Why a tenured professor is resigning over university’s COVID-19 policies

Alabama-Huntsville educator calls lack of policies a ‘moral emergency’
By: | August 18, 2021
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A tenured professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville has submitted his resignation over what he says are “concerns about the adequacy of our university’s COVID-19 safety plan.”

Jeremy Fischer, associate professor of philosophy, made public his intentions on Twitter with the inclusion of a letter he sent to UAH President Darren Dawson, Interim Provost Robert Lindquist, Dean Sean Lane and Department Chair Nicholaos Jones expressing his desire to step down.

“This is a moral emergency, not time for craven and timorous or self-serving responses,” Fischer wrote. “We know what it takes to protect community health and very likely save lives and we have the ability to do it; what is lacking is the collective willingness to do so.”

Fischer challenged that UAH’s policies—most notably that vaccines are not required because of a state ban on passports—could make him “complicit in a moral atrocity” if COVID-19 cases were to spike or if more serious outcomes occurred this fall. Alabama’s COVID-positive numbers have increased 48% over a 14-day period and its hospitalizations have risen 77%. Though the state and institutions have campaigned hard to get more of their populations preventive doses, Alabama still ranks last in the nation of those fully vaccinated at just 36%.

“Perhaps due to the political nature of this crisis—in a state that prohibits public university vaccine mandates and insists that both public and private institutions shall remain ‘open for business’—some faculty, staff and administrators are looking the other way, holding their tongues, holding their noses, holding their breath in fear as they prepare to convene or attend in-person gatherings on campus,” Fischer wrote. “It seems that only when we reach a political as well as a public health crisis will our university move most or all classes safely online.”

Fischer is one of the first faculty members in the country to announce his resignation because of his institution’s stance on COVID-19, though many have relayed their displeasure with plans through social media. Kimberly Paul, a professor at Clemson University, announced on Facebook a campus walkout today on the first day of classes. Last year, Gary Wilson, a professor at Dominican University in Illinois announced he was quitting over what he called a lack of safety measures. Dominican has since implemented mask and vaccine mandates for this fall.

Fischer has been at UAH since 2014, conducting research and exploring topics on ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of emotion, and philosophy of race. He received his bachelor’s degree from Reed College and his master’s and a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Washington. Before arriving at Huntsville, he was an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Calgary. In July, he penned an article called “Sounding the Alarm: 2021-2022 COVID Risks at Unprotected Colleges and Universities” for the website Daily Nous, which reports on issues in philosophy in higher education. In it, he cited the state law (SB 267) that prohibits vaccine requirements at his institution and others and called for changes to be made.

But UAH and many other institutions—even if they wanted to pursue a vaccine mandate— have been handcuffed by Gov. Kay Ivey’s signing of the executive order in May. While at the same time pushing for in-person learning and “an incredible on-campus experience,” Dawson wrote in a letter to his community that the well-being of students is the university’s No. 1 priority. Although it is working with the University of Alabama System Health and Safety Task Force and “encouraging personal responsibility,” UAH and others have stopped short of challenging the state’s vaccine mandate. Because Ivey’s ban did not include words on masking, however, the UA system and others like Auburn University have seized on the language to impose face-covering requirements.