I was very happy. I felt wonderful. What I didn’t realize was that they were going to balance the budget by gutting the traditional arts and sciences disciplines. The business school curriculum was unaffected. Education was unaffected. But the traditional arts and sciences—history and science and the social sciences, all of those types of disciplines—were to be massively reorganized, and 17 departments would be reduced to four. There’s been this proliferation of administrative personnel—so many assistant deans and associate deans and so forth—and instead of making cuts there, which would have saved big money, they predominantly cut chairs as opposed to higher-level administrative positions.
The administration is saying they’ve done this reorganization in such a way that it will not impact the students at all. They’re not losing any courses or degree programs. And that’s true. But they do lose the intangible advantages that come from having a departmental identity. There’s a loss of community and cohesion. Also, some of our staff are gone. They’ve lost their jobs—people who are extremely hard-working, wonderful, helpful, dedicated workers, and now they’re gone. They took with them a lot of administrative skill and person hours to put into administrative tasks that now the faculty themselves have to do. So another intangible loss for the students will be that they’ll have less of the time and energy and focus and research from the faculty.
I do feel sad about leaving, but the damage was already done whether I left or not. I feel gratitude that I am in the position that I can be outside of that situation and I can refashion the rest of my life. I’m very excited about that.
But when I think of my colleagues, I just feel bad for those who have to negotiate going into the classroom. The word “terrified”—I’ve heard that word used so many times by people who have to teach in person. They’ll say, “I’m terrified.”
*This article has been updated to include a statement from the chapter of the American Association of University Professors at UWG and a statement from another faculty member who read the initial piece.