Professors force students to mask in violation of university rules, with mixed pushback

Oklahoma State denies newspaper editor was forced out because she criticized its mask rules.

Updated: October 2, 2021 - 10:37pm

University systems with bans on COVID-19 mask mandates are taking diametrically opposed approaches to faculty who refuse to comply, offering a real-time experiment in the effectiveness of persuasion versus coercion.

The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) removed biology professor Steve O'Kane from the classroom for the rest of the semester and forced him to forgo a merit pay raise for threatening to grade down students for not wearing masks.

The same day the faculty senate voted to indefinitely postpone O'Kane's resolution to let faculty require masks in spite of the Board of Regents ban, Cedar Rapids news outlet The Gazette reported.

By contrast, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia (USG) gave a conciliatory response to more than 50 University of Georgia (UGA) life sciences faculty who pledged to require masks in their classes starting this month. It appears to have stiffened their resolve.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State University is staying out of a mask-related dispute at student newspaper The O'Colly.

The paper's editor in chief claimed she was forced to resign for a column criticizing the school's mask policy, which the university admits it can't enforce under state law. A professor kicked her out of class for refusing to mask up, Maddison Farris wrote.

The rest of the editorial board published an unprecedented "correction" that dinged her for what she "excluded from the column," including that her professor was "immunocompromised." Farris told the Kansas City Star that half the staff threatened to strike, and several actually stopped working, until she left. 

O'Colly faculty advisor John Helsley told Young America's Foundation there were "other issues at play" between Farris and her colleagues but refused to specify.

University spokesperson Monica Roberts told Just the News it was informed "the change in leadership was not tied to the opinion expressed," so it won't intervene "as part of protecting and preserving the operational and editorial independence" of the School of Media-overseen newspaper.

The campus mask fights come as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona got fact-checked for claiming masks reduce transmission in schools, including by the lead author of a Wisconsin study he cited.

"Our study is not able to give any information about the role masks played in the observed low in-school transmission rates," epidemiologist Tracy Hoeg responded to Cardona's tweet. "We had no control group so don't know if the rate would have been different without masks."

Corey DeAngelis, research director for a school choice group, said three of the four studies cited by Cardona lacked control groups, and the other was a "simulation."

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Legal remedies at 'discussion stage'

UNI's O'Kane was not quiet about his mask mandate, which he was already enforcing on students, and promised he would "immediately sue" if he were fired. 

The grade threat prompted a sea change in his large lecture hall, where bare faces had been the default, O'Kane told the Gazette. The school's faculty union also demanded the regents impose mask and vaccine mandates.

While the professor will continue teaching his online classes, Dean John Fritch ordered O'Kane to take training on "professional responsibilities." He'll also receive a "Needs Improvement" performance evaluation for the year. Failure to follow university and regents' policies again "may" result in firing.

"Legal remedies are at the discussion stage with the faculty union and lawyers," O'Kane told Just the News when asked for his grounds for litigation.

The UGA faculty letter said "[a]ll reputable research shows ... mask requirements can reduce COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths." They attributed "infections and outcomes that were avoidable" to the absence of campus mandates. No specific research was cited.

Faculty will "wear masks and will require all of our students and staff to wear masks in our classes and laboratories until local community transmission rates improve," they said, acknowledging they could be fired under University System of Georgia policy. 

Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney responded Sept. 22, citing declining COVID cases across its campuses and a "sharp decline" at UGA specifically. "Additionally, the surveillance testing is at its lowest rate since UGA began surveillance testing last year," she noted, making the faculty threat to require masks "not necessary" under their own metric.

She emphasized USG strongly advocates mask usage and vaccination, and most of its campuses offer vaccine incentives and paid time off to get jabbed. "Thank you again for your work and for reaching out to me with your concerns," MacCartney said, without mentioning any potential disciplinary consequences.

There's no indication the faculty, who are all tenured, have backed down since. USG spokesperson Lance Wallace didn't answer whether it would consider the same action UNI took against O'Kane.

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Administrators "don't clearly listen to us or our advice, and therefore no progress has been made," lead signatory and genetics professor Jeff Bennetzen told the student-run The Red and Black this week, daring the university to have them "prosecuted and potentially dismissed."

Cellular biologist Vasant Muralidharan said he would still require masks because his own children "do not complain about being masked all day in school."

To get her students comfortable with the pending in-class mandate, genetics professor Mary Bedell offered bonus points for the whole class if everyone wore masks for the three days prior.

She revoked the offer after some students threatened to dox classmates who showed up to class without masks, according to The Red and Black. "I do NOT condone this," Bedell wrote on the online class board. "I deeply regret that my actions resulted in increased tension between students and additional stress in an already stressful time." 

Bedell didn't answer Just the News queries on whether any administrator told her not to award bonus points for masking, and whether she knows of other faculty giving preference in any way for masking.