$1 million study pods at Mankato State lead to problems with the feds

It must have been challenging for universities to concoct new ways to spend the millions of dollars in federal funding that poured in during the pandemic. That might account for why Minnesota State University, Mankato threw $1 million at scattering 100 or so glass phone booth-like study pods inside buildings around campus last year.

The university pitched the “endless possibilities” for the shiny structures that apparently cost about $10,000 or so apiece.

-Transition between physical and online classes

Study or do virtual group work

-Make telehealth or other personal calls

-Have virtual advisor meetings

Record video or audio for class projects

-Sit back, relax, and recharge

But the shiny glass enclosures soon generated attention for a much different reason, following a professor’s complaint that the pods violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The criticism led to a discrimination investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that’s been chronicled in the Free Press.

Social work professor Nancy Fitzsimons filed the initial complaint in September. In a “My View” opinion piece published in The Free Press in September, she wrote the university was “well-aware that they would be discriminating against students, faculty and staff with mobility disabilities on campus by creating 100-plus inaccessible spaces on campus”

“Will MavPODS help with the university’s effort to be a ‘welcoming, equitable and inclusive university’?” she wrote. “The answer is a resounding no if you are a current student, prospective student, current faculty or staff, or prospective faculty or staff who needs an ‘accessible option.’ This space is not for you.”

The discrimination probe recently wound down with MSU agreeing to make changes to better accommodate students with mobility challenges. The agreement includes repositioning three of four much larger pods hurriedly installed after the controversy surfaced and adding at least two more.

Along with ordering another accessible pod by May 1, MSU agreed to promptly install it once received and provide evidence of purchase by May 15.

A third requirement in the resolution tasks MSU with installing a pod in the Memorial Library by Sept. 1. MSU will need to ensure the pods are distributed across the campus, as no more than one can be in any single building.

MSU officials issued a statement in hopes of putting the embarrassing episode to rest.

“The University worked with OCR, faculty experts and students to reach a solution that ensures the University fully complies with ADA requirements while also ensuring the MavPods are an asset that enhances the campus experience for all of our students and entire campus community,” the statement read.

But the university still must provide the feds with proof of compliance by Sept. 15. Otherwise investigators from the education department’s Office of Civil Rights warn they’ll be back.