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UNI student government president pens resolution condemning administrators for sanctioning professor

A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.
Photo illustration by Max Posner/NPR
Photo illustration by Max Posner/NPR
The student government president at the University of Northern Iowa has proposed a resolution condemning school administrators for sanctioning a professor after he mandated masks in his classroom. The student senate is slated to vote on the resolution Wednesday night.

The president of the University of Northern Iowa student government has proposed a resolution condemning school administrators for sanctioning a professor who required masks in his classroom.

Last week, UNI officials relieved biology professor Steve O’Kane of his in-person teaching duties after he mandated that his students wear masks or see their grades lowered. School administrators have said another professor will take over the high level plant systematics class, but students say the disciplinary action against O’Kane leaves them in limbo, amounting to a punishment against them as well.

Now UNI student government president Samantha Bennett has proposed a resolution condemning school administrators for how O’Kane was handled.

“The consequences currently decided upon by the University for Dr. O’Kane result in a punishment not only for him, but for his students, who have neither violated policies nor made any actions that necessitate punishment,” the resolution reads in part.

A disciplinary memo penned by Dean John Fritch of the College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences on Sept. 29 details that in addition to losing his ability to teach in-person this semester, O’Kane will be required to conduct a course on professional responsibility, will receive a “Needs Improvement” performance evaluation and will not be eligible for merit pay.

Biology student Brian Yarahmadi, who is a student in O’Kane’s plant systematics class, told IPR he suspects the university may not be able to find another professor with the expertise to take over instruction. Yarahmadi, a senior, says he needs the 4000-level class in order to graduate this semester.

The student government resolution notes that students have said that the university's response has caused them distress and has negatively impacted them personally and academically, leaving them with an uncertain future at the school. The resolution may be amended further before the student senate takes a vote on the measure.

On Tuesday, Yarahmadi and other students in the plant systematics class penned a letter of support for their teacher, calling on the university to reverse its disciplinary actions against O’Kane.

“Unfortunately, this action taken by the University was not based in science and did not take into consideration the severe consequences it would have on the students of his class,” the students’ letter reads in part. “As a class we are deeply saddened that the University would punish us and our professor and we ask that the University take steps to reverse the unjust punishments imposed on Dr. O’Kane and in effect his students.”

UNI administrators have warned O’Kane he may face further disciplinary action or even be fired if he fails to comply with university and state policy in the future.

“Going forward, you will be expected to comply with all University and regents' policies, including all policies or directives regarding masks or face coverings. Failure to follow such policies may result in further disciplinary action up to and including termination,” reads the memo penned by Fritch.

Regents' guidance released in May prohibits the state’s public universities from mandating masks, a policy the board has declined to amend even after the rise of the highly infectious delta variant.

The UNI student senate is slated to vote on the proposed resolution at a meeting Wednesday night.

Editor's Note: This story was been updated at 6 p.m. on 10/6/21 to reflect revisions to the proposed resolution.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter