UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At the final meeting of the Penn State Faculty Senate of the fall 2020 semester on Dec. 1, the Senate engaged in virtual discussion on the University’s virus mitigation strategies and goals for the spring semester; results and recommendations from Penn State’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; and the impacts of changes to federal Title IX regulations, among other Senate business.
Virus mitigation and spring objectives
Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones updated the Senate on Penn State’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, successes and lessons learned from Penn State’s approach to testing and virus mitigation strategies during the fall 2020 semester, and goals for the spring 2021 semester.
Jones said more than 134,000 coronavirus tests were performed across the University as of Nov. 19, with nearly 18,000 pre-departure tests performed over an eight-day period leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. This pre-departure testing yielded 325 positive cases, which Jones said indicated a positivity rate of less than 2% among Penn State students. Jones said this percentage is consistent with the inferred positivity rate suggested by the University’s surveillance and on-demand testing results throughout the fall semester.
Random surveillance testing and on-demand testing were both important elements of Penn State’s strategy for remaining in-person for the fall semester. Jones said testing results showed that, after an initial increase in cases near the beginning of the semester, the number of positive cases fell and consistently stayed around 200 active cases per week for the remainder of the semester. He also noted that use of quarantine and isolation space during the fall semester never exceeded 45% of available space at University Park, and remained below 39% of available quarantine and isolation space at the Commonwealth Campuses. Jones said these two pieces of data help illustrate the effectiveness of the University’s mitigation strategies, as well as the impact of the Penn State community adopting best practices including masking and physical distancing to help mitigate the spread of the virus.
Jones noted the University is in the midst of finalizing formal plans for the spring 2021 semester and shared several guiding objectives for spring, including:
Continuing to prioritize the health and safety of faculty, students and staff, as well as all communities that are home to Penn State campuses and University community members;
Pre-arrival and post-arrival testing for all returning students, to minimize and isolate the number of returning positive student cases;
Maintaining the availability of acute care support while managing potential strain on local medical and health infrastructures;
Strengthening the University’s detection, reduction and management of positive student cases through the improvement and refinement of Penn State’s testing and mitigation processes, including enhanced testing regimes, contact tracing processes and quarantine and isolation strategies;
Continuing to provide sufficient quarantine and isolation space for students while also minimizing delays in transitioning students into isolation space and improving the overall quarantine and isolation experience;
Supporting the needs of faculty and staff who must return to campus, and continuing to meet the testing needs of faculty and staff at all campus locations; and
Emphasizing academic excellence and continuing to provide the highest level of student engagement on campus as possible.
For spring, as noted above, Jones said the University plans to require pre-arrival testing for all students, and the University will re-test the entire student population within two weeks of arrival on campuses. Jones also stated Penn State has received certification to allow the University’s Testing and Surveillance Center to provide diagnostic results to individuals based on testing outcomes, and the University is currently in negotiations with a vendor to provide rapid testing in the spring semester – two major enhancements to the University’s testing and mitigation processes. Additional details will be forthcoming in advance of the spring semester, Jones said.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Penn State President Eric Barron updated the Senate on the range of the University’s ongoing initiatives to advance diversity, equity and inclusion -- including the work of the Student Code of Conduct review task force and the Select Presidential Commission on Bias, Racism and Community Safety.
“We have long history of working to make our campuses more diverse and welcoming,” Barron said, but affirmed that these efforts have taken on a new urgency in the wake of tragedies including the death of George Floyd. “We can’t allow these issues to fade from view and we need to continue to press forward.”
The first report from the Select Presidential Commission and the full recommendations of the Student Code of Conduct task force have been submitted and are available for public review on Penn State’s Action Together website. Barron encouraged all members of the Penn State community to review the documents, and to use the electronic form that will be provided on the website to share their thoughts and comments with University leadership.
The Select Presidential Commission’s recommendations focus on an enterprise approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, including the creation of a direct reporting line to the president. Included in the comprehensive set of recommendations is a call to invest in research, teaching and learning that furthers anti-racist scholarship, pedagogy and culture.
The recommendations from the Student Code of Conduct Task Force include the creation of a mandatory educational module for students about the Student Code of Conduct; including certain acts of bias as code violations; and creating more equitable conduct procedures and incorporating restorative justice into the conduct review process.
Barron also said the reconvened Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, which was first formed in 2015, has met and begun working with partners including municipalities and their police departments to gather data that will inform the work of the task force over the coming months. Barron noted that University Police and Public Safety has hired its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion, and Penn State has committed to purchase body-worn cameras for police officers at 22 campuses. Body-worn cameras are seen as a promising approach to better interactions within communities if appropriate policy safeguards and training are in place for their use.
Other major diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives include the Penn State Board of Trustees’ creation of an oversight taskforce on racism, bias and community safety, as well as the board’s commitment to diversify its membership with at least 50% of trustees being from underrepresented groups by 2025. Penn State’s Educational Equity Matching Program also has raised $25 million in gift commitments for equity scholarships in only three months, which Barron described as “a huge impact on our ability to promote student success.”
Title IX regulations
Associate Vice President for Affirmative Action Suzanne Adair and Title IX Coordinator Christopher Harris joined the Senate to provide an overview of recent changes to federal Title IX regulations and what these changes mean for Penn State. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. On May 6, 2020, the Department of Education released sweeping regulations directing schools to implement new procedures to address Title IX-based reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault. These new procedures went into effect on August 14, 2020, and are outlined in University policy AD85.
“Broadly speaking, the Department of Education has shrunk the scope of Title IX,” Harris said, explaining that the regulation’s definition of sexual harassment now only includes behavior “that occurs within an educational program or activity in the U.S.” – meaning that off-campus behavior, or behavior that occurs outside the United States, is no longer subject to Title IX regulation. Harris affirmed the University will still respond to allegations of sexual misconduct that occur outside the bounds of this Title IX jurisdiction, but Penn State will use other policies and mechanisms when doing so, such as AD91, the University’s discrimination and harassment policy and the Student Code of Conduct process.
The new regulations also have changed the standard for when the University is considered to have “actual knowledge” of misconduct under Title IX, Harris said. Under the new standards, an institution is only considered to have actual knowledge of misconduct when someone with the authority to take corrective action becomes aware of the misconduct. This includes “a fairly small group” including the Title IX office, University Police and Public Safety officers, members of University leadership and Penn State Human Resources personnel. Harris said this change also represents the “narrowed focus” of the new regulations.
Harris said another major change is how the Title IX grievance process and due process requirements now apply equally to students, faculty and staff. This means the University is now required to provide a live hearing for all Title IX investigations including employees, where previously the hearing process was specific to students. These hearings have specific requirements, such as requiring that the advisers to both involved parties conduct the cross-examination during the hearing.
Harris and Adair said they will continue working to maintain Penn State’s compliance with federal regulations, and affirmed the University’s commitment to creating an equitable environment for all members of the Penn State community regardless of sex.
Other Senate business
The Senate received an informational report from its committee on libraries, information systems and technology about faculty responses to the shift to remote instruction during the previous spring 2020 semester. The committee found troubleshooting technology questions emerged as faculty’s largest concern, but that individualized resources from offices including Penn State IT Learning and Development and Teaching and Learning with Technology played a major role in empowering faculty during the switch to remote instruction.
Other senate business included:
A discussion examining how the adoption of WorkDay and reorganization of Human Resources has impacted faculty; and,
Discussing a revision to Senate bylaws requiring the chair of Penn State’s Graduate Council to present an annual report to the Senate, which will be voted on at the Senate’s next meeting.
The next meeting of the Faculty Senate will take place on Jan. 26, and will be viewable virtually on Zoom.