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Will UNC students and faculty ‘vote with their feet’ on the prospect of returning to campus?

Professor Eric Muller

Classes start in just over two months, and Eric Muller, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law, should be consumed with textbook choices, syllabi and lesson plans. Instead, he’s thinking about his wife, who cares for her 90-year-old mother. To just how much risk will be exposing his family each day when he comes home from work?

Muller is teaching a first-year seminar class this fall. Since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed all instruction online most of last semester, it’s been months since he’s had to think about teaching in person. “As I think about whether and how I can do this, I feel like I’m going to be walking into a classroom that is going to be basically 20 question marks,” Muller said at a Faculty Executive Committee this week.

Are any of these students sick? Have they been exposed to the coronavirus, even if they’re asymptomatic? Have they been wearing a mask and practicing appropriate social distancing? Is that even practical in some of the on-campus dormitories where they are sharing hallways, common areas and bathrooms?

Those concerns — for the safety of students and staff as much as themselves — have  prompted faculty at the UNC System’s flagship school to push back this week on a re-opening plan they say is too vague and possibly premature.

On Wednesday, the faculty launched a petition calling for specific guarantees for instructors as part of the plan to return to on-campus instruction Aug. 10.

The petition [2], which as of Wednesday had been signed by more than 400 instructors, asks for school administration to ensure several precautions:

The faculty executive committee also sent a survey to all instructors this week on the issue, in order to gauge their concerns and the conditions under which they would feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction. That’s something many faculty said the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill should have done before announcing a return plan and expecting instructors to fall in line.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

The committee launched the survey and petition after tense faculty meetings with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz [4] and Provost Bob Blouin [5] that left many professors feeling uneasy about the university’s plan.

Last week, Guskiewicz told a joint meeting of the chancellor’s advisory and faculty executive committees that the university will have a community expectation that students, faculty and staff will practice social distancing and wear masks in public settings. However, it would not likely be enforceable as a strict rule under the school’s honor code.

This week Blouin seemed to walk back that expectation, saying professors should insist students wear masks in class and suggesting there should be consequences for those who don’t comply.

Both men hedged or refused to answer when asked about how many courses instructors will be expected to teach in-person rather than online. They also wouldn’t answer questions about the number of COVID-19 infections that would have to occur among students, staff or faculty before the school would return to online-only instruction.

That’s a level of ambiguity that doesn’t exist at Duke University, which this week announced none of its faculty would be required to teach on campus if they have health and safety concerns [6] and won’t have to disclose their personal health issues.

Associate Professor Deb Aikat

“I think we’re all aware of the differences between Duke and UNC, both politically and economically,” said Deb Aikat, an associate professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of Journalism and Media. “But while we may be rivals in basketball, we share a lot of things — we share libraries and labs, we share students. And we aspire to be as good or better than Duke, and in many ways we are.”

“We are seeing this other school right across Tobacco Road, doing this in a way that we think makes more sense than what we’re doing,” Aikat said. “So I think it makes sense for us to have the same precautions and protections.”

Michael Palm, an associate professor of media and technology studies, said he believes the policy’s vagueness is a strategy to encourage more instructors to teach on campus than would if they were given a clear choice to opt for online-only instruction.

“Obviously the overwhelming majority of students and faculty would prefer to be on campus,” Palm said. “But when people say that, they mean in a sort of abstract, perfect world — not taking everything into account.”

Last week, North Carolina again reported a record number of new COVID-19 infections; this week it recorded a single-day high for hospitalizations due to the disease. Even if the numbers decrease significantly between now and August, health experts expect a resurgence of infections in the cold and flu season, which in the U.S., begins in October and can last as late as May. [8] Various viruses benefit from both the cool, dry temperatures of those months and people’s tendency to gather in enclosed spaces in colder weather.

Associate Professor Michael Palm

Under those conditions, Palm said, it’s important that students and faculty determine the level of risk they are willing to accept, without pressure from the university.

“I think if our administration would say something similar to Duke, that we are going to take these precautions and we can make our own decisions about whether this is safe for us,  it would go a long way toward creating some good will and trust,” Palm said. “Which is just … non-existent right now.”

As part of the UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Carolina Away” program the university plans to allow up to 1,000 students to take their classes remotely in the fall. This would include students with underlying health conditions and an estimated 250 first-year international students who might be unable to return to the United States.

Since large-scale online-only education is going to be necessary for those students, Palm said, it might make more sense to improve the online education experience rather than bringing back tens of thousands of students from all over the country to campuses to live and work together during the pandemic.

But Palm said he is realistic about the largest driving force behind the decision: money.

This week, Blouin responded to faculty questions about health and safety with a financial explanation of the need to return to campus.

“The problem is that if you have a very high ‘melt’ either in terms of students don’t come or students stay away … you will have some school-by-school issues you’ll have to face as a school,” Blouin said. “Many of those school-by-school issues are financial, that there will be a loss of resources. That’s not a reason to do it or not to do it, but it will be an outcome, and it’s a substantial outcome.”

“When you look at the undergraduate program, I think a melt of around 10 percent translates to somewhere around $50-$75 million,” Blouin said. “Given the fact that 85 percent of our budget is generally faculty or staff salaries…you can appreciate one of the potential outcomes with student melt.”

That business-oriented rhetoric is offensive when considering potential illness and death of students, faculty and staff, a number of faculty said this week.

In an interview with the group Higher Ed Works this week [10], UNC Interim President Bill Roper addressed faculty concerns. But he made it clear that faculty will have to justify them to supervisors. They won’t have the autonomy to decide which courses they will teach online and which will be in-person.

“Nobody – surely not I – nobody wants faculty members to endanger their health,” Roper said. 

“We’re a big organization,” Roper said. “We treat our people well. We are in the process of constructing an administrative process at each of the universities where people who are uncomfortable can raise their hand and say, ‘I think I need an accommodation for this….’”

Jennifer Larson, a teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in English and Comparative Literature, said that decision should ultimately be the faculty member’s — not part of a vague administrative process that even department chairs do not yet understand.

Department Chair Beth Mayer-Davis

“I think ultimately whether or not someone makes that decision, especially about something as big as personal safety and health — for themselves and their families — should be an individual decision.”

“I think that [Duke] showed us a way that compassion can take the lead there,” Larson said.

Beyond money and differences between public and private universities, some faculty said, there is a clear political element at play in the UNC System’s decision to reopen. “I think it’s important also to realize they’re being politically feckless,” Palm said. “They’re under political pressure from a conservative board of governors and a conservative General Assembly, with marching orders given through the UNC System.”

Ultimately, the contentious issue may be decided by how many students and faculty are willing to return under pandemic conditions.

Beth Mayer-Davis, chair of the Department of Nutrition, said it’s possible that after consulting with department heads, an overwhelming majority of faculty members may simply decide they aren’t yet comfortable with the risk of on-campus instruction.

“It could be that faculty and students just sort of vote with their feet, so to speak,” Mayer-Davis said.