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Aug. 6, 2020 – Follow-up message from Faculty Senate Chair Catherine McTamaney

Posted by on Thursday, August 6, 2020 in Community Messages.

Dear colleagues,

These are challenging times and I appreciate the eager involvement of faculty in helping to discern our university’s best path forward, especially with so much uncertainty before us. Each of you is an invaluable voice in Vanderbilt’s shared governance. As Chair of your Faculty Senate,  I affirm the important role of the Senate as the representative of faculty interests at Vanderbilt. I am writing to try to address some of the concerns faculty have raised about Vanderbilt’s plan for the fall academic semester and our faculty’s involvement in the development of that plan, and, I write specifically to explore the ways your input can be most effective.

You asked for more confidence that faculty were involved in developing our Return to Campus plan. Over the past five months, faculty have been widely involved.  The Faculty Senate Executive Committee—as well as individual Senators representing each of the Schools and Colleges and additional faculty—have served on numerous committees and working groups at the college and university level. These multiple efforts have both informed the plan for Vanderbilt’s return to campus and assured that the plan is in keeping with our academic and research mission.

Other examples of faculty involvement include active participation with the following:

  • The Public Health Advisory Task Force
  • The University Continuity Working Group and its subcommittees
  • The University Working Group on Schools and Childcare
  • The Senate Executive Committee’s regular meetings with the Provost and Chancellor
  • The Faculty Athletics Committee
  • The Community Oriented Result and Expectation Committee

In all of these examples, faculty have been deeply involved in the decisions and design of our return plan. I am confident that the many hours faculty have invested during these months have offered substantial guidance in that process, with evident results.

In fact, the Return to Campus plan addresses many of the issues you have raised. While we believe defaulting to remote work to be inconsistent with Vanderbilt’s mission for teaching, research and scholarship, faculty input has informed academic scheduling and modality decisions. Furthermore, faculty have requested and received EEOC-protected accommodations to handle in-person teaching and other reasonable accommodations. If your personal context would interfere with your ability to return safely under the Vanderbilt plan, you should complete the accommodation request form promptly. 

Regarding concerns about monitoring COVID cases, faculty or other staff who are experiencing symptoms can be tested without charge through Vanderbilt’s Occupational Health program. Should a community member or their family be affected and their personal situation result in their wanting short-term alternative housing, Vanderbilt has made available low-cost, walkable accommodations near campus.

The University Working Group on Schools and Childcare has been charged specifically with identifying and coordinating resources for caregivers. This is a complex problem with no quick answers, and the solutions here will require flexibility and collaboration. It’s one of the areas in which I see the most promise for how we care for each other as a community.  And, Vanderbilt faculty can always draw upon the Employee Assistance Program, which includes supports for mental health and wellness. 

You raised concerns with regard to the need for transparent and timely data on the impact to campus of COVID-19 and testing of asymptomatic individuals— university leaders are working now on both topics and more details will be shared soon.

Importantly, you have also asked for institutional policies that advance nondiscrimination and racial justice during the pandemic.  I’d argue that those policies should be both immediate to the special impact of the pandemic and likely to affect substantive, long-term change beyond the immediate crisis.

  • At the Senate level, we have expanded the charges to our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion standing committee to involve senators from across each of the other seven standing committees. In addition, we have received nominations over the last month from our 60 senators for additional faculty colleagues to appoint to those committees, helping ensure that voices of historically underrepresented faculty are amplified in Senate proceedings.
  • We commend Provost Wente for her appointment of William Robinson as Vice Provost for Academic Advancement and Executive Director of the Provost’s Office for Inclusive Excellence. Vice Provost Robinson has long been a thoughtful and collaborative partner to the Faculty Senate, and we look forward to continuing to work with him toward the advancement of issues of equity and antiracism on campus.
  • In addition, the Board of Trust has appointed Law School alumnus Adolpho Birch III to chair a new ad hoc committee on equity, diversity and inclusion. The committee will partner with university leaders to evaluate and recommend policies and actions to bring the July 1 commitment to an inclusive Vanderbilt by Chancellor Diermeier, Provost Wente and Vice Chancellor Churchwell to life.

Throughout these challenging and complicated months, the Faculty Senate consistently requested and consistently received open communication with University Administration, even when the details for how we might move forward had not yet been finalized. I have personally facilitated five virtual town halls with administrators for faculty and we have three more scheduled before classes begin. Faculty can also find answers to many questions at a specially created Faculty Q&A webpage. For other questions or concerns, I encourage you to use the Faculty Senate Portal

Three distinct qualities reassure me about Vanderbilt’s return to campus plan:

  1. The plan is conservative, requiring stringent standards both for the prevention and response to potential spread of the virus.
  2. The plan is flexible, allowing nimble adjustment should we need to change course.
  3. The plan aligns decision-making with the appropriate individuals. Deans will address our academic standards; researchers, public health specialists and skilled physicians will address health and safety concerns; and student-life professionals will address activities outside the classroom. 

The voices of faculty have been—and will continue to be—represented at multiple levels as the university navigates through this pandemic, and far beyond, through our model of shared governance by your Faculty Senate. Representing faculty across all ten of Vanderbilt’s Schools and Colleges , it’s unlikely any plan will satisfy all of our concerns. However, your voice is not just welcome in this process, it is necessary. And it is the obligation of the Faculty Senate to carry your insights forward. 

I had no idea, back in February, just how often I would find myself saying, “these are unprecedented times.” As overused as those words seem to be now, they’re true.

We haven’t done anything like this before and we’re still uncertain of many things. But there are some things that remain certain:  A vibrant faculty inspires robust debate, and that interchange of ideas refines and strengthens our work. Keep asking tough questions; better questions help guide better solutions.  

Please reach out to me personally with other questions or concerns you may have. In addition, I’d love to talk with you further about how you might become more involved in the Faculty Senate and its representative structure. Your voice matters.


Catherine McTamaney, Ed.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning
Chair, Vanderbilt University Faculty Senate