August 19, 2020

Message from Dean Lang

To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Post Docs, and Graduate Students
From: Clarence Lang
Date: August 19, 2020 

Dear Colleagues: 

I trust that this message finds you reasonably well, and that you managed to find time to relax over the summer as we prepare to embark on our fall semester. 

Like many of you, I have spent the summer following a number of developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including record joblessness; the expiration of unemployment benefits under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act; a burgeoning mass upsurge against anti-black violence; conflict in the political and civic spheres over wearing face masks and physical distancing; and uncertainty surrounding the reopening of K-12 schools and universities, and the resumption – or not – of intercollegiate athletics. These ruptures all have been occurring, of course, with no vaccine in sight and a presidential race that has sparked concern about a transparent, participatory electoral process.  

I imagine that I have not been alone in worrying about the health, economic security, and emotional well-being of family, friends and colleagues, or at times feeling overwhelmed by current events and what they reveal about the weaknesses of caregiving institutions and social welfare policies that make a democratic society possible. Despite this, I remain optimistic that we will make our way through this difficult moment, and I am heartened by the many stories I have read and heard about those who have helped others in these times. 

I am also grateful that our legitimate sense of alarm has not undermined the progress of our work as a college. Responding to the University’s Back to State announcement, our dean’s office staff – with input from our deans, unit heads, center directors, and members of our ad hoc crisis team – generated a “Return to On-Site Work” survey to gather faculty and staff sentiment about an anticipated return to campus. Administered June 18-26, the survey had a response rate of about 60 percent among academic units and approximately 79 percent elsewhere in the college. Not surprisingly, the results suggested that the majority of you were uncertain about your readiness to return, and most noted that all or most of your duties could be performed from off campus. Driven by health-related concerns for yourselves and others, most of you also reported that you preferred to continue working remotely, followed by those who favored a combination of remote and in-person arrangements. With special thanks to David Lingenfelter, our director of student services, the college’s Undergraduate Studies team began a parallel process of assessing the number of physical classrooms needed to meet instructor’s preferences for in-person course options. Needless to say, the combination of these two activities exacted a heavy toll on our heads, directors, and staff, who nonetheless rose to the occasion exceptionally.  

Directly on the heels of these surveys, Amanda Gallo and our college’s Human Resource team organized a “Return to On-Site Work” committee. This group of faculty and staff, among other things, created a planning document for college units to document arrangements related to core office functions, feasible space adjustments, facilities issues, student-facing support, working technology, and emergency contacts. I have been extremely pleased with the work undertaken by this assembly, and at this writing my office is making quick and timely progress toward approving your unit-level plans. Wherever possible, I have approved “Return to On-Site Work” authorization requests that you or your supervisors have sent. However, I remain equally supportive of those working remotely whenever they can do so effectively. Recognizing the dissimilarities in our situations, the college’s goal is to be as responsive as possible in all cases. In that vein, please know that our dean’s office staff will operate remotely for the most part through the fall semester, though this will not alter our accessibility to you.   

With these working arrangements in mind, further, I expect everyone to postpone any public programs or activities this semester that cannot be executed virtually. Indeed, most other colleges are proceeding in a similar direction, and the majority of University Park deans are in agreement that this is the best course of action for now. I hope that our college’s actions, as well as my words, continue to demonstrate consistency in our commitment not to coerce anyone back to on-site work who is not able, willing, or prepared. 

In other developments, I recently appointed our college’s pandemic safety officers (facilities manager Christopher Hort, and Nicola Kiver, director of administrative operations), who will have a line of communication to the University’s COVID-19 Operations Control Center. Chris, Nicola, and I also have identified our personal protective equipment (PPE) managers (Kysesen Maravich and Christy Thresher), who have begun the distribution of face masks, hand sanitizers, and other PPE supplies through lead administrative assistants or other appropriate points of contact for your units. Our strategic communications team is also completing signage for Liberal Arts-occupied buildings and spaces that will comply with the University’s broader Mask Up or Pack Up campaign. Moreover, the University has compiled an evolving Instructor Guide for Fall 2020 covering such topics as health and safety, technology and training, preparing a backup plan for remote instruction, facilitating students’ academic success, monitoring academic integrity, and setting the classroom tone for the semester. I particularly encourage you to familiarize yourselves with the Classroom Disruption Protocols: Guidelines for Faculty Academic Unitscreated by the Office of Educational Equity. In alignment with these protocols, our dean’s office team will do all that we can to bolster the standing and authority of instructors who may find themselves navigating difficult interactions with students around issues of social difference, social inequality, and social change and transformation. 

Considering that the Big Ten has cancelled fall sports, including Penn State football, and the COVID outbreak continues to affect fall schedules at peer institutions of higher education, I want to stress how important it is that instructors are prepared to quickly shift any in-person or hybrid course activities to a fully remote environment. Those of you teaching this semester should also know that the vice provost for faculty affairs has been organizing a working group to determine how, or even if, to use Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness (SRTE) scores this fall semester, and to examine other possible ways to evaluate effective teaching (peer reviews will continue this fall, virtually.) You may also recall that this past spring I charged a dean’s advisory group with the task of providing recommendations involving such matters as SRTE scores, the lack of consistency in filtering and summarizing student comments for reviews, and the impact that microaggressions, stereotyping, and harassment experienced by instructors from underrepresented and marginalized groups may have on evaluations of their teaching. Similar efforts are trending within the Faculty Senate, and I am hopeful that we will see broad-based, creative approaches to reimagining teaching assessment. 

I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am for all the work that our academic administrators, our dean’s office, our crisis team, and our faculty and staff have accomplished over the course of an unpredictable and stressful summer. I am especially proud of the fact that while pivoting to meet the unique conditions of this pandemic, our college has maintained a strong semblance of normalcy in many routine duties and responsibilities, including: administering faculty and staff affairs; making appointments; welcoming new heads and directors;  engaging our alumni supporters; promoting scholarly activities; identifying new research opportunities; reviewing endowments; exploring ways to expand our base of resources for remote and online instruction; and scheduling and planning fall events for incoming faculty, as well as new and returning students. 

Without a doubt, this will be a demanding semester, and we can scarcely predict the next set of challenges that will emerge. As always, though, I am confident in our resilience – and I thank you in advance for all that you will do to make our collective efforts viable.