c/o Wesleyan University

c/o Wesleyan University

The Educational Policy Committee (EPC) voted on Monday, Sept. 26 to create a new subcommittee on Public Health Policies (PHC), which will oversee public health issues related to education at the University. The new subcommittee was announced in a Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) committee report on Sunday, Oct. 2. 

The proposal to form a new subcommittee came from Chair of the Science in Society Program Joseph Rouse, was supported by all EPC members, and passed in a unanimous vote of 7-0-0. The committee will be co-chaired by Rouse and Associate Professor of Anthropology Joseph Weiss. Though committee membership has not yet been finalized, it will be composed of three students and six faculty members, including a member of the Athletics department and Medical Director Dr. Tom McLarney. The students on the committee will include one graduate student, one of the two WSA senators sitting on the EPC, and one WSA senator from the General Assembly. Academic Affairs Committee Vice Chair Claire Stokes ’25 will be one EPC student representative, and the WSA will hold an internal election to decide the other student representative. The committee aims to be fully constituted by fall break, and it will begin meeting soon after.

“The PHC’s primary function is to oversee and review any public health issues as they pertain to education at Wesleyan,” Chair of the German Studies Department and EPC Chair Ulrich Plass wrote in an email to The Argus. “This includes, I imagine, not only public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, but also structural issues such as having a campus that is fully accessible to people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. You cannot have a university that is diverse, inclusive, and equitable if you do not take an active stance in addressing public health issues.” 

The new subcommittee is the result of faculty concerns at the start of the fall semester about the University’s relaxation of COVID-19 policies, particularly in classrooms. 

“At the beginning of the semester, there were many faculty [members] who felt anxious about the university’s much laxer Covid-19 guidelines, set by the Pandemic Planning Committee, which operates outside of the codified structures of shared governance and hence is not accountable to faculty and student concerns,” Plass wrote. “As you know, the university’s recent public health policy has been pivoting around the principle of personal choice: decisions to mask, test, and report test results are framed as matters of individual responsibility… Many faculty [members] feel that a responsible public health policy should be guided by the principle of protecting the most vulnerable members of our community.” 

Weiss highlighted the changes to some protective measures, like relying on self-reported positive cases for the COVID-19 tracking dashboard, as building uncertainty about the University’s public health response.   

“As the new year began, some of us in particular were concerned that some of the health measures that were previously in place—e.g. the dashboard—were not being continued, and so that galvanized to constitute a committee that could be focused on these sorts of issues, both in relation to COVID and beyond it,” Weiss wrote in an email to The Argus.

Plass also noted that faculty members who were not tenured felt that they would not be able to raise concerns about the University’s relaxed COVID-19 guidelines or mandate masking classes without sacrificing positive teaching evaluations from students. 

“Colleagues without tenure protections felt that if they were personally blamed for mandating that their students wore masks in class, this could have a negative effect on their teaching evaluations,” Plass wrote. “The background here is that contingent faculty at Wesleyan need overwhelmingly laudatory student teaching evaluations to get their contracts renewed. For this reason, imposing a universal masking opt-out rather than opt-in would have been an act of solidarity with faculty working under conditions of contractual insecurity.” 

As a result of these faculty concerns about the University’s insufficient response to the ongoing risks of the pandemic, the EPC met with Medical Director Dr. Tom McClarney and Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley—representatives of the Pandemic Planning Committee—to discuss these concerns. This meeting led to the formation of the PHC as a new body that will focus on public health through the lens of academics. 

“After our discussion, EPC members felt that the university’s laissez-faire approach needed to be complemented by careful oversight of the immediate and long-term fallout from the pandemic,” Plass wrote. “We also felt that there needed to be a governance body representing faculty and students that can play an active role in making recommendations about health policies. Finally, we felt that the COVID-19 pandemic was likely not to be the last public health emergency to hit campus and that it was imperative to think about ways to build a safe and resilient university.” 

WSA Academic Affairs Committee Chair Edrea Jiang ’23, who sits on the EPC, explained that the effects of both the pandemic and the University’s public health response on students and faculty members will be a major focus of the EPC, along with mental health resources and support.

“During the pandemic, we saw, to an unprecedented level, how public health policy affected classroom learning and academics,” Jiang wrote in an email to The Argus. “From being sent home to the transition to online learning and back to the classroom, there were many difficulties that both the student and faculty population faced.”

Now, Jiang hopes that the EPC can look to the future while taking lessons from the past with regard to pandemic planning and public health.

“Although the main focus now is the handling of the pandemic, going forward, we, as members of EPC, expect this subcommittee to transition and address other concerns that may arise, especially in terms of mental health resources and student support,” Jiang wrote. 

Weiss emphasized how these health effects on the campus community demonstrate the necessity of the new subcommittee in discussing where the University’s public health responses have been strong and where they could be improved. 

“I think the pandemic has made it abundantly, painfully clear just how important health issues on campus are for the ongoing functioning of the university, and I think all of us, whether teacher, student, or administrators have felt how dramatically our whole worlds can be transformed by a health crisis,” Weiss wrote. “There are real lessons to be learned from what’s happened so far, what Wesleyan has done well, where it could stand to improve, and how other institutions like ours are handling questions of public health. I think this makes the committee both necessary and urgent.” 

He added that these public health concerns have also been shared by faculty members outside the EPC, pointing to the recent relaunch of the Wesleyan chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as one way by which faculty members have taken a greater role on campus, with Wesleyan’s advocacy chapter campaigning for expanded rights and benefits for faculty. 

“The faculty as a whole have been highly engaged with health policy on campus, and we want to support that level of awareness and concern through our committee’s actions,” Weiss wrote. “We also have seen real leadership on campus regarding this from the newly reconstituted AAUP chapter here, and we understand ourselves to have an important role to play in these ongoing conversations.” 

The formation of the PHC ultimately comes from the belief of EPC members that issues of University public health policy are also matters of educational policy. The PHC aims to give faculty a bigger voice in reviewing the public health conditions at the University. 

“After almost three years of having to teach and learn under conditions of serious health risks due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, it’s urgent that the faculty take an active role in reviewing the full impact of this calamity and in figuring out ways to responsibly deal with future risks,” Plass wrote. 

Jem Shin can be reached at jshin01@wesleyan.edu

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