Walkout Wednesday? Clemson may face professor protests on first day

The University of South Carolina is also in a dogfight over masks.
By: | August 17, 2021
A posting of Clemson's New Student Convocation ceremony on Twitter from President James Clements and comments from some respondents.

On the day that classes are set to begin, an associate professor at Clemson University has organized a walkout to protest the lack of a mask requirement on campus.

Kimberly Paul, Associate Professor of Genetics and Biochemistry, challenged “anyone on or off Facebook” to support her by joining the protest at 8 a.m. Wednesday on Bowman Field, a large historic green space that is popular among students.

“The lack of a mask mandate is endangering the health and lives of all of us,” Paul wrote in launching the event while posting a photo of students at Clemson’s convocation largely unmasked and not socially distanced. “University Leadership is not listening to us. It’s time to take action. Bring your protest signs and spread the word.”

Clemson is not the only university in its state where an uprising is happening. The University of South Carolina’s Faculty Senate is calling for a mask mandate as well—or, short of that, the option for its faculty to determine when masks can be worn inside their own classrooms. Professor Richard Creswick, who is immunocompromised, has hired a law firm and filed a petition with the state’s Supreme Court to try to get masks required on campus.

South Carolina State University announced it has delayed the start of its academic year by three days—to Monday—to try to further boost its COVID-19 protocols and get vaccine and mask information to students.

The actions are in response to Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates. His attorney general, Alan Wilson, also tamped down the University of South Carolina’s initial request to require masks despite COVID-positive cases soaring statewide. The state now is facing mounting pressure from a variety of sources—faculty members, more than 1,000 physicians and the delta variant itself. South Carolina has seen a 113% rise in COVID cases and a 127% increase in hospitalizations (No. 4 in the nation). Less than 46% of those in the state are fully vaccinated, and the numbers are far lower for those 18-24.

While the fight is being led by professors at the two universities, leaders have shown reluctance to go against statewide orders. At Clemson, officials say there’s not much they can do to challenge McMaster’s directives other than give strong guidance to its community. They understand what may occur on Wednesday.

“We are aware of the concerns some of our faculty and staff have expressed in recent days, and the University administration has been in ongoing discussions with Faculty Senate and others as we begin the Fall 2021 semester,” the statement said. “We all had hoped this pandemic would be behind us when we began the academic year. In the past few weeks, the delta variant has revived the need for Clemson to take proactive measures to protect our students, faculty, and staff.

“To that end, the University has instituted a robust testing strategy—both pre-arrival and ongoing—to provide as safe an environment as possible. Additionally, while we cannot issue mandates for masks or vaccines, the University continues to recommend the use of every tool available in combating this pandemic. From signage to driving awareness to hosting a vaccine clinic next to the testing location and a multitude of other efforts, our administration, leadership and the University will continue to encourage everyone to keep themselves and the community safe.”

The picture of the convocation on Twitter sparked spirited retorts from some students and professors, who called out university president James Clements for the posting and hosting of the event during the pandemic.

Jordan Frith, Pearce Professor of Professional Communication, tweeted: “I’m an endowed professor at Clemson, and I can’t believe you tweeted this on a day SC reported 4,500 new cases and Pickens County had to move their schools online. It feels really inappropriate, and I think these pics are going to age horribly.”

Bart Knijnenberg, assistant professor in human-centered computing, wrote on Twitter: “You expect us to teach online, yet you refuse to avoid situations like this where massive numbers of students get in close contact with each other. What happened with @ClemsonProvost’s promise that Clemson would follow CDC guidelines? You have lost all credibility!”

The university’s response to the backlash was this:

“Clemson is committed to the health and well-being of its students, faculty and staff as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic together … The in-person educational experience—both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities—makes the college experience. We know how important it is for our students to be in-person, and we will do everything we can to deliver that experience to them while keeping everyone healthy and safe.”

As of Monday, Clemson already had reported 106 COVID positive results on campus through the 11,950 tests it had conducted from Aug. 9-14. Testing is an area to which the university plans to devote a lot of resources. It will “require weekly (students) and bi-weekly (employees) testing for all—regardless of vaccination status.”