Following the decision from most Columbia faculty to hold classes online, the University encouraged instructors in an email last Monday to offer more in-person classes. The request has drawn ire from professors and instructors, who pointed to the letter as insensitive to the health risks that in-person teaching poses to themselves, students, and community members.
Amid a two percent tuition increase, the email, sent by Executive Vice President of the Arts and Sciences Amy Hungerford, emphasized the importance of an in-person academic experience for undergraduates, particularly international students. The email stressed the University’s intention to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
“In short: We are calling for your help to mount a more robust offering of in-person or hybrid courses to meet important student needs,” Hungerford wrote.
In a statement to Spectator, a University spokesperson said that the “policy of having faculty and graduate student instructors voluntarily decide whether to return to in-person teaching this fall is part of ensuring the health and safety of our community; it has not changed, and will not change.”
The University also said that although it must be transparent in describing and addressing health risks as well as faculty and student preferences, it remains “optimistic” about offering hybrid, in-person, and online classes over the fall, spring, and summer terms.
In recent months, the city has entered a period of record-low case numbers and the fourth and final phase of reopening, but current surges of COVID-19 in the South and West indicate that repeated outbreaks may be on the horizon for New York. New York City has over 230,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and West Harlem and Morningside Heights report some of the higher death rates among Manhattan neighborhoods.
The University plans to bring 60 percent of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science undergraduates—roughly 3,800 students—back to campus. All graduate students and General Studies students are invited to return. This influx of students living in campus housing, attending some in-person courses, and interacting with staff and community members raises concerns that Columbia affiliates could induce a new wave of infections among populations who already lack adequate access to healthcare.
“Trying to make that boundary impermeable by a virus that can float through the air is absurd,”Aaron Fox, a professor of music and ethnomusicology, said. “You’re bringing in people from all over the world to be on campus, including from states which are completely out of control at the moment.”
Before the pandemic and the subsequent financial consequences for the University, Columbia depended on tuition revenue from its full-paying students to fund financial aid and the Manhattanville expansion. International students—who are not accepted on a need-blind basis—make up a large portion of full-paying student tuition revenue.
Columbia’s tuition—which increased by 3.4 percent last year—will increase by 2 percent for the next academic year. Universities that have committed to tuition freezes for the upcoming academic year include the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Princeton University has committed to a 10 percent decrease.
Hungerford’s email cited the importance of in-person classes in ensuring incoming international students can acquire visas, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ruled that new visa holders must be enrolled in at least one in-person course to enter the United States.
“And in the case of international students, the lack of in-person or hybrid coursework may jeopardize their capacity to either begin or continue their academic experience,” the email said.
Noam Elcott, a professor of art history and archaeology and chair for Art Humanities, said he was not convinced by the pressing need to teach in person.
“Neither in the email nor at any other point has anyone compellingly presented the pedagogic imperative or even advantage to teaching in a hybrid setting,” Elcott said.
However, students have responded differently to the push for in-person experiences on campus. An international survey found that 54 percent of over 21,000 high school, undergraduate, and graduate students would find living on campus and taking only online classes “unappealing.” Students have reported dissatisfaction with online school measured up against the high cost of tuition.
Hungerford’s email referred to the University’s labs, which have remained open this summer, as examples of safe in-person activity. “If faculty and graduate students are able to return to safe research conditions, it stands to reason that they should also be able to return for teaching duties,” she wrote. Separately, administrators attempted to quell instructors’ fears about the hybrid learning style by releasing a video that demonstrates its viability.
However, faculty have said that holding in-person classes will not be as safe. Darcy Kelley, a biology professor, said that 24-hour staggered shifts; extreme social distancing; contact tracing; and new, well-ventilated buildings have made continuing research in labs over the summer safe thus far. But, she said, applying this line of reasoning needs to be “thought through more carefully,” as greater traffic and the infrastructure of many buildings may impact how well in-person classes can limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Elaine Sisman, a professor of music and chair of Music Humanities, said the email was disingenuous, as she feels the University is going back on its commitment to respect how instructors decide what modes of teaching would be best for them. Sisman pointed to graduate students’ and untenured faculty’s especially vulnerable positions when subject to administrative pressure.
“People who teach Music Humanities include untenured faculty members. … We have graduate student instructors—these are people without power to resist if someone says ‘Listen, you’ve got to take this seriously, and I want you in the classroom,’” Sisman said. “I don’t think they should be subject to that kind of pressure.”
Faculty members stressed that as a leading undergraduate research institution, Columbia’s choice to hold in-person classes has implications beyond its own classrooms and sets precedent for other colleges across the nation.
“What we do, what Harvard does, what Princeton does, models for all of those school teachers in Arizona and community colleges in Texas for their deans and their administrators, that this is best practice,” Fox said. “This is what an institution that has a huge knowledge base of science at its disposal would do.”