The following article is a lightly edited version of a statement provided by the NU for the Common Good coalition. NU for the Common Good is a coalition of social justice groups made of faculty, students, and community leaders who have a stake in working together to make Northeastern a more socially responsible institution. To contact NU for the Common Good, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Northeastern’s decision to reopen campus, as well as subsequent plans about the reopening process, were made at the highest levels of the Administration without input from most of the important stakeholders. As far as we are aware, there was no systematic attempt to solicit opinion from students, graduate workers, part-time or full-time faculty, or campus staff. Instead, President Aoun went on national television and announced the decision, expecting the campus community to fall in line. Despite the University’s rosy public relations campaign, this is not what happened.
Everyone on campus, from undergraduate and graduate students, to faculty and staff, to campus workers, to the wider community, have their own set of concerns about the Fall semester, which have been expressed in various forums. Progressive Student Alliance (USAS Local 115) circulated a petition with UNITE-HERE Local 26 members—who work as dining staff at Northeastern—calling on Northeastern to do right by these workers, who were laid off after students were sent home halfway through the Spring semester. Despite thousands of petition signatures and a public pressure campaign, the university refused to pay campus workers through the end of May, and to this day will not commit to hazard pay for any workers on campus, including the most at risk workers, like those responsible for cleaning and dining services.
Graduate student workers, who teach classes and carry out research for pay, circulated a petition calling on Northeastern to extend guaranteed funding timelines for 1 year due to interruptions to our ability to work during the pandemic. Our petition has gone unanswered. Now, graduate students are dealing with massive uncertainty about whether they will be required to teach or do research in person this semester, and the University has dragged their feet on providing that information, passing responsibility to the Colleges. Graduate workers have formed an unrecognized union—the Graduate Employees of Northeastern University, UAW—but have been denied their right to a fair union election by Northeastern since 2016.
Full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members, who are also being denied the right to join a recognized union by Northeastern, started a petition calling for Northeastern to flip the script on in-person instruction. Northeastern’s plan for instructors is “opt-out,” where instructors who are uncomfortable teaching in person need to provide some sort of excuse, potentially disclosing medical information about themselves or family members, that is then approved by the Northeastern Administration. Faculty, along with graduate students, instead asked Northeastern to guarantee that anyone who would like to teach entirely online be granted the permission to do so, without having to disclose any personal medical details. Northeastern has ignored this petition as well.
In July, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as full-time faculty, gave public comment at a Boston City Council hearing on college and university reopening plans. In their remarks, they raised concerns about the possibility of causing outbreaks in the local communities that Northeastern touches, some of whom have already borne the brunt of this pandemic. Concerns were also raised over the massive uncertainty involved with the reopening process during an unpredictable and out of control pandemic, and how returning to campus for “NU Flex” will actually play out for undergraduate students in terms of enforcement and compliance. City Councilors were largely sympathetic to the concerns, especially those about the surrounding community, and Councilor Kenzie Bok went as far as to write and release publicly a letter to President Aoun and President Brown (of BU) calling on both to switch to remote teaching and learning, rather than in person. This suggests that not only does the Northeastern Administration believe it can avoid being accountable to its students and employees, but it will also openly shirk the advice of elected officials in the City Government.
In mid-August, it came out that MIT Press/Penguin Random House had approached President Aoun to write a book about our successful campus reopening. This took many of us by surprise, since the release date on the website was listed as October, but not a single student had even returned to campus when the copy showed up on the web. Northeastern claimed on Twitter that no book deal had been made, and that they had asked the publishers to remove any material referencing the book from the Internet. But the disclosure of the existence of this potential book deal already creates a conflict of interest for Aoun: if our reopening plan is not deemed “successful,” it is unlikely he will be asked to follow through on the deal. Until there is a resolution, every decision Aoun makes should be judged in light of this conflict.
As the Fall semester rapidly approaches, many on campus remain skeptical that Northeastern’s plans, developed without our input or consent, will really protect our communities. It is still not clear whether the autonomy of instructors to make choices about their own health will be fully respected, and students have been forced to make decisions, especially about housing, without complete information. Northeastern claims they have spent $50 million on this reopening plan. Many of us believe that money would have been better spent preparing for a safe and high quality online semester, where only those who truly need to return to campus do so, and everyone else stays where they are safely. Unfortunately, nobody asked us.