Locked out: Faculty request office access

Administration has yet to respond to faculty asking for private, safe workspaces

The McLaren Conference Center shared offices are one of the few spaces faculty are currently allowed to reserve on campus. Courtesy of Reina Ramirez

Mardy Harding

Staff Writer

While students logged onto their first week of Zoom classes from around the country and world, many USF faculty logged on from their homes in the Bay Area — in some cases, just miles from the Hilltop. Meanwhile, on campus, dozens of faculty office spaces remained empty (save for stacks of books and resources) per San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) safety directives. 

In a letter to faculty and staff sent out Aug. 5, University administration announced that these offices will remain closed for the duration of the semester. “The university must keep the total number of people on our campuses at any given time to a minimum,” the address said. “In addition, the university must reduce the operating expenses associated with running buildings in order to offset revenue shortfalls created by the current crisis.”

Outlined in the announcement was a plan to designate several shared offices in the basements of Gleeson Library, the McLaren Conference Center, and the Lo Schiavo Science building to faculty, which they can reserve on an as-needed basis. Part-time faculty members may use a shared, open space on the fourth floor of Gleeson, also based on a reservation system. 

According to the SFDPH directive, libraries are also required to remain closed. However, Eric Giardini, director of Campus Resilience, said, “Gleeson Library continues to be closed as a library. Its function on campus has shifted to providing faculty members with space to work to deliver high-quality online and remote instruction.”

In response to this plan, 13 full-time faculty members signed a letter to University leadership asking that faculty be granted access to their private offices in order to teach remotely. The letter challenged the University’s assertion that both operating expenses and the SFDPH’s directives for the operation of essential businesses necessitate the creation of limited, shared spaces as opposed to the use of private offices.

“Those of us experiencing challenges with bandwidth, housing, and life/work situations are being asked to choose between our health (coming into shared, infrequently cleaned/ventilated spaces at USF) and attempting to work from home under often impossible conditions,” the letter said. “Many faculty members who need work space on campus are faculty members with young children and/or limited financial means, thus without a private or quiet space that can serve as a home office.”

On Aug. 26, Kellie Samson, head of media relations at USF, said, “Based on new guidance for higher education institutions from the City of San Francisco Department of Public Health (as of 8/21/20), an update to campus procedures and protocols is forthcoming.” At the time of publication, the administration has not responded to the faculty letter. 

Keally McBride, vice president of the USF Faculty Association (USFFA), the full-time faculty union, said the policy needs to be clarified. “I’m totally confused. I don’t know if I’m going to have access to my office again this calendar year, but I hope that they will clarify their policy soon,” she said.

Over the summer, McBride said faculty were let into their offices on a request-based system. The language of the Aug. 5 announcement suggested a similar request-based system would be instituted (though it stated, “Relatively few requests will be approved”), but also states that these spaces will otherwise be closed. “From my perspective, there’s just a lot of contradictory information that they’re giving us,” McBride said. 

Jacqueline Taylor, chair of the philosophy department and a signer of the letter, said the shared, reservable office spaces available are ill-equipped to prevent the spread of COVID-19 for faculty who need to come to campus. “More than one person could occupy one of these offices on the same day,” she said in an email. “I could sign up from eight to noon, for example, and someone else could sign up that same day and rotate in at noon.” 

Taylor also said these basement offices do not have windows, but most private faculty offices do. For this reason, the faculty letter said the office-reservation system violates “the spirit, if not the letter” of the city’s directive, which states that schools, as much as possible, should “prohibit sharing of objects such as lab equipment, computers, and desks.”

In an announcement sent out Aug. 19, Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon wrote that, in light of the recent Bay Area wildfires, if the Air Quality Index in San Francisco reached 200, shared spaces would be closed.

The city’s directive does not address this specific situation for faculty, but it does encourage the use of well-ventilated spaces if essential services must be completed in a shared space. In addition, it states that no building should have more than 20% capacity, a number which allows over one hundred people to occupy Kalmanovitz, according to Taylor’s estimations. 

“Those of us who worked on campus in the spring and over the summer have never seen more than 2-3 faculty members at any given time,” wrote faculty members in their letter.

McBride said only a few faculty members need to come to campus, mainly those who have small children and lack a quiet place to work at home. This means that female faculty are disproportionately affected, she said. Additionally, some faculty have been evacuated due to the wildfires and thus cannot work from home. 

Taylor lives in Sonoma County, and while she has not yet needed to evacuate due to the wildfires, she is concerned about potential power outages as a result of the ongoing blazes. During five days of the wildfire-related power outages in 2019, Taylor said, “I could go to USF and I could work in my office because I had no power at home.”

The faculty letter also noted that other buildings on campus remain open. “If the goal is safety and cost-saving, we must ask why the University decided to keep athletics-related buildings open during the year when all of the games are canceled,” the letter said. “Just like the athletic staff and students, we faculty members also need a suitable and safe environment from which to conduct our essential work for the University.”

According to McBride, faculty also need materials from their offices that are critical to their research outside of teaching. “I’m working on a publication right now and I realized, ‘oh, that book is in my office, and I need a citation from it,’” she said. “We’re all struggling to keep our research productivity and writing going at all, so other people want access to their office to get materials for their research.”Other Jesuit universities, such as Boston College and Fordham University, are allowing faculty members access to their office spaces. Fordham considers faculty “research personnel” and allows access to private offices at 50% capacity for the building, while Boston College asks that faculty coordinate with their respective departments to ensure building occupancies remain socially distant.

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