7.10.20: Fall Semester Update from Provost Urban

A message to faculty and instructional staff from Provost Urban.

Fall Semester Update from Provost Urban

Dear Colleagues,

I had thought that my first communication with Lehigh faculty as Provost might describe my perspective on the future of higher education and Lehigh’s special opportunities to contribute to that future. That message will come in time, but there are important issues that need to be addressed with some urgency, so I have delayed that message to address some specific questions and concerns.

As we approach a Fall semester with no clear indications that the global pandemic is abating, we must be committed to balancing three major principles as we move towards the start of the academic year: the protection of the health of our community, excellence in our academic mission, and meeting both those goals with a commitment to equity. Our success as a university in this coming year and beyond will depend largely on how well all of us balance these priorities.

As departments and colleges have been planning their course offerings and course delivery for the Fall, I know that for some faculty (and TAs), of greater practical interest than these principles, is the question of how they will teach safely this Fall.

As you will know from discussions in your colleges and departments, we are preparing for most courses to have a substantial online component that will allow students who can’t come to campus access to these courses. At the same time, many students and faculty prefer the kind of connection that most readily occurs during in-person instruction. Based on a survey earlier this summer, almost half of the instructors would prefer to teach in person - provided that conditions are considered safe.  Therefore I wanted to update you on the significant changes being made to enhance the safety of students and instructors during in-person education.

  • Students and faculty will be required to wear masks in the classroom (and in all indoor spaces)
  • Instructors will be given guidance about how they can respond to classroom situations in which students fail to comply with rules on mask-wearing and social distancing
  • The density of people in classrooms will be reduced to allow 6 feet of social distancing
  • Students, faculty, and staff will be required to complete a daily health assessment before accessing campus buildings
  • Plexiglass shields and dividers are being installed in some classrooms
  • Ventilation systems are being adjusted to reduce air recirculation and upgrade air filtration
  • Instructors will be able to request additional PPE to better protect themselves in the classroom
  • Instructors will be able to request access to larger spaces - likely including some outdoor tented spaces - for occasional in-person meetings
  • Campus offices and facilities will be operated at a reduced density to facilitate social distancing

These practices - some of which are now very familiar in many aspects of our daily lives - substantially reduce the spread of COVID-19. Instructors with ideas about how to make their classrooms or other educational spaces safer can make these suggestions to their department chairs and deans, who will communicate them to me. I want to encourage creativity and innovation in the methods that we use to create outstanding learning opportunities for our students, both in-person and online.

Even with these precautions, given the health and safety concerns and the importance of instructors of all types to the Lehigh community, no instructor will be required to teach in person. Alternative approaches and duties will be found for those who request not to teach in person. Decisions about the specifics of these alternatives will be made at the department or college level based on the overall educational goals and plans of the department and college. Details on the process for requesting to opt-out of in-person teaching for those currently scheduled to teach in person will be available in the coming week.

The pandemic has created significant concerns about health and safety, but even in this environment, we cannot take the request to opt out of in-person teaching lightly. As faculty, we are fortunate and privileged to be able to do much of our work remotely. Clearly, many members of our communities, ranging from cleaning staff to health care workers, cannot make these choices. Moreover, our students came to Lehigh with certain expectations, and we have a responsibility to meet these expectations as we prepare our students for success. Recent changes in requirements for international visa holders also may require maintaining or even increasing availability of in-person instruction.

While faculty will have considerable latitude in decisions about modes of educational delivery, students, departments, and colleges must be informed about the instructional modes of courses and also about any changes that occur over the semester as the situation changes. To deliver on our educational mission, we must provide a high-quality education for all students, whether in-person or online. We also must find ways of building meaningful connections between students and between students and faculty. Finally, we must give students enough information so they can have accurate expectations of what their courses will be like.

As Instructors consider these decisions, I would encourage a dialogue within colleges and departments, and with the Provost’s office on these issues. I am sure that we will be discussing these issues in the days and weeks to come.