US university workers fight a return to campus as COVID-19 cases grow

Members of the Ohio State University Graduate Student Labor Coalition hold signs during a protest

The Ohio State University Graduate Student Labor Coalition protested on 25 August, the first day of classes, against the institution’s decision to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit: Ty Wright/Bloomberg/Getty

A wave of activism is sweeping US campuses that have reopened after their summer break amid the COVID-19 crisis. Across the country, university workers — including faculty members and staff who teach in classrooms and laboratories, and housekeeping staff who clean dormitories — are pushing back against requirements that they show up on campus alongside undergraduates, thereby, they say, risking their own health.

One group has filed a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina (UNC) system, which includes 16 institutions across the state, claiming that the system has not provided a safe workplace for its staff. Others have staged protests — including ‘die-ins’, in which demonstrators have simulated coronavirus deaths — to demand remote classes and more COVID-19 testing. In one case, university faculty members passed a ‘no confidence’ vote to indicate that their chancellor had neglected their concerns and botched the institution’s reopening.

“We are seeing a wave of faculty activism, and it is great for the profession,” says Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), whose chapters function as unions at some institutions and as advocacy organizations at others. “The COVID-19 crisis and the disastrous decisions being made that literally are putting lives at risk are empowering faculty to take action to fight back.”

Protest catalysts

The nascent movement has sprung up as COVID-19 infections on US campuses are growing. An outbreak at UNC-Chapel Hill began after the institute opened its doors in early August. Within nine days, it had shifted to remote instruction, and students had begun moving out of dormitories. By 3 September, 1,075 students and 60 employees at the university had tested positive for the coronavirus. Overall, some 24,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported at US universities since late August, according to the New York Times.

Campus workers think that universities have based their reopening decisions on their bleak financial outlooks rather than on safety considerations. Federal and state funding for public universities has declined in recent years in the United States, so universities have become increasingly reliant on tuition and fees to keep running. Administrators fear that students, faced with remote learning, might defer their enrolment until 2021. Going online also means forgoing revenue from dining and housing. For instance, on 27 August, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, said that the university will lose US$55 million dollars in housing and dining during the current semester alone.

For universities in this position, the decision to reopen during the pandemic comes down to one of two choices, says Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and the vice-president of its AAUP chapter. “They either have to risk a public-health disaster or face a certain financial calamity.”

“It is scary,” says a science professor at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, who asked to remain anonymous to preserve his relationship with the institution’s administration. “It’s all about the enrolment money. It has made me feel like we are cogs in a wheel, responsible for keeping the enrolment wheel going.” In-person classes at NAU started on 31 August, with some students being taught in person and others dialling in remotely, in an alternating fashion. So far, seven cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed on campus.

Universities say they are doing their best to reopen safely, emphasizing that many students still want in-person classes. Some also underscore that staff can request to teach remotely. “All NAU employees, including faculty and staff, can request accommodations or workplace modifications, including potentially teaching/working remotely,” a spokesperson for the institution said in an e-mail.


Some workers even contend that forcing employees to teach in person and clean packed dormitories is illegal. On 10 August, faculty members, graduate students and staff at several institutions in the UNC system filed a class-action lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court, claiming that their rights to a safe workspace had been violated by the system’s reopening plans. Named plaintiffs include Zofia Knorek, an ecology graduate student and research assistant at UNC-Chapel Hill, and housekeeper Jermany Alston, also at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Knorek, the ecology graduate student who is a plaintiff in the UNC -system court case, emphasizes that her activism isn’t a distraction from her science. It’s connected to it. “The pursuit of social justice is central to ecology (and vice versa) because many of the environmental issues we face — climate change, biodiversity loss, etc. — are the direct result of widely inequitable consumption of natural resources.”

Although state laws limit unions’ powers in North Carolina, organizations such as the AAUP and UE local 150, North Carolina’s union for public service workers — representing staff and graduate students — have joined forces to speak out against reopening plans, including supporting the lawsuit.

Protester holds a sign opposing in-person classes, at a 'die-in' at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta

Protesters at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta stage a ‘die-in’ to oppose in-person classes at the university.Credit: Jeff Amy/AP/Shutterstock

Faculty members and graduate students across the system are advocating for themselves by protesting and filing the lawsuit, but they’re also advocating for the staff — “dining workers, landscaping workers, and so on — who are among the most vulnerable in our communities,” says Smith. Workers such as these are exposed to residential students on campus more often than are any other staff.

The UNC system’s board of governors did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Nature. The board ultimately dictated the system’s reopening plans. It is appointed by the Republican-led North Carolina legislature and has been widely criticized by faculty members for prioritizing revenue over safety, and for not delegating more authority to individual institutions in the system.

A growing movement

Activism is also occurring elsewhere in the UNC system. Faculty members at Appalachian State University in Boone, which is still holding in-person classes despite 267 confirmed COVID-19 infections, passed a resolution expressing “no confidence” in their chancellor for failing to resist the board of governors’ mandate to reopen. The chancellor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Campus workers are organizing to oppose reopenings elsewhere in the country, too. Georgia College in Milledgeville is open and requiring in-person teaching despite 635 cases in a campus community of just 8,000. On 28 August, graduate students and staff organized under the United Campus Workers of Georgia staged a ‘die-in’ — in which participants lay down next to temporary grave stones, spaced apart in a nod to social-distancing measures — to protest the risk they say this poses. “It was kind of a sombre event,” says Jessica McQuain, a master’s student in English at the university who organized the event.

Melanie DeVore, a palaeobotanist, is teaching nearly 100 students in person this term at Georgia College. To keep her infection risk low, DeVore got permission to teach outside on a deck. She compares the in-person teaching requirement to the 1979 film Alien, in which a spaceship crew discover that although their mission is top priority, they themselves are expendable. And she, like many others, attributes the requirement to teach in person to the university’s focus on its finances. “We are backed into a corner because of the business model of the universities,” she says.

A spokesperson for Georgia College replied to Nature’s interview request with a statement: “Georgia College fully supports the freedoms of speech and expression for our faculty, staff and students.” The statement goes on to say that “the health and well-being of our students and campus community will always be our top priority.”

At other universities, activism is not about in-person teaching. Twenty separate unions at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which is largely closed, with most classes online, joined forces to propose cuts to workers’ hours and pay in an attempt to avoid lay-offs during the closure. The plan was rejected, and about 1,000 people were laid off, including hundreds of part-time lecturers. According to Todd Wolfson, a journalism professor and president of the Rutgers AAUP-American Federation of Teachers, the coalition plans to fight for those workers to be re-hired.

Rutgers says it did work out furlough deals with some individual unions to limit lay-offs and notes that university administrators have taken pay cuts. “Rutgers is in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak,” says spokesperson Dory Devlin, pointing to a $200 million shortfall in lost revenue and state appropriations. “The university continues to work diligently to avoid lay-offs.”

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