Was removing Dr. O’Kane from the classroom the right choice from UNI?



Many of the students on campus have been talking about the decisions of the University as the story continues to grow.


Disclaimer: The following opinion article featured do not reflect the opinion of the Northern Iowan newspaper or staff as a whole. 

UNI professor Steve O’Kane, Ph.D was recently relieved of his duties as an in-person educator on campus. At first, this seemed like an odd occurrence when considering the fact that we just began getting back to normal, having in-person classes and engaging with professors “irl” (in real life).

One would think that the university would be doing everything they can to put things back to the way they were, right? While this seems to be true, they are also doing everything they can to keep us safe – not only from COVID-19, but from unlawful requirements as well.

O’Kane, a biology professor who has been teaching at UNI for 26 years, made the decision to require masks in his classroom, threatening the grades of those who refused to wear them. While this feels like it was a simple attempt to protect himself and his students, that’s not all it was.

Not only is it prohibited by the Board of Regents and the university, but I don’t think that it’s a fair ask either. While I fully recognize that it was not his intent to infringe on our lives and rights, I don’t see how mandating masks over the heads of the university and state official rules is something that is okay.

Honestly, this is a very hard topic to draw a line on. While I am vaccinated and wish that would ensure complete protection from COVID-19, I know that isn’t the case. With the new Delta variant running rampant and transmission rates skyrocketing, it’s hard to determine what the right move is.

As I said, I am vaccinated and have been for quite some time, so I don’t personally enjoy wearing a mask at this point. I do so when requested, but I don’t choose to wear one anywhere I don’t feel it is necessary.

In a setting such as a classroom, I know that it is hard to see why it would be such a big deal to wear masks. Not only are college students – in general – the lowest-risk group when it comes to COVID-19, they also are least likely to follow social distancing practices outside of classes as well. What’s the point of protecting each other for that ~1.5% of our week when we’re not doing so for the other ~98.5%?

Because it’s not the general population that we’re aiming to protect.

Oftentimes, the ones who request mask-wearing are the people who are or have family members who are high-risk. Personally, I wear a mask for them. Similar to this, people in an older age demographic – such as some professors – can also feel more in danger when it comes to COVID-19.

O’Kane is very passionate about this issue, and I have complete respect for him in that sense. He told The Gazette, “I told the provost most of us somewhere in our lives have a hill we are willing to die on, and this is one of my hills.”

That being said, I do not think it’s okay to require masks in the way O’Kane did. Not only was he disobeying numerous people and organizations, but it is unfair to threaten grades based on what a person wears. This is comparable to giving a student a C on an assignment simply because they didn’t wear red on Tuesdays.

While I understand where O’Kane and others are coming from when it comes to mask requests, I do not agree with the way he specifically attempted to handle it. Having your own opinion is one thing, but forcing it on others – especially when it’s against the law – is a completely separate issue.