UNI professor who imposed a mask mandate in his class relieved of his teaching duties in person for one semester | Education News
VANESSA MILLER The Gazette
CEDAR FALLS – The University of Northern Iowa biology professor who this month imposed a mask mandate in his class and threatened lower grades for violators – at odds with the Board of Regents and politicians from university – has been relieved of his in-person teaching duties for the remainder of the semester and will not be eligible for merit pay this year.
Professor Steve L. O’Kane – who is 64 and has worked at UNI for 26 years – will be allowed to continue teaching his courses online, according to a disciplinary letter from the Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. ‘UNI, John Fritch.
This letter, provided to The Gazette, told O’Kane that “in the future you will be required to comply with all policies of the university and (of the Board of Regents), including any policies or guidelines regarding masks or face covers. Failure to follow these policies may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination. “
O’Kane said on Monday he had imposed a mandatory mask in his classroom and threatened to lower students’ lab scores if they refused to cover their faces. His disciplinary letter quotes his quote in The Gazette saying: “My students, unsurprisingly, are now all wearing masks because they know there will be consequences on their grades.”
“Based on this information, it is evident that you have acted in violation of the policy of the university and (of the Board of Regents) by requiring masks from your students,” according to the letter. “Additionally, you violated UNI Policy 6.10 regarding your responsibilities to your students by threatening to lower your students’ grades if they refuse to comply with your self-imposed mask mandate.”
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Its specific discipline includes:
- Complete training on professional responsibilities as a faculty member, including adherence to university policies, by November 30.
- Receive a “need for improvement” performance review for the 2021-22 academic year, rendering him ineligible for merit pay.
- Immediately removed from class in person and replaced by another faculty member, even if they will continue to teach online and be assigned “other duties”.
O’Kane said he had no animosity towards the UNI administrators who penalized him. And – even if regent and campus policies remain unchanged – he will impose another masquerade term in his class if he has the opportunity to teach in person in the spring semester.
“The answer is yes, I will stick to the mask requirement,” he said.
These are risks that O’Kane has said he can take, given he’s so close to retirement. “I’m just one, two, three years from retirement,” he said. “And if I were to be fired, it wouldn’t ruin my life.”
He said other professors on his campus had imposed mask mandates in their classes as well, but said he was the only one willing to publish his name.
“We know, I know, the top administration knows that I am not the only civil disobedient here at UNI,” he said. “I’m just the only one with her name attached.”
UNI officials said they had not received any further reports or complaints of unauthorized requirements for masks in classrooms or on campus, despite O’Kane’s claim.
The professor met with administrators on Tuesday to discuss the issue, during which he acknowledged understanding the policies of the board and UNI.
“I said to the provost… most of us, somewhere in our life, have a hill that we’re ready to die on,” he said. “And this is one of my hills.”
In a statement, UNI officials said they were “deeply committed to the health and safety of our university community”.
“Under the guidelines of the Board of Regents, neither the university nor the faculty can impose the wearing of masks on campus, including in classrooms,” the statement said.
Regent President Mike Richards issued guidelines in May banning the state’s three public universities from requiring masks, social distancing or COVID-19 vaccinations. Although it was released before the Delta Variant worsened the spread, the new wave of infections, and professors’ demands for local control, Richards has remained firm in his ban on warrants.
O’Kane said he had undergone some soul-searching before deciding to take a public stand on the matter, but was motivated by high-risk friends.
“I had a heartache, honestly,” he said. “Having said that, you have to do the moral and ethical thing. You just have to. … I feel I have a moral imperative to protect.