WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - The Purdue University Senate gathered via Zoom for its first meeting of the academic school year Monday afternoon. The group will continue to meet virtually and will re-evaluate if they can meet in person again in January.
Health and Human Sciences Professor Deborah Nichols is this year's Senate Chair. She said some members of the Senate have been busy over the summer helping the university put together its Protect Purdue Plan.
She said they sent out three surveys to faculty, staff and students to gauge their concerns about returning this fall. They also contributed to helping rework Purdue's policies to adapt to this COVID-19 era.
According to numbers presented by Purdue President Mitch Daniels during the meeting, 4,579 undergraduate students chose to do virtual learning while 30,543 undergraduates returned to campus. He said about half of the virtual learners are international students. Not surprisingly, this is a record year for Purdue in terms of the number of students learning online.
One of the biggest, and growing, concerns discovered in the surveys was mental health and anxiety about returning to campus. Professor Nichols said the university has acted on that feedback.
"There have been more resources put into both student, faculty and staff mental health resources, which I was most excited about," she said.
She said faculty and graduate students reported feeling burnt out even before the semester started, and that they had trouble separating work life from personal life.
Purdue has mental and emotional health services available to those who work and learn at Purdue. That includes a student help and crisis line at 765-495-HELP (765-495-4357).
Nichols said it is important to the university to protect campus as well as the greater community.
"I also want to make sure that we are doing all that we can to keep not only our Purdue community, but to keep the broader Greater Lafayette community as healthy and protected as possible," she said.
As coronavirus continues to take its toll across the nation, she said it is also adversely affecting People of Color. According to the CDC, Black/African American/Non-Hispanic people have 2.6 times higher chance of catching COVID-19 and 2.1 times higher risk of death compared to White/Non-Hispanic people. Indigenous people and Hispanic/Latinx people also have higher case and death rates.
"There are numerous inequities surrounding COVID and policies put in place," she said. "We need to address those inequities."
The Senate also passed an amendment to its "Commitment to Maintaining an Inclusive Community" statement. The amendment reads:
Purdue University shall actively uphold the values recorded in University Policy III.C.2 through vocal and visible promotion of inclusivity for all Black Boilermakers and other members of our campus community who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; and through vocal and visible condemnation of threats that endanger the maintenance of an inclusive community.
Provost Jay Akridge voiced his support in the Senate meeting for this amendment, saying it coincides with the goals of the university's new Equity Task Force.
One member of the Senate's Equity and Diversity Committee voted against this amendment in committee vote. Professor Al Herber said there is no evidence to show threats have happened on campus and there is no language to protect people outside of the "Black, Indigenous, and People of Color" categories. He argued some of the language of the amendment was vague and that it could violate freedom of expression and speech of students.
After he voiced his concerns, various people in the comments of the Zoom call noted the "Black at Purdue" Instagram page, which shares the stories of injustice that happened to anonymous and named Black students, alumni, faculty, staff and graduate students on campus and in the community. The earliest story is from a graduate of the Class of 2007. The page also recently started asking for stories of success and joy Black Boilermakers want to share.
Nichols said it's important to stand by the People of Color at Purdue.
"One of our significant goals is to work to create a safe community for our Black, Brown and Indigenous Boilermakers and so we want to ensure that there voices are heard," she said.
The amendment was supposed to be voted on at the Senate's October meeting. However, Purdue Bands and Orchestra Professor Matt Conaway made the motion to suspend the rules and vote on it then. He said it was clear that there was strong support based on the discussion and votes made by the EDC.
The Senate did suspend the rules and the amendment was passed 85% in support, 10% against and 5% abstained.
Chair Nichols said the Senate will have a special session on October 12th to dealt with an "internal discipline matter." She said more would come to light on this matter as that date approaches.