Important information for the faculty with regard to fall planning

Dear faculty,

These are challenging times—our university, our city and our nation are addressing unprecedented challenges. This is true in terms of the complexity of the issues we are confronting and the sheer scope of how they affect all of us in fundamental ways. On our campus, we all feel the immediate impact of these national crises and share a deep desire to preserve the values that uniquely define Vanderbilt. We do so while attending, with persistent focus and humility, to the ways in which we can grow stronger and rise to meet the demands of the present moment.

We are grateful for everyone’s willingness to think through concerns and solutions and to lean into spirited debate, especially when that debate helps us to focus on the possible. Toward that end, the three of us met on July 4 to discuss the faculty’s need for additional clarity and reassurance on some immediate concerns: the faculty’s safe return to campus and how faculty will teach classes this fall.

There are many unknowns at this moment, but the one certainty is that this coming semester will be different in countless ways and will challenge us in ways we’ve never faced before. Foremost, as a faculty and a university community, our planning for the fall semester is driven by our values and mission to provide an excellent education for each of our students. We especially appreciate that the residential living-learning model is a “uniquely Vanderbilt” experience and core to our mission. These fundamental principles guide our decisions and forge our commitment to protecting the health and well-being of our faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral scholars as much as possible.

These past few months have demonstrated the value of Vanderbilt’s collaborative culture and the degree to which open communication offers some steady footing, even when the ground beneath us keeps shifting. Together, we remain committed as a faculty to reach toward and meet our goals as teachers, scholars, researchers and artists. Indeed, even as uncertainty reigns, the more we communicate with each other, the better equipped we will each be to face the current challenges and new challenges that are sure to come.

Accommodation requests

We all share the goal of protecting, as much as possible, the health and safety of our faculty, their families and all members of our community as we prepare for the start of the fall semester. If you are affected by a situation that increases your health risk (or that of a family member) by your returning to campus, you should submit a Reasonable Accommodation Request Form to the Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

Although medical information is routinely and normally required for the accommodations process, for many of us this is a new experience. It might feel uncomfortable to disclose to the EEO Office personal information about our vulnerabilities or those of our family members. It’s unsettling. But, in the context of a national health crisis, it’s necessary. Especially as so many of us carry new burdens and responsibilities because of the pandemic, having your particular situation documented by the EEO Office will help to protect your health and privacy and that of your family members. Using the EEO accommodations process is the very best way to ensure your medical information stays separate from those that make decisions about your faculty appointment. The EEO policies and process protect your rights.

The medical details of your request for an accommodation are not a part of your employment history, nor will this medical information ever be shared with your dean. The EEO team, and HR as needed, will keep your personal medical information confidential. The information is only used by the EEO team to evaluate your request for an accommodation and to determine the most appropriate and reasonable accommodation to ensure you are as safe as possible. Your rights, both to privacy and to safety in the workplace, are paramount in this process.If you have any questions at all about how to submit a request, how requests are processed or what resources are available to you, you should reach out to EEO Director Anita Jenious or her staff.

To be clear: The provost and the deans will not have access to your confidential personal medical information.

Course delivery decisions

In our meeting, we also reviewed how decisions are being made to determine which classes are best taught in person and which should be translated into hybrid, flex or online-only models. Individual colleges/schools have developed (or are developing) their own processes to match the pedagogical demands of their courses to the spaces available for physically distanced teaching.

The provost’s office reaffirms that these are decisions best made on a course-by-course basis at the local level by the department chair and the school/college deans. Making such curricular and pedagogical decisions at the school/college level is a fundamental part of our shared governance system. It is also absolutely necessary due to the diversity of our teaching norms and expectations. Further, because each school/college determines their own standards for academic excellence, the deans are uniquely situated to assess the pedagogical demands within each class and to align those with the available resources to support them, even in this challenging time.

We support these efforts to balance the excellence in teaching and learning for which we are known with the highest standards of protecting against the spread of COVID-19, as outlined in our Return to Campus protocols.

If you are unsure about your own college’s/school’s process for curricular decisions, you should reach out first to your chair or other immediate academic officers, or to your dean.

We are especially grateful to be able to re-emphasize Vanderbilt’s commitment to in-person teaching, when teaching in person is both physically safe and pedagogically sound under the safety protocols for our classrooms and campus for the fall semester. We commend the ongoing efforts of the college-/school-level teams to identify those opportunities to the greatest extent possible.

Discussion and dialogue

We know that there are many forums in which faculty are deliberating with their department chairs and deans on these critical decisions. Numerous small group meetings and larger town halls are being held across all schools/colleges. This coming Thursday, for example, the Faculty Senate is partnering with Dean John Geer of the College of Arts and Science and Dean Camilla Benbow of Peabody College to host college-level, open-dialogue town halls to discuss our return to campus. We are looking forward to these events, as well as future school-/college-level and university-wide events, to continue the conversation.

For this week, Arts and Science faculty who would like to submit questions, including anonymously, before the town hall can do so here. Peabody faculty can do so here. Live questions also will be taken during both events.

We encourage you to visit the Faculty Q&A page on the Return to Campus site, which includes answers to questions asked by faculty at previous faculty town halls. The university will continue to update this site with additional faculty questions and answers.

Together, we affirm two qualities both immediate to the crisis we face and lasting to the values of this university: teaching requires courage, and learning requires trust. We appreciate that the entire Vanderbilt community, including faculty, staff, students and postdocs, is being asked to come together in new ways, to learn new systems and to do so quickly and nimbly. We recognize that we will continually adapt and evolve our plans, in partnership with faculty, in response to information regarding new public health protocols and the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic. We are grateful for the creativity, compassion and community on which these solutions lie, and we look forward to continued collaboration as we work together on launching a new and successful academic year.


Catherine McTamaney
Associate Professor of the Practice of Teaching and Learning
Faculty Senate Chair

Ben Harris
Senior Lecturer in Music
Faculty Senate Vice Chair

Susan R. Wente
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology
Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair