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No, CSU Fullerton Has Not Decided to Start Fall 2020 with Virtual Instruction

The big news of the week is a report from NPR that Cal State University Fullerton is the first large university to plan the Fall 2020 term virtually – online, remote, at-a-distance, whatever your language. This report was based on a virtual town hall by CSU Fullerton executives.

On Monday, California State University, Fullerton announced it was planning to begin the fall 2020 semester online, making it one of the first colleges to disclose contingency plans for prolonged coronavirus disruptions.

“Our plan is to enter [the fall] virtually,” said Pamella Oliver, the schools provost, at a virtual town hall. “Of course that could change depending on the situation, depending on what happens with COVID-19. But at this point that’s what we’re thinking.”

This news was also reported by the Chronicle and by the Orange County Register. Unfortunately, that news is incorrect. CSU Fullerton is in a planning stage, and the exec team assumes that they will have to start virtually in the fall, but there has been no decision and no announcement. Just sloppy language in the town hall and sloppy reporting.

Thanks to Corey Sparks who alerted me on Twitter that the provost has walked back her comments. As described on the CSU Fullerton site:

There were reports I said that Fullerton is cancelling classes and going fully virtual for the fall. Let me be clear, that is false. What I said is -that we need to prepare for all variables. Our goal is face to face, on campus instruction, however, we are asking faculty to be prepared to start the semester teaching virtually. This is the correct and prudent choice.

What Happened?

This situation is very unfortunate. We are in a mode where schools are looking to each other for how to handle the fall, and CSU Fullerton is the big news, and it’s inaccurate.

As I look at the Virtual Town Hall and read the transcript, what becomes clear is that the provost was surprisingly sloppy in her language – the exec team should have been prepared with clear language, despite the number of unknowns they are having to confront. The exec team is going through a planning exercise, and currently they assume they will have to start fall virtually, but they have not made a decision nor an announcement. They were just sharing their current assumptions on the town hall. But note – it took a bit of parsing to come to this conclusion, and this should not have been the case with so much on the line.

Update 5/1: CSU Fullerton made the video private after this post was published. Thanks to UDL, I created transcript of the key section already (see below).

The key section:

We are assuming that in the fall we will be virtual. We will at least start virtually, and of course that can change depending on the situation depending on what happens with COVID-19, but at this point that’s what we’re thinking.

So we will start virtual, but we also are making plans for gradually re-entering, and those plans have to be made in such a way that we can ensure adequate physical and social distancing, that we can think about what are the courses or the classes or student experiences that need to be taught in person or face-to-face – what’s the best way to teach those classes.

If you take a direct quote out of the discussion – and remember this is a live town hall that was recorded – you could interpret this as a plan or announcement. “We will start virtual.” But if you listen to the discussion in context, at the very least it is ambiguous.

Let’s Not Be Sloppy

NPR and the other sites should have recognized how important this story was, reached out to CSU Fullerton to get confirmation or clarification, and only then reported. Or at the very least, they should have interpreted the comments and transcript more carefully.

CSU Fullerton should have recognized how important this story could become and been prepared with a clear statement on the planning status. The provost was careful to call out the unknowns around when and how to move back to face-to-face, but she should have also called out that no decision has been made yet. They did note later in the session that this was the first virtual town hall in the university’s history; hopefully they will learn.

It is also interesting to note that the faculty senate and faculty unions appear to not have been included in the discussions. From Charles Toombs, president of the California Faculty Association (h/t Corey Sparks again):

Unfortunately, we have been unable to get clear answers at times. For example, several news outlets have reported that Cal State Fullerton intends to cancel classes this fall and remain virtual. We have received conflicting reports about whether or not this news story is true. We do know that no one has contacted faculty or the union about such a decision for Fall.

I’m not suggesting that we can afford to let precedence and governance formalities get in the way of emergency planning – and the exec team should be discussing the situation amongst themselves – but if you are sharing the status in a virtual town hall, then think about getting input from faculty groups ahead of time.

Sorry for the soapbox, but this story is too important to get wrong. It affects a lot of other schools and is not just a CSU Fullerton story.

Update 4/22: Added link and quote from CFA president.