Faculty Senate discusses fall departure, SRTEs and advancing equity

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At its latest meeting Oct. 20, the Penn State Faculty Senate engaged with a report on the 2020 Penn State Community Survey, took part in discussion with University leadership, and received an update on the University’s virus mitigation efforts and Penn State’s fall departure plans.

COVID-19 updates from University leadership

Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones provided an overview of data from Penn State’s COVID-19 dashboard, and gave an update on the University’s plans for fall departure and the switch to remote instruction after Nov. 20.

Jones noted that the number of active coronavirus cases reported on Oct. 18 was 226, a low point since reporting began at the start of the fall semester. He also shared that the total number of active cases has been trending downward for several weeks, and that this downward trend is also visible in the number of students currently in quarantine and isolation, as well as in traces of the virus found through wastewater testing.

Jones shared that Penn State will use a combination of departure testing, quarantine, isolation and walk-up and surveillance testing as part of the University’s fall departure plans. Students across all campuses can engage in free, voluntary departure testing prior to leaving campus, while random surveillance and walk-up testing will continue for students and employees remaining on campuses. The University will also continue to have isolation space available for students who test positive as well as quarantine space as needed. The University is strongly discouraging any student who tests positive from travelling before completing their isolation period. In-person courses will end on Nov. 20, and the University will transition to a remote instruction format for the remainder of the semester.

SRTEs for the fall semester

Jones also provided an update on how Student Ratings of Teaching Effectiveness (SRTEs) will be administered and used for the fall 2020 semester, noting that the recommendations were developed by a committee comprised of administrators, faculty senators and a representative from the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA).

Jones said that the committee recommended a shortened SRTE form be used for all remaining courses in the fall 2020 semester. The shortened form will ask students if they are taking a course as an elective and what grade they expect to earn in the course. It also will ask the student to rate how the class increased their understanding of the course topics, and to rate how well the instructor promoted a meaningful learning experience. The median and the mode will be used to summarize the responses to these two questions, rather than the mean. Two revised open-ended questions also will be included, in which students will be asked what aspects of the course helped them learn and what changes to the course could improve their learning.

Jones noted that the use of SRTEs in annual reports is optional and at faculty members’ discretion, and that during annual reviews faculty members will be asked to describe how they made a “good faith effort” to teach their courses. SRTE results also will only be available to an individual faculty member, Jones said, to be used at his or her discretion.

Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion

Associate Vice Provost for Educational Equity Sonia Fernández and Assistant Vice Provost for Institutional Research Karen Vance shared a report on the 2020 Penn State Community Survey and provided an overview of the interactive dashboard that allows members of the public to explore the survey results. Administered earlier this year, the survey show areas of strength and areas for growth across the themes of belonging and inclusion and Penn State’s institutional commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Vance noted that the community survey dashboard not only displays survey results, it also allows viewers to break down the data by self-reported categories including respondents’ roles at the University; by race and ethnicity; gender identity; sexual orientation; disability; and veteran status. This allows for members of the Penn State community to explore the community survey results with more depth and nuance, she said, while also recognizing the differences of experiences across the University.

“Thinking in terms of intersectionality was important for us while designing this dashboard, so that we could look at the results in different ways,” Vance said.

Fernández said that staff from the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity have been working directly with units across the University to create action plans based on the results of the survey and incorporate the survey results into the unit-level strategic planning process. Vance also noted that the University plans on administering the survey every three to four years, and that Penn State will use future results to benchmark progress in advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging across the University.

In his remarks to the Senate at the Oct. 20 meeting, Penn State President Eric Barron also spoke to the University’s ongoing commitment to a more inclusive community. He affirmed that combatting bias and racism, while improving community safety, continue to be key priorities alongside public health and safety during the pandemic. Barron said he wanted to take a moment to appreciate the ongoing efforts of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety and the Student Code of Conduct task force, which are two key initiatives in Penn State’s efforts to combat racism and bias.

He urged all members of the Penn State community to review the recommendations of the Student Code of Conduct task force -- as well as the ongoing work of the Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety -- so that they can take an active role in translating their findings into action to create a better, more equitable Penn State.

“I believe we are at a profound pivotal moment for Penn State,” Barron said. “We can deliberately interrogate our history and our present to focus and do better for the future.”

Barron indicated a draft of recommended changes to the Student Code of Conduct should be ready in a few weeks and should provide clarity, as well as be infused with Penn State values and inclusivity throughout.

Presidential executive order discussion

Vice President and General Counsel Stephen Dunham and Associate Vice President for Affirmative Action Suzanne Adair also spoke to the Senate to provide an overview of Penn State’s response to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump on Sept. 22.

Dunham explained that the executive order on Nov. 21 will apply new requirements to diversity workplace training programs at institutions, including universities, that enter into federal grants or contracts. The executive order prohibits what it describes as “divisive concepts” in employee diversity training programs that stereotype all members of a race or gender. However, Dunham also stated that the order was unclear and ambiguous in its language, and noted that it raised complex First Amendment issues.

In a letter to the Penn State community on Oct. 19, President Barron affirmed the University’s longstanding commitment to advance diversity and inclusion, eliminate disparities, and create a respectful environment free from discrimination and harassment. Through Penn State’s membership in the American Council on Education (ACE), the University has joined ACE and more than 50 other associations of higher education in opposing the executive order and requesting that it be withdrawn by the White House.

Adair explained that the Office of Affirmative Action is working with Penn State’s Human Resources strategic partners to gather and review the diversity training information and materials that are currently used across the University. She also is working closely with Senior Vice President for Research Lora Weiss to gather information related to faculty conducting research who may have used grant funding to provide diversity trainings. Adair said that her office may work with units to make adjustments to existing training materials, but clarified that “we are not particularly concerned about the majority of trainings that happen at Penn State, because we do not make broad-based statements in our trainings.” Adair stressed that the University is not instructing units to cease any diversity trainings and does not plan to do so, and that Penn State leadership will continue to work proactively to determine the implications of this executive order for the University.

Other Senate business

The Senate also:

  • Passed an update to its standing rules for its committee on libraries, information systems, and technology
  • Received an overview from the committee on faculty benefits detailing the principles for the design of Penn State health care plans; and,
  • Received the annual report of the Senate Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics.

The meeting concluded with the introduction of a new resolution from Erin Boas, a student senator representing the University Park Undergraduate Association, asking Faculty Senate to consider implementing an optional alternative grading system for the fall semester.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Penn State Faculty Senate will take place on Dec. 1, and will be viewable virtually on Zoom.

Last Updated October 29, 2020