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July 8, 2020 – A message to faculty from Provost Wente on supporting school and college decision-making for the fall

Posted by on Wednesday, July 8, 2020 in Community Messages.

Dear faculty colleagues,

Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of all we have already been through and the continued significant burdens our faculty are carrying in planning for our fall semester. And, at the same time, I know we are all worried about our health and safety and that of our loved ones and families. The ongoing crises are confronting every aspect of our daily lives in so many challenging ways. Please know, even as unexpected problems arise, I am devoted to finding solutions to support our faculty so you can focus on your teaching and research efforts. It is of the utmost importance.

Earlier this week in a letter with the Faculty Senate leadership, we addressed further a number of important issues regarding the start of the fall semester.

Here, I want to follow up on one of the important themes and foundational premises of our planning for the fall semester. How do we help our faculty best prepare for the fall? How do we keep all of you as safe as possible while continuing mission-critical activities? Let me start by reaffirming my commitment to faculty governance and fully acknowledging and empowering local pedagogical expertise and knowledge, which allows each school/college to respond to and meet the needs of its faculty. It is important for me to underscore my clear commitment to, and the importance of, individualized solutions for supporting faculty needs and ensuring high-quality instruction. It is fair to say that the faculty in the Divinity School wouldn’t want the Law School’s faculty policies to become their rules, just as the history department wouldn’t want to be constrained by the demands teaching labs place on our chemists. This decentralized approach provides flexibility that both supports the personal needs and teaching expertise of the faculty while allowing our overall pursuit of academic excellence.

To ensure that this local, faculty-engaged approach is working, I have been in continual dialogue with each of the deans. I am also providing additional resources needed to support faculty as they launch the fall semester. These resources include significant investments through the Center for Teaching and iDesign, as well as new technology and equipment to help faculty teach with the greatest effectiveness under any model of delivery.

I appreciate the complexity of revising the curriculums for all of our degree programs, for over 12,000 students and in the context of public health safety protocols that are new to all of us. This is hard and something none of us ever anticipated having to do. More so, I am impressed by the overall faculty response to the new models of teaching necessitated by the pandemic. I thank you, most sincerely, for your efforts to help our students learn and stay on track for graduation. This is a defining moment for our faculty as a collective body responsible for giving society’s future leaders the opportunity to learn during these challenging times. To say I am proud is an understatement.

In an effort to continue advancing communication and transparency, I want to share how schools/colleges are accommodating the personal needs and pedagogical preferences of their faculty. As I noted, each college is addressing the requests by faculty for specific teaching adjustments and approaches. Across the board, all the deans are committed to working with the faculty to determine the best options for them.

Below is a brief summary of some of the specific actions across the schools/colleges:

  • Peabody conducted a survey of student and faculty preferences and is working to balance in-person and online-only programs according to those preferences.
  • Owen also conducted a survey of faculty and determined that all programs will operate across a range of options, with the goal of all classes having some in-person component (with the exception of courses taught by faculty with an EEO-recommended accommodation).
  • The Nursing faculty worked together to determine the best method of course delivery based on the needs of each particular degree program. Many of their large enrollment courses will move to the flipped classroom approach. Other modifications include having some modules through all virtual/alternative platforms (with the exception of clinical simulations) and spacing block sessions to decrease physical density.
  • Divinity conducted a survey of faculty and, based on this, will be offering a balanced portfolio of both hy-flex and online-only courses.
  • Blair collected faculty requests and, due to the special pedagogical demands of instrumental and vocal instruction, has also coincidentally evaluated space and technology resources for offering both in-person and hybrid courses.
  • Arts and Science launched two task forces on accommodations and pedagogy to gather faculty perspective and provide advice and counsel on forging a set of guidelines that support faculty and advance teaching excellence.
  • Engineering worked closely with its faculty to determine the best modality of instruction for both lecture-based courses and laboratory-based courses, with the goal of ensuring high-quality teaching and safety for all students and instructors.
  • The Law School surveyed faculty and students, evaluated classroom capacity and produced a slightly revised and condensed curriculum reflective of community preferences that will mostly be taught in-person with remote options.
  • The School of Medicine M.D. program made plans for launching in-person instruction on July 15 through the collaborative efforts of the faculty. Other school degree programs are working on plans for a combination of in-person and virtual/alternative platforms dependent on faculty, student and resource analysis.
  • For the degrees awarded through the Graduate School, faculty in each program are working together with the respective program directors and school/college leadership to determine the best local approach.

As we move toward the start of the fall term, let me assure you that we are closely monitoring the public health situation in our community, our country and internationally. There is no doubt COVID-19 remains a tremendously serious and difficult challenge, which has been underscored by the recent upsurge in cases across many parts of the country. Importantly, we know much more now than we did in March about how to prevent spread and how to protect those who are vulnerable. We are working with VUMC experts, our SON leaders, our public health advisory task force and public health experts in Nashville and across the country. VUMC leaders are closely watching the level of disease spread and severity of illness, and also collaborating with state and local officials about the best approaches to manage this crisis. I want to assure you that we are in a very strong position to have the absolute best information at hand to make the decisions necessary to keep our campus and its faculty, staff and students as safe as possible. And we will continue to adapt our plans as needed at every step along the way.

To continue to keep lines of communication open, the deans are continuing to hold town halls and virtual discussions with the faculty. We also have an incredible set of working groups in place that are providing input on classroom safety protocols, options for back-up child care, and virtual community building—to name just a few. In addition, Chancellor Diermeier and I also will hold a special set of town halls to provide updates on COVID-19 conditions, how we are keeping the campus safe for all of its inhabitants, the plans for testing and contact tracing, ensuring faculty safety, and our strategies to address the ever-changing landscape.

Today, we face new challenges in helping our international students with the severe policies put in place by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Chancellor Diermeier and I strongly oppose these actions. Please know that we will have more information soon on this deeply troubling development.

I am committed, as is all of the university’s leadership, to our exceptional faculty and to ensuring the continuity of our shared missions of learning, service and discovery. Working with the deans, I remain dedicated to faculty well-being, faculty shared governance and faculty expertise. I am truly grateful for your patience and thoughtful engagement on these key issues as we approach the fall semester. There are no easy answers here, but we will take care of one another, and be successful, by working together.

Again, my thanks sincerely,

Susan R. Wente, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology
Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair