On Tuesday at approximately 2 p.m., a Penn professor sent an email to students speculating that classes would be taught remotely in fall 2020. The message, later denounced by administrators, sparked widespread alarm and confusion among students.
Computer and Information Science professor Max Mintz sent an email to over 60 of his advisees with advice about advance registration for fall 2020. Included in the message were his thoughts on the possibility that students will not be able to return to campus this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I speculate, based on very solid information, that Penn courses will largely be online this fall, i.e., we will NOT be having a normal fall semester," Mintz wrote. "Thus, I recommend that you select your fall term classes with this in mind. I say this, in part, because I see no way Penn can ethically invite thousands of students in uncertain states of health from all over the world to come to Penn in late August."
Mintz wrote in the email that his message is not according to official Penn policy or information.
Later that day, Penn updated the Student FAQ section on the University Coronavirus website, stating that the University cannot predict what will happen in the fall but is planning for every possibility amid the pandemic.
“We do not know how the current pandemic will play out in the months ahead, and so we cannot predict at this time how the fall semester will look,” the website reads. “We are planning for every possibility and closely following the guidance of health authorities and international, federal, state, and local governments.”
Provost Wendell Pritchett is currently working with School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Vijay Kumar and Vice Provost for Faculty Anita L. Allen to help Mintz understand that the email was “not helpful and not true,” which Vice Provost for Education Beth A. Winkelstein wrote in an email to undergraduate school deans and Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Natasha Menon.
Winkelstein did not respond to a request for comment.
Mintz wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that his thoughts are sourced from newspapers such as The New York Times and journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Nature, and Science.
“My recent communication with my advisees was meant solely for academic planning,” Mintz wrote to the DP.
Aided by group chats and social media, Mintz's email quickly circulated among Penn students across the world.
College first-year Sofia Graziano said the email “spread like wild fire,” as she heard about it from a friend at Vanderbilt University, who heard about it from another friend at Penn. Graziano said she had not thought seriously about the potential for fall 2020 classes to be taught remotely until reading the email. She added that Mintz’s email has brought forth many questions about how Penn will operate next semester.
“Penn is hiding a lot of things under the rug and trying not to make any statements, and this guy is trying to look out for his students and trying to prepare them for the possibility [of fall classes moving online],” Graziano said.
Wharton and Engineering sophomore Vivek Olumbe agreed, adding that he thought Mintz was simply trying to prepare his students for the worst. Olumbe said that Mintz wrote multiple times throughout the email that his email was speculation and not from Penn administration.
“I think he was just doing his job as an advisor,” Olumbe said.
Wharton first-year and Class of 2023 President Derek Nhieu said, however, the email’s “definite and official” tone is what alarmed students into thinking fall classes will most likely move online.
“It’s a professor, someone who works for the University, saying ‘Yeah we’re probably going to be online,’ so when a student reads that, why would you doubt it? This is a school official,” Nhieu said.
Nhieu added that he hopes Penn will make a decision soon about how classes will be conducted in fall 2020 so that students can plan ahead during advance registration.
Staff reporter Jonah Charlton contributed reporting.