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Students petition to renew Arabic lecturer's contract during hiring freeze

The University did not respond to the petition directly, but shared further details about its new employment policy

The University has not begun furloughs or layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a spokesperson.
The University has not begun furloughs or layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a spokesperson.

Arabic Lecturer Abir Abyad’s students petitioned the University last week to make an exception to the new hiring freeze policy that has been put in place due to the financial impacts of COVID-19 on the University. Abyad currently teaches Elementary Arabic in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, and has taught the course at the University since 2016.

The petition was started April 15 by first-year College student Ethan Mccue. It describes Abyad’s impact on students, asks for the University to make an exception to its new hiring freeze policy for her and appeals to the University's commitment to fostering global perspectives. As of April 22, the petition had 340 signatures.

“We know that we cannot possibly comprehend the full extent of the financial impact of COVID-19 on the University, however, April 14’s statement cites the ‘relevant Executive Vice President’ as having the ability to allow contracts to be renewed,” the petition reads. “We understand that this is an extraordinary time for the University, however, we firmly believe that this is an extraordinary professor that adds considerable value to the undergraduate experience and the University at large.”

Abyad first came to the University as an undergraduate student, completing both a B.A. degree and a Master of Arts degree at the University. She has been teaching Arabic on Grounds for six years between her time in graduate school and time as a lecturer and spoke with The Cavalier Daily about her love for the University.

“This was a great experience,” Abyad said. “I just love U.Va.”

Abyad explained that she understands the financial constraints the University is facing due to the coronavirus, and how they are impacting the University’s actions. The University has issued $12 million in refunds to students for unused housing and dining costs — in addition to spending approximately $300,000 to move courses online for the spring semester.

“At the beginning, I was upset, but it's something going on, something really dangerous,” Abyad said. “So I understand.”

Students found out that Abyad’s contract was not going to be renewed when they were unable to find her name on Lou’s List, a website that displays University courses.

“My students [were] telling me, ‘Abir, your name is not on Lou’s List?” Abyad said. “Are you not going to teach?’”

Abyad described how she was not aware of what her students were planning.

“They got affected by that decision and they got upset,” Abyad said. “And they told me they would like to send an email to the Dean. I said thanks for that but I cannot say anything about that — I cannot even tell them to do that. It’s not my business. And then I was shocked ... I knew about the petition almost at the end.”

She also described how happy she was to see the names of so many past students within the petition’s pages.

“Most of the names, they are my students,” Abyad said. “You know, I feel like I’m a winner, actually, with that love from students. That is what every teacher is looking for.”

Mccue spoke with The Cavalier Daily about what motivated him to organize the petition and motivated his fellow students to support and spread the petition.

“As soon as we found out, very quickly, we were like, okay, what can we do about this?” Mccue said. “Because this seems like a really bad thing for all parties … And we said, well, the University can’t possibly know how much a certain professor means to its students unless the students tell them, so let’s do that.”

Mccue made it clear that the petition was not meant to be overly demanding, and that its supporters understand the difficulties coronavirus is posing to University operations.

“Even though it’s a petition, our message wasn’t exactly prescriptive,” Mccue said. “We're just humbly asking that they acknowledge and include our opinion on the matter. And consider our value of this professor.”

Mccue sent the petition to five University leaders Friday morning, and received a response from Provost Liz Magill confirming that it had been received.

Brian Coy, assistant vice president for communications and University spokesperson, declined to comment on the specifics of the petition over email, as it concerns personnel matters. He added that individual academic schools are managing decisions about faculty and resources to meet student needs.

However, Coy was able to provide some details relating to the University’s hiring freeze policy as laid out on April 14.

“The University has not begun furloughs or layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Coy wrote. “We are looking at a broad array of actions that will be determined by how the disease progresses across the country and how soon we may be able to bring students and employees back to Grounds. We are in the process of finalizing criteria for evaluating exceptions to the hiring freeze for staff and faculty.”

It is unclear how certain academic departments will be impacted by the University’s hiring freeze. In January, it was reported that the Media Studies department has put in a request for a number of additional hires for the upcoming semester as five faculty members are leaving.