Open Letter to the Tennessee Tech Administration, Campus, and Community

The Tennessee Tech chapter of United Campus Workers, CWA Local 3865 respectfully submits the following letter containing the concerns of faculty, staff, and students related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To: Tennessee Tech Administration, Campus, and Community

As we approach the beginning of the Fall Semester, many of the faculty and staff of Tennessee Tech University want to express our concerns about how the University Administration has handled our “return to campus.” To resonate with our administration, we will use the two slogans: Tech is Tennessee, and Be Bold, Be Fearless, Be Confident. 

Tech is Tennessee. Throughout the summer, we have experienced a continued surge in COVID-19 cases across Tennessee and in Putnam County. For context, when Tech went online on March 19, there were 56 cases in the state; when Tech started in-person orientation for new students on July 13, we faced 4268 new reported cases. New cases have continued at around 2000 per day. Putnam County has now documented 20 fatalities. The original CDC guidelines called for a 14-consecutive-day decline in new cases to precipitate widespread public reopening. Tennessee has never approached that benchmark. 

If Tech is Tennessee, then Tennessee’s numbers--which stand at over 135,000 cases since the pandemic began in our beautiful state--should concern us greatly. If Tech is Tennessee, then we should be thinking about how to lead, how to enable educators to create the best atmosphere for our next generation of Tennesseans to elevate our state in this new reality, not putting our heads in the sand. With the recent news from our neighbors in North Carolina and the disastrous re-opening of UNC Chapel Hill, the flagship university of the UNC System, we should be imagining a new and unique future for public universities in Tennessee. Following UNC Chapel Hill’s poor example will invariably result in more lost trust in our institution and will cost us in the long run, with no excuses for not knowing better. 

Be Bold, Be Fearless, and Be Confident. We want to first focus on the positives that we, as faculty and staff offer. We, as faculty and staff, are bold in our care for our students and are unafraid to face the truth and its consequences. Using selective statistics to speculate about our safety is unsatisfactory. Any number of infected students is a failure to us as faculty and staff. We are fearless in the face of the Administration’s seeming attempts to quiet us by stating that not opening will be too financially detrimental to the University.  We are fearless in declaring that a full return to campus without proper precautions, transparency, or a fundamentally safe environment is reckless.  

We, as faculty and staff, are fearless in the face of the challenges to offer an excellent education, in any modality, an education that is still “the best value” in Tennessee, even if online. We are confident in who we are: well-published, well-known, and well-educated.

Regarding the choices of our Administration, we believe it has not been bold, but rather, reckless with the safety of our students and faculty and staff. The Administration has not been bold in supporting faculty and staff with the information they need regarding the number of COVID-19 cases active on campus. The dashboard was only promised after pressure was applied and has yet to appear, with the first day of classes right around the corner. They have not been bold in informing the wider community of the risks of the arrival of so many students. They have not been bold in advocating for what we offer here at Tech, beyond the generic “college experience” of campus life. 

The Administration has not been fearless when it comes to offering both faculty and staff the ability to work in a way that they feel is safe for themselves and their families, but has relied on fear and control, asking them to provide private medical information and declining requests to work remotely. The Administration has not been fearless -- but rather reckless -- as they unduly add these risks and burdens to all the vulnerable outsourced contract workers in custodial, mail and print, and the bookstore. The Administration has not been fearless in submitting to the University community the survey conducted that Administration officials, President Oldham especially, keep referencing when they state that students want “almost universally” to be back on campus. The Administration has not been fearless in taking on some of the financial burden that they have placed on the respective Colleges within our University due to budgetary constraints. 

If every Administration official accepted a salary cap of $100,000 dollars for just this year, the University would save at least 1.2 million dollars. While this is a drop in the bucket perhaps, it is certainly a larger drop than the money saved by firing colleagues in a number of lesser-paid positions, firings that the Administration deployed in fearful secrecy and has yet to account for publicly. These are firings of staff members and adjuncts, which further hampers our ability to offer high quality education to our students during these challenging times. 

Lastly, the Administration has not been confident. It has not shown confidence that our students will understand that this year has to be different. It has not been confident that the faculty can offer excellent educational opportunities, no matter the modality. It has not been confident that our staff can continue the exceptional work that they do every day in a way that they feel safe. The Administration has not been confident that Tech is more than a business, and that what it offers has more than simple commercial value. We, the faculty and staff, in our purple and gold, will proudly wear these colors fair, until our goal is won: a different, safer future for Tennessee Tech, beginning with this Fall of 2020. 

In our small corner of Tennessee, we may have little control over the national epidemic and many of its consequences, but we maintain that we can truly be Bold, Fearless, and Confident by doing what is in our power to do to deliver the best education to elevate our state - but without reckless disregard for the safety of our beloved community.  

We believe reopening under these conditions is irresponsible. 

If we must reopen, we ask for the following, all of which we believe is within the administration’s power and is presently not in place in a manner that generates even minimal assurance of our community’s safety. We ask Tennessee Tech to:

  1. Provide transparent and frequent reporting of all COVID-19 cases on campus (as promised by email on August 11 in the form of a dashboard, but as of August 20, is not available).

  2. Establish criteria and communicate exactly what conditions will trigger the return to exclusively remote learning, with an understanding that absolutely no deaths in the campus community would be considered acceptable. 

  3. Provide clearer communication to the campus regarding the protocols for contact tracing. 

  4. Hire dedicated staff and scholars whose only duties are to research, monitor, communicate, and uphold best practices to ensure our safety in this pandemic.

  5. Improve campus-wide policies for well-researched, data-based best practices to further constrain and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

  6. Provide well-communicated, consistent consequences for students, faculty, or staff refusing to uphold these best practices.

  7. Provide opportunities for all salaried and hourly staff in all units to work remotely or alter hours on campus to minimize exposure to potential infection.

  8. Ensure equitable and compassionate delivery of campus services under these extraordinary conditions.

  9. Create a plan, issued to the campus community, about how students will be refunded and for what parts of their costs in the eventuality they have to leave campus. 

  10. Promise that the financial burdens from refunds or other COVID-related constraints will result in no more layoffs of faculty and staff. 

We eagerly await a reply from the administration and the opportunity to discuss and resolve these concerns.