A Strong and Safe Return To Campus: UWM-AAUP Statement

Summer 2021.

As faculty, staff, and students prepare to return to a newly re-opened campus this fall, UWM AAUP reminds us of the centrality of academic freedom and democratic governance in ensuring our collective safety and public health. The Covid-19 pandemic is not over.  Faculty, staff, and students must be free to protect ourselves and our communities as we deem most consistent with scientific evidence.

A recent missive from University Relations and Communications advises that “Faculty and staff may not require masks for all students in classrooms or all visitors to offices,” asserting that “UWM’s health and safety policy aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance, in which masks are not required for vaccinated individuals, and is supported by the state and local health departments.”  This policy abrogates the freedom of instructors to make important decisions about policy in their classrooms and burdens students with publicly displaying their vaccine status. Public and private colleges and universities in many states,  including Indiana, California, and indeed, Wisconsin, have implemented vaccine mandates on campus.

We believe UWM’s current policy conflicts with our Academic Workers Bill of Rights (October, 2020), and with broader principles of academic freedom and democracy.  As AAUP National’s “Principles of Academic Governance during the Covid-19 Pandemic” states: “the faculty has ‘primary responsibility’ for decisions related to academic matters, including ‘curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.’”

Regarding still-operative pandemic conditions, the Academic Workers’ Bill of Rights specifies:

Many academic workers and students are particularly vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions, family, and/or age. Everyone should be able to choose to protect their health; no one should have to choose between risking their health and being employed or engaged in study. Moreover, workers have the right to make this choice without threat of penalty or punishment, including negative impact on performance and merit evaluations, progress toward degree (for graduate student workers), and so forth. They should be able to make their decisions without having to justify them on the basis of age or pre-existing condition. This is particularly true for uniquely vulnerable classes of workers, such as graduate students who have the right to decline supervisor requests for in-person work that may put their health at risk without negative impact on their academic standing.

There is growing evidence that both the Pfizer and J&J vaccines are less than 40% effective against infection from the Delta variant. The vaccines continue to provide very good protection against hospitalizations (but possibly at rates as low as 88%) and severe illness (91% effectiveness shown in Israel for Pfizer). Because the United States has stopped monitoring less severe COVID-19 breakthrough infections, it is unknown how frequently these “breakthrough” infections are being passed onto vulnerable loved ones at home, such as to unvaccinated children and others, those who are immunocompromised, the elderly, etc. Thus, in addition to expanding vaccination coverage, mask wearing is among the most effective means of reducing transmission of COVID-19, including newer variants, regardless of vaccination status.

Without a vaccine mandate on campus, faculty and staff must have the right to require masks in our classrooms, offices, and workspaces.  UWM AAUP calls on campus and UW system administration to support faculty and staff in determining masking, social distancing, and mode of instruction for our classes.