By Jana Naskova
— Effective from 16 August, Matt Cornell resigned from AUC and UvA in protest of their COVID-19 policies: “Unfortunately I’m going to have to step away from teaching because I don’t think the university has my best interests or the best interests of my students at heart.”
Cornell believes that no mandatory masks in classrooms, no social distancing, no mandatory on-site testing and no mandatory vaccines for in-person presence will endanger students, staff, and the wider Amsterdam community. He adds that he is also protesting his position as a precarious worker who is “being pressured to go into an unsafe situation”, while not having his concerns properly acknowledged by the administration. Instead, he feels that he is made out to be “paranoid”.
Cornell has taught several courses at AUC and UvA since 2015, including Academic Writing Skills, The Global Identity Experience, Film Studies and Advanced Research Writing, and has furthermore supervised several capstones. He says that resigning from AUC is “a bigger decision” since that is where most of his teaching income used to come from.
“I’d rather wait until the plague is over. And it’s not over… We’re going to have outbreaks very quickly on campus.”Matt Cornell
Dr. Michiel van Drunen and Dr. Belinda Stratton, respectively AUC’s Director of Education and Managing Director, state that AUC is continuing with existing hygiene-related measures, such as having extra entrances and exits, walking routes, optimal ventilation, additional cleaning efforts, and availability of disinfection facilities. They add that face masks are once again mandatory for moving around the academic building and that a maximum of 75 students are allowed per room, while students are encouraged to vaccinate and use the free self-tests.
In Cornell’s opinion, the current AUC measures are not nearly enough. He finds that allowing the university to open up at full capacity “with almost no measures at all while ignoring international public health guidelines” will create a very dangerous situation. “It’s extremely irresponsible”, he says. “There is really just an absence of any kind of policy. I’d rather wait until the plague is over. And it’s not over.”
According to Cornell, AUC is reopening in a very dangerous context. “Amsterdam right now is at the highest level of risk according to the Dutch government with a very high rate of community spread for the virus and 11% test positivity”. He follows this up by saying that the Dutch government’s outbreak management team and the GGD (Public Health Agency) have advised against reopening universities at full capacity right now, wanting that decision to be delayed at least until September 19th. The way he sees it, UvA and AUC are ignoring the advice of scientific experts and are “just following the advice of the right-wing Rutte government”.
Cornell also criticises AUC’s unwillingness to make vaccination mandatory for attending and teaching in-person classes. “Vaccines don’t only protect you, they protect other people.” Cornell finds that a good solution would be for vaccinated students and staff to be allowed on campus, while the unvaccinated have an option to teach and learn on Zoom, while also proposing mandatory on-site testing.
“We don’t all exist in a bubble”Matt cornell
However, according to Dr. van Drunen and Dr. Stratton, AUC is following the UvA guidelines and position, “which reflects the decisions of the Dutch government and RIVM guidelines”. They add that under current Dutch law, “universities are not allowed to make vaccination mandatory or test for entrance”. When asked if they think that the current COVID-19 measures offer sufficient protection, Dr. van Drunen and Dr. Stratton stated that they “don’t have an opinion on the Coronavirus measures.”
Cornell finds that the Dutch government’s COVID-19 regulations themselves are insufficient, which according to him means that outbreaks will take place on campus, even though AUC is fully complying with the government’s policies. Therefore, Cornell states, when the COVID-19 situation on campus inevitably worsens, no one will be held responsible. “The ‘beauty’ of this system is that no one is ever liable. The rules are what protect us from accountability.”
Cornell believes that AUC’s “lack of coronavirus policies” will also endanger the Amsterdam population, especially vulnerable individuals such as children, immunocompromised people, and the elderly: “We don’t all exist in a bubble.”
In regards to what Cornell refers to as the “high-risk consequences” of AUC’s reluctance to impose masks in classrooms, Dr.van Drunen and Dr. Stratton state that they “can understand that people who do not have fully functioning immune systems will be anxious about the potential risk to their health.” However, they believe that continuing with corona measures can also be very damaging to society and to people’s health and wellbeing. “It is a difficult trade-off that society as a whole (and not the UvA or AUC on their own) has to consider.”
The AUC student council fears that online learning has worsened student’s and staff’s mental health and resulted in a declined learning experience. Therefore, they “believe that reopening is necessary, but […] we need to find a solution for safely doing so”.
Cornell claims that by fully reopening with “insufficient measures” under the pretense of caring for students’ mental well-being, AUC is prioritizing profit over the health of students and staff. He recalls communicating with an administrator from AUC last summer, following the first lockdown, when most of the UvA campuses were closed. Then, he was allegedly told that “AUC is going to be open as much as possible with hybrid education because our students pay a higher tuition and therefore expect a higher standard of education.” He feels that it was basically communicated to him that “because AUC students pay more money, teachers here should take more risks with their health.”
“Students [should] not feel any pressure to come to class if they have symptoms or should be self-quarantining.”Dr. Michiel van drunen and dr. Belinda stratton
When voicing his concerns to his supervisor, Cornell says that the response boiled down to “we’re sorry you feel this way”. Precarious faculty with temporary contracts like himself are according to Cornell not being heard by the administration: “If we have any questions or concerns about teaching or working conditions, we might simply not be asked back.” Cornell continues to say that a number of AUC staff with permanent contracts “haven’t said a word about these policies”, but he believes that they too must be concerned. “There is an incredible amount of social pressure to pretend that you feel okay with things.”
Dr. van Drunen and Dr. Stratton say that AUC is making accommodations for lecturers and students with personal concerns regarding the return to on-campus teaching, and that about 5 groups are currently being taught online as a result. “So far we have received very few accommodation requests from students.” They also explain that the attendance policy has been adjusted so that “students do not feel any pressure to come to class if they have symptoms or should be self-quarantining”, so students will not fail a course if they accumulate more than 5 absences.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described AUC as a private university, which is not the case. AUC is a joint UvA and VU programme in Liberal Arts and Sciences.