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Air quality: ASWU and Dean Feingold talked, disagreed over potential suspension of classes

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

Emma Innes

Staff writer

As the air in Salem became hazardous due to the smoke from wildfires, there was a question of whether Willamette University should suspend all classes, remote included instead of just going remote. The Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU), Willamette’s student government, made a statement of solidarity in an email sent to all students on Sept. 11. This was day five of the smoke. The statement acknowledged the effects of the hazardous air quality on top of the challenges of a global pandemic on the health of students and faculty. Also mentioned were concerns of students about continuing academics during that difficult period. Due to these concerns, ASWU sent out the following recommendation to Willamette and faculty: “Suspend or optionalize classes, assignments, and attendance over the coming days. If a full suspension/optionalization is not possible, provide and communicate leniency with attendance, participation and deliverables. Provide flexibility to students to manage their wellbeing as they see fit.” The statement of solidarity was signed by a majority of ASWU Senators, the ASWU Executive branch and the ASWU Judicial branch.

Nieves speaking into a microphone
Inéz Nieves. Photo provided by Inéz Nieves, pre-pandemic.

The same day, a letter was sent to the then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Ruth Feingold signed by three of the four senators from the class of 2024: Senator Zeke Druker, Senator Mira Karthik and Senator Inéz Anais Nieves. The email expressed concerns over a leaked email sent to faculty from Feingold that Wednesday reportedly discouraging the cancellation of classes, called on Willamette to take action on ASWU’s recommendations and expressed the senators’ concerns about Willamette not respecting student input. The email from the class of 2024 senators said, “We recognize that this letter was written on Wednesday; perhaps the ASWU statement has newly revealed that students do indeed support the suspension of classes.”

Selfie of Druker against a pride flag
Zeke Druker. Photo provided by Zeke Druker, pre-pandemic.

In an interview, Senator Zeke Druker (‘24) mentioned that they had been reaching out to constituents or being reached out to through email, on Facebook, in their dorm and anywhere else they had access in order to gauge how constituents were feeling. Druker did talk to two students who wanted classes to continue, but all the other students they talked to had concerns about online classes.

Karthik posing near greenery
Mira Karthik. Photo provided by Mira Karthik, pre-pandemic.

In an interview, ASWU President Claire Mathews-Lingen (‘21) said she heard from students who wanted remote classes and students who wanted classes suspended. In terms of what she heard from students who wanted classes suspended, she said: “A few students had direct experience with family, or they themselves needed to be evacuated due to the fire. Some were more broad concerns for seeing that the community was [kind of] struggling, that their professors were under strain.” She also spoke to the faculty president, who said that the faculty were trying to be accommodating.

In the email to Feingold, the 2024 senators were very concerned over lack of student input in the email sent to faculty: “The most troubling piece of the entire email comes when you assert, with apparently very little student interaction to back it up, that “[f]or every student who finds themselves too traumatized or distracted to fully attend to their schoolwork, there are others supported by the routines of their academic program as well as by the connections with faculty and classmates in those settings.”” The senators of 2024 refuted this claim, stating they saw no evidence of this during their interactions with students. The email from the 2024 senators concludes with restating how concerning the lack of interest in student input is, and calling on the Willamette administration to amplify student voices if the administration wants to serve students.

Feingold responded to the class of 2024 senators in an email, assuring she believed the senators’ experiences with what students want, and telling of her experience with feedback. Feingold stated in the email that she spoke to students who said they and their friends don’t want classes canceled. She also said professors don’t want to cancel classes and have mentioned that their students don’t want classes canceled. Feingold also had concerns over how clear the options were in ASWU’s statement of solidarity. She pointed out how different suspending is from optionalizing and how the phrase ASWU used for how long classes should be suspended was open ended. Feingold also stated that leniency and flexibility in regards to assignments was up to individual professors. She said most professors feel that they are doing this, but acknowledged the senators’ experiences expressed otherwise.

Feingold’s email ended with inviting ASWU to further discuss this issue of suspending classes. Druker did meet with her one on one, according to Druker and Mathews-Lingen. According to Druker, Feingold did agree to ask faculty to prioritize communication, but expressed she was unable to cancel classes. Feingold provided Druker a variety of reasons for this: not being sure it was what the student body wanted, students not coming forward about what they wanted due to cancel culture and legal requirements in regards to instructional days. Druker also said: “She expressed it was extremely unusual for a university to ever cancel classes. My response of course was that it's extremely unusual for a university to experience a global pandemic simultaneously a wildfire.”

In regards to Feingold’s response to his letter, Druker stated: “I feel that Dean Feingold sent a very pleasant response. The dean was broadly sympathetic, I do not feel in terms of material action Dean Feingold has taken, had taken or probably will continue to take significant steps to prioritize student health. In terms of her interests as dean, and our interests as students, there is an incompatibility.” Druker believed that Feingold did not take material action that prioritized student health. For a future response, Druker would want to see the administration work closer with ASWU, and craft a response that prioritizes student needs.

Druker said in an interview that they received reports from students about concerns over professors not being accommodating. They said they received several stories where one or two of a student’s professors were being very accommodating, while others weren’t being accommodating or proactive in communication. Druker also mentioned a professor “...who refused to allow an extension to a student that reported feeling anxious and unwell.”

Mathews-Lingen is working to prepare the University for the next time there may be smoke in the air from wildfires. She has planned a discussion with interim dean of CAS Sarah Kirk to address the difficulties STEM classes may have in being accommodating. She also plans to work with student support staff to help support students with self advocacy whenever needed.

Druker encouraged everyone to be active in the democratic process here at Willamette and to reach out to them if needed: “I hope that everybody stays safe and everybody feels comfortable reaching out to at least somebody in the university’s structure if they feel their professors are not being appropriately accommodating.” They also would like to remind everyone that ASWU has many projects that need student input.

Mathews-Lingen also encouraged students to continue to reach out to her. She acknowledged it’s been a difficult situation for the community and stated, “I hope people are taking care of themselves.”

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