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Another group criticizes Radford University board over budget cutting measures

Radford University’s board of visitors is facing continued backlash for its resolution in early June to give President Brian Hemphill unilateral budget -cutting powers, including suspending guidelines outlined for such procedures in the faculty handbook.

The latest critic of the June 12 board resolution is the nonprofit American Association of University Professors, which sent a letter through its RU Chapter President Glen Martin, a tenured professor who has been at Radford since 1985. Martin then forwarded the letter, along with his own email, to board Rector Robert Archer, and other board members.

The board resolution, released after its vote on it, notes that, “The Board anticipates a reduction in force may be required,” and that “there is an urgent need for the Board to take quick and decisive action, and that need cannot be met while adhering to the fiscal exigency section” of the faculty handbook.

The handbook outlines how the university implements layoffs and salary cuts, which normally would involve the appointment of a committee and consultation with the Faculty Senate.

The AAUP letter states that the university’s actions violate shared governance between the faculty and the administration, which limits academic freedom.

The letter also states that the resolution “carries extremely troubling implications for academic freedom, tenure and governance at Radford University.”

The Washington, D.C.-based organization states that since its inception in 1915, its mission in part is to, “define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education, advance the rights of academics, particularly as those rights pertain to academic freedom and shared governance, and promote the interests of higher education teaching and research,” according to its website.

Martin and the AAUP disagree with the decision to remove the protections afforded to faculty through the handbook, which they argue sets a precedent for the university to abuse its power again in the future.

“I think many of the Board members, who are not academics, did not comprehend the meaning of RU belonging to the National Association of Colleges and Universities and its commitment to AAUP principles of shared governance, academic freedom, and tenure. We have always been told by the university that the Faculty Handbook is our ‘contract.’ But suspending this appeals process, the Board has violated our contract and raised a very real threat to the future of tenure and academic freedom on this campus,” Martin wrote in an email when asked by The Roanoke Times why he thought the board made the decision.

Martin continued, “And they [the board] have certainly thrown shared governance out the window. Even in fiscally difficult times, national academic standards require that faculty have a major role in decisions surrounding academic matters, including cutting classes, academic programs, etc. A university is not a commercial factory and its faculty are not just employees who obey the whims of the owners or managers. They are stakeholders in at the very heart of the university process. Any quality university understands this and places its faculty expertise first in all academic matters.”

The Faculty Senate of Virginia — as well as some of the school’s own faculty — have also been vocal in their criticism of the decision.

The state Faculty Senate organization wrote a letter addressed to Archer — who could not be reached for comment for this story — condemning the resolution passed at the June 12 meeting. That letter criticizes the board’s decision for “its fundamental violation of the principles of academic freedom protected by tenure and shared governance, and for the likely damage this resolution will bring to the integrity of the institution.”

The university’s administration has maintained that it will take input from faculty members and “shared governance groups in order to obtain their perspectives and recommendations regarding an across-the-board or strategic approach to the budget reduction strategies.”

However, despite these assurances from the administration, some faculty members are not happy with the resolution, according to an email circulated to faculty members last month.

English professor Moira Baker wrote the email to faculty, but did not share it with The Roanoke Times. When contacted, she declined to comment.

“This resolution strikes at the heart of shared governance, denies faculty redress of any injustices that might befall them because of “budget reduction strategies” undertaken pursuant to the Board’s resolution, denies them due process under the terms of our internal governance procedures, and goes so far as to preemptively state that the Board ‘anticipates a reduction in force may be required due to personnel costs’ during ‘the current statewide fiscal crisis,’ ” she wrote.

She continued: “It is precisely this kind of fiscal crisis that ... the T & R Handbook is designed to confront in a way that affords full faculty participation in painful and difficult decisions we all know are necessary for the immediate and long-term health of the University, that protects faculty rights under our internal governance processes, and that preserves due process.”

Martin wrote in his email to campus stakeholders that AAUP “gives the example of Hurricane Katrina and the many educational institutions in New Orleans that had to deal with the disaster. Yet most of them managed, with the help of the AAUP, to deal with those circumstances according to nationally accepted principles and rules designed to address such events. The AAUP has, of course, also produced documents to guide institutions in the face of the COVID-19 disaster.

“Both the Radford University Board of Visitors and President Hemphill are in violation of these nationally accepted procedures as well as the internal principles of its Faculty Handbook and the Faculty Senate Constitution and bylaws,” Martin wrote.

When asked why the board of visitors felt it was necessary to take a measure no other college also making budget cuts has done, university spokeswoman Caitlyn Scaggs wrote in an email, “The Board has the fiduciary responsibility for the financial affairs of the University. As such, the resolution was drafted and approved by the Board in order to address the challenges associated with the COVID-19 global health pandemic.”

It is anticipated less than 5% of the school’s teaching and research faculty will be affected by the cuts, according to Scaggs. However, no cuts have been announced, so it is not yet known the faculty members at risk of losing their jobs with no ability to fight the decision using the guidelines outlined in the faculty handbook.

The need for budget cuts was first announced in January before the pandemic. The university said at the time that faculty positions would not be considered.

Multiple faculty members have spoken to The Roanoke Times about how they believe Hemphill has already made up his mind on what will be cut. They do not believe the committees appointed by the president can make those kind of decisions in the less than two-month time span that the university has outlined.

Scaggs said that is not the case. She has also stated that any cuts Hemphill presents to the board at its August meeting will be final, based on the current situation. She said cuts could range between $5 million and $20 million and all cuts would likely be permanent.

Martin concluded his email stating, “National embarrassment, the potential of bad press for RU as well as President Hemphill, are serious matters. On behalf of the RU faculty, as well as national principles of good governance, we are asking the Board of Visitors to rescind their suspension of sections of the Faculty Handbook. Allow genuine faculty participation in facing this crisis rather than resorting to President Hemphill’s unilateral and coercive approach.”

Wrote Scaggs: “President Hemphill cares deeply for every member of the Radford family, including students, faculty, and staff. Our world-class faculty dedicated their careers and themselves to creating opportunities for students, their families, their communities.

“It is important to note that President Hemphill has been working diligently and thoughtfully with shared governance leaders and groups throughout the University.

“That work has included direct interaction with teaching and research faculty, as well as administrative and professional faculty, classified staff, academic deans, and many others throughout the University.”

Virus spread, not politics should guide schools, doctors say

As the Trump administration pushes full steam ahead to force schools to resume in-person education, public health experts warn that a one-size-fits-all reopening could drive infection and death rates even higher.

They’re urging a more cautious approach, which many local governments and school districts are already pursuing.

But U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on President Donald Trump’s insistence that kids can safely return to the classroom.

“There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous,” she told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”

Still, health experts say there are too many uncertainties and variables for back-to-school to be back-to-normal.

Where is the virus spreading rapidly? Do students live with aged grandparents? Do teachers have high-risk health conditions that would make online teaching safest? Do infected children easily spread COVID-19 to each other and to adults?

Regarding the latter, some evidence suggests they don’t, but a big government study aims to find better proof. Results won’t be available before the fall, and some schools are slated to reopen in just a few weeks.

“These are complicated issues. You can’t just charge straight ahead,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday during an online briefing.

Children infected with the coronavirus are more likely than adults to have mild illnesses, but their risk for severe disease and death isn’t zero. While a virus-linked inflammatory condition is uncommon, most children who develop it require intensive care, and a few have died. Doctors don’t know which children are at risk.

“The single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe has nothing to do with what happens in school. It’s how well we control COVID-19 in the community,” Frieden said. “Right now there are places around the country where the virus is spreading explosively, and it would be difficult if not impossible to operate schools safely until the virus is under better control.”

Zahrah Wattier teaches high school in Galveston, Texas, where cases and deaths have been spiking. Until the state recently said schools must reopen to in-person classes, her district had been weighing options many others are considering, including full-time online teaching or a hybrid mix.

Wattier’s school has mostly Hispanic and Black students, many from low-income families; almost 70% qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and many have parents who work in “essential” jobs that increase potential exposure to the virus. Online education was hard for many with limited internet access, and Wattier knows in-person classes can help even the playing field.

But she’s worried.

“My school has over 2,000 students. That’s over 2,000 exposures in a day,” said Wattier, whose parents live with the family and are both high-risk. “It’s a lot to think about. It’s my job. It’s something I choose to do, it’s something I love. Now it comes at a really high risk.’’

The American Academy of Pediatrics, whose guidance the Trump administration has cited to support its demands, says the goal is for all students to be physically present in school. But, it adds, districts must be flexible, consult with health authorities and be ready to pivot as virus activity waxes and wanes.

“It is not that the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks this is a done deal because we have put out guidance,” said Dr. Nicholas Beers, a member of the academy’s school health council. “But what we do know is that we need to have a more realistic dialogue about the implications of virtual learning on the future of children. We have left whole swaths of society behind, whether it’s because they have limited access to a computer, or broadband internet,” or because of other challenges that online education can’t address.

DeVos said local school officials are smart enough to know when conditions are not right.

“There’s going to be the exception to the rule, but the rule should be that kids go back to school this fall,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“And where there are little flare-ups or hot spots, that can be dealt with on a school -by -school or a case -by- case basis.”

Following CDC and academy guidelines would mean big changes for most schools. Mask-wearing would be strongly encouraged for adult staff and students except the youngest. Desks would be distanced at least 3 feet apart; the CDC recommends 6 feet. Both suggest limiting adults allowed in schools, including parents, and canceling group activities like choir and assemblies. Staggered arrival and dismissal times, outdoor classes and keeping kids in the same classroom all day are other options.

President Trump has threatened federal funding cuts for districts that don’t fully reopen.

DeVos defended that stance, saying, “American investment in education is a promise to students and their families.”

“If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called DeVos’ comments “malfeasance and dereliction of duty.”

“They’re messing, the president and his administration are messing with the health of our children,” the California Democrat told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

While most funding typically comes from state and local sources, experts say schools will need more federal funding, not less, to reopen safely. Masks, extra cleaning supplies or janitors, additional classroom space, and mental health support for students and staff traumatized by the pandemic are among potential costs. And with more parents out of work, more children will qualify for federally funded school lunches.

Dr. Emily Landon, a University of Chicago infectious disease specialist, is helping the university and a campus pre-K-12 school decide how to reopen safely.

“Things are evolving from, ‘We can’t do it unless it’s perfectly safe’ to more of a harm reduction model, with the caveat that you can always step back” if virus activity flares, Landon said.

Single-occupancy dorms, outdoor classes, socially distanced classrooms and mask-wearing by students and faculty are on tap for the university. Face coverings will be required at the school too. Policies may change depending on virus activity.

She dismisses complaints from some parents who say masks are a loss of personal freedom.

“It’s not harmful for your child,” she said. “If you see wearing masks as a loss of personal freedom, then you have to think the same of pants.”

Dr. Tina Hartert of Vanderbilt University is leading a National Institutes of Health-funded study to determine what role children play in transmitting COVID-19. Almost 2,000 families are enrolled and self-test every two weeks. The idea is to find infected children without symptoms and see how easily disease spreads within families. Results may come by year’s end.

“If we don’t see significant transmission within households, that would be very reassuring,” Hartert said.

Law school grads, wary of COVID-19, ask for a pass on Virginia's bar exam

Citing concerns over potential COVID-19 infection, a group of law school graduates who are registered to take the Virginia bar exam in Roanoke at the end of this month have proposed an unconventional solution: waive that notoriously difficult requirement.

While the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners has not yet gone that far, last week it added new options for test-takers, including postponement, plus the opportunity to take a shortened version of the exam later this summer.

Approximately 705 applicants seeking law licenses are registered to take the exam in Roanoke. It is to be conducted at the Berglund Center across two daylong sessions starting July 28. Graduates prepare for it for months and ordinarily can only take it in February or July, so for aspiring lawyers it’s a make-or-break moment.

In a petition slated to be sent Monday to the state Supreme Court, as well as to Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, a collective of law graduates calling themselves Diploma Privilege for Virginia took issue with the risks that could be associated with an extended mass gathering of that type.

“We urge the Supreme Court to adapt to the current crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic by revisiting the state licensing system in Virginia,” the group’s letter reads.

“Specifically, we respectfully request that the Supreme Court enact a diploma privilege for all recent graduates and 2020 graduates who plan to take the July 2020 Bar Exam and practice law in Virginia.”

The request asks for bar admission to be granted to graduates of accredited law schools who receive the required character and fitness certifications.

Over the weekend, the group’s petition on reached 1,000 signatures and included numerous blind testimonials, from both registered applicants and concerned Virginia residents.

“People will be coming in from out of state to take the bar exam, some flying,” one graduate wrote. “Roanoke is in the middle of nowhere and almost everyone taking the exam will not only be in the same testing center together, we will be in the same hotels for 2+ days.”

The group’s request echoes other efforts across the United States. According to the American Bar Association Journal, diploma privilege was recently granted in Oregon, Utah and Washington. In light of the pandemic, other states have allowed some degree of online test-taking or postponements.

On the prospect of delayed testing, the group’s petition points to an impending need for legal professionals — in large part due to side effects of COVID-19 itself — as well as potential complications they could face in obtaining and starting new jobs as licensed lawyers.

On Friday, as the graduates’ concerns gathered momentum, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners posted a list of precautions being taken against infection risks, including mask requirements, temperature checks before entry, multiple testing areas within the Berglund Center, and social distancing measures.

“Should any applicant currently registered to take the July 2020 Exam feel they are unable to take the exam under these conditions, they may carry forward to the February 2021 Exam,” a notice on the site said. The group has also waived the $175 fee it normally applies to those who want to switch dates after registration.

Catherine Crooks Hill, secretary and treasurer of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, said over the weekend that about a dozen of the July registrants have already filed to reschedule to February.

“The Board is not in favor of diploma privilege and has declined to adopt a remote exam option due to the security risks and inequitable access issues inherent in a remote exam,” Hill emailed Sunday night.

On Friday, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners also announced the new option of a one-day version of the bar exam, on Sept. 10 in Richmond. That shorter form consists of nine Virginia-centric essays and 10 multiple-choice questions, and it eliminates the multi-state bar exam portion altogether, which typically fills a day.

Bar applicants who have already opted to switch to February are still allowed to take the September exam, but only one date can be selected.

In Virginia, it costs $575 to apply for the bar exam, and additional character and fitness fees run $750. The laptop registration fee is $175.

In cases of admission to the bar without examination, such as it occurs, the cost is $2,500, according to the VBBE web site.

The Virginia diploma privilege petition is online at