In perhaps her first address to the entire Ohio State community Aug. 11, 2020, President Kristina M. Johnson spoke of our shared challenge to return to campus life in a time of pandemic.
“We all want the same thing — to return to on-campus instruction, research and other campus activities as safely as possible and in a manner that gives everyone peace of mind.”
It is on behalf of our safety and peace of mind that the OSU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors is writing this open letter. The twin tasks of assuring our safety and peace of mind will be with us for the foreseeable future. They will require our best efforts and there will no doubt be uncertainty along the way. We also believe there is a great uncertainty right now. We believe it is the source of a deep and widespread anxiety. Peace of mind is not what we see.
It pertains to the “Together as Buckeyes Pledge,” well known to all who must sign it. And what this signing means is the source of great uncertainty for a substantial number of our faculty, instructors, staff and students. Our chapter has heard — and continues to hear — from many of them. We have no survey of their concerns, only a substantial impression. We would welcome a survey. But their question is straightforward: What does it mean to sign the pledge? Are we waiving the right to expect a safe workplace? Are we assuming the burden of risk for our own health and the health of our families? Is this a legal document and has it been crafted to achieve legal ends? The text of the pledge invites these readings, and we expect many readers of this open letter will recognize these questions as their questions.
The question is further complicated by multiple public statements from several representatives of the university that the pledge is neither a “waiver” nor a legal document. Provost Bruce McPheron assured us of this in an email on July 24. On July 31, we were told, “The pledge acknowledges an understanding of and commitment to the behaviors described in the training.” Athletic director Gene Smith assured us in an ESPN interview on June 14. Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers assured us in a segment of “All Sides” on WOSU on August 4. There have been references to other assurances in the Columbus Dispatch (see, for example, the July 31 issue, byline to Jennifer Smola), and in meetings with University Senate leadership.
And yet we read legal analyses from across the country counseling that such pledges do indeed have these implications, and legal analyses from within the university find just these kinds of “assumption of risk” provisions. In this crossfire of assurances and cautions, it is difficult to salvage peace of mind. For many of us, there is none.
In this context of uncertainty, we wish to propose a solution, a solution readily available to the administration. It entails no more than putting in writing what has been said several times in these last several weeks — that this pledge is not a waiver of rights of any kind, or a legal document. We wish to propose the following language or language like it as the final statement of the “Together as Buckeyes Pledge.”
“This pledge is not a waiver of your legal rights to seek remedies for harm or loss from transmission of COVID-19, or an assumption of risk. It is rather a statement affirming your commitment to and observance of the University’s procedures for ensuring everyone’s health and safety in these uncertain times.”
We believe it would be an enormous relief for our faculty, staff and students — our community — to have the pledge conclude with these assurances. They would permit us to move forward in our common tasks with “transparency, integrity and trust.” We need these values now more than ever.