Purdue University is outlining how much money it needs for plexiglass barriers, Covid-19 protection kits for students, and lab masks when it returns to instruction in person this fall — and it’s using those estimates as a basis for a fund-raising campaign that’s already collected over $100,000.
“All funds raised will benefit the areas of greatest need across campus, equipping Purdue’s leaders to move nimbly to address a range of anticipated and unanticipated needs resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” the Protect Purdue Initiative fund-raising page reads.
“It seems odd to me to suggest that students are at risk on campus, and someone’s donation will keep them from harm.”
In an accompanying video, President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. says, “We’re working to bring the campus back to life for today’s Boilermakers. You can help us protect our students, student-athletes, faculty, staff, residences, and facilities by making a gift to support the Protect Purdue initiative.” (The overall Protect Purdue campaign is a different project that provides guidance for faculty, staff, students, researchers and campus visitors on safety measures and expectations.)
A $65 donation, the fund-raising page says, will pay for one “student protection kit,” including a thermometer, face masks, and sanitizing supplies. A plexiglass shield will cost $135, while a semester’s worth of lab masks and personal protective equipment for one student runs $532. The highest amount the site suggests, $3,000, would buy 20 tests for Covid-19.
Daniels has been vocal about reopening campuses, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that “with 45,000 students waiting and the financial wherewithal to do what’s necessary, failure to take on the job of reopening would be not only antiscientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty” on Purdue’s part.
But the fund-raising campaign has sparked questions among faculty-member donors who received an email in Daniels’s name on Tuesday. Stephen Martin, a professor of economics at Purdue and a donor to the university, received the Tuesday message at a personal email address, but promptly deleted it. He already gives a lot of money to the institution, he told The Chronicle, but “I wouldn’t give money to support this in any event, because I’m not convinced it will work.” Purdue administrators, Martin said, are “asking the faculty to take this program on faith.”
Purdue started the fund-raising effort in response to donors who asked how they could help with pandemic-related expenses, said Tim Doty, director of public information and issues management, in an email. The campaign doesn’t have a set goal, he wrote, but the administration is budgeting “about $50 million in university funds” to be spent on safety measures.
The Right Message?
Faculty members, however, questioned what the effort was communicating. Alice Pawley, chair of the Purdue chapter of the American Association of University Professors, who has also donated to Purdue, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the fund-raising strategy — suggesting donation amounts by listing the safety materials they could provide — seemed analogous to Unicef saying how many mumps-measles-rubella shots a donation will pay for.
“But it is a choice for Purdue to push for on-campus instruction, necessitating such PPE,” wrote Pawley, an associate professor in the School of Engineering Education. “So it seems odd to me to suggest that students are at risk on campus, and someone’s donation will keep them from harm. I am not sure that’s the message we want to get across.”
Cheryl Cooky, a donor and the immediate past president of Purdue’s Faculty Senate, said she’d heard from some faculty and staff members who were “dismayed” by the email, and by the idea that “we’re being asked to provide support for something that should be basic safety and equipment for faculty and staff and students to do our jobs.”
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“In this environment, it does create kind of a lack of confidence — ‘Wait, do we not have money for this?’ for some people,” said Cooky, an associate professor of American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. “If we don’t raise the money, then who who pays for the tests? Are we asking students and faculty and staff to pay $150 to be tested and requiring that to be able to be on campus?”
But, Cooky said, she understands the complex calculations Daniels and his staff are making. “The enormous cost that universities are going to incur in terms of being able to safely reopen are not costs that any university was able to budget for or plan for,” she said. “You can’t go back to a donor and say, ‘Hey, you donated money to the university for purpose X, but we want to use it now for purpose Y.’ That would not be a good-faith use of those funds.”
Deborah Nichols, Cooky’s successor as Faculty Senate chair, said the fund-raising email compounded some faculty members’ grievances. “They’re feeling frustrated and anxious and unsure of what the fall will look like, while they’re simultaneously being asked to do considerably more work with no additional compensation,” said Nichols, an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences, referring to additional duties faculty members may be taking on to prepare their courses to be taught online, or in a socially distanced manner. “So when that kind of request for donations comes around, I can understand concern and frustration associated with that.”
The effort also taps into faculty frustration with transparency. The Faculty Senate, Nichols said, has “mostly been kept separate from” decision-making processes about the fall, “and in the absence of information, anxiety grows and concern grows.”