Students at Appalachian State University in Boone are getting conflicting messages from faculty and administrators as tensions over the university’s handling of COVID-19 in the spring semester boil over.
In an open letter to students sent Sunday evening, Richard Rheingans, a professor in the Department of Sustainable Development, wrote the university is “failing to provide the leadership, guidance and support that students, faculty and the broader community needs.”
Rheingans, a former health economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who spent more than two decades teaching in schools of public health, said the university isn’t taking the necessary steps to protect students, faculty and staff on campus.
“In so many ways, the Appalachian State administration has failed us throughout this pandemic and now, despite a month of warning that we would face another major covid surge, they have done virtually nothing to set us up for a safe, undisrupted semester,” Rheingans wrote.
“There are many things they could do, including requiring vaccines and boosters, providing better masks, better testing and tracing, clearer and more thorough quarantine requirements, clearer guidelines and support for faculty for dealing with student sickness and prolonged absences, and possibly beginning online temporarily to ensure an orderly semester. It seems extremely unlikely, however, that the university will make any policy changes that protect us beyond the CDC’s minimal guidelines.”
Rheingans said there is also a dangerous breakdown in communication between faculty and the school’s chancellor, Sheri Everts.
“The Chancellor even refused to meet with faculty to discuss these measures and told Faculty Senate that the university’s safety officer would never take questions from faculty again,” Rheingans wrote. “Given this leadership vacuum, the only hope left is us. You and me. Students and faculty.”
Rheingans went on to offer students advice on choosing and using appropriate masks, getting vaccinations and booster shots, and testing and quarantining if exposed or infected.
On Monday, one day after Rheingans’ letter, an email attributed to the university’s seven deans told students “some faculty might be sharing misinformation about university safety protocols, procedures and decision-making that are inaccurate and potentially harmful.”
“Please be aware that the definitive source for COVID safety protocols is the university’s COVID website,” the email read. “Last week, you received four official university email messages that detailed COVID safety protocols for the Spring semester. Moving forward, each week during the spring semester, you can expect two messages a week — one from Chancellor Everts and one from her COVID operations team — sharing the latest COVID information and safety protocols. These messages are typically sent on Fridays, and are always posted to the ‘latest updates’ page of the university’s COVID website. Please be sure you are checking the university’s COVID website for accurate, up to date information about the university’s COVID safety protocols, what to do if you test positive, and other important information. If you have specific questions about COVID safety information you are hearing from your faculty, you may reach out to us, your Deans, or to our Emergency Management team at [email protected].”
Policy Watch contacted the university about the email, asking what “misinformation” the university is trying to counter.
The university’s communications office replied with a written statement late Tuesday, saying it is untrue that Everts hasn’t discussed COVID measures with faculty.
“Chancellor Everts has been attending faculty department meetings at their invitation to discuss COVID-19 safety and any other items they wish to discuss with her since Summer of 2020,” the communications office wrote. “Routinely, the Director of Emergency Management attends these meetings, along with other members of her leadership team. Additionally, throughout the fall 2021 semester, she held weekly meetings with representatives from Faculty Senate, as well as Staff Senate, Student Government, Department Chairs and Deans, to discuss COVID-19 safety with the Director of Emergency Management and her leadership team. As noted by Provost [Heather] Norris, these meetings will resume next week.”
The statement also said it is also untrue that the university omitted information about CDC guidelines for quarantine following exposure.
“Please see the two emails sent to faculty, staff and students regarding the new CDC isolation/quarantine guidelines, which state that “everyone should get tested at least five days after exposure,” the statement read.
Stella Anderson, a professor in the Department of Management at the university’s Walker College of Business, said faculty have had less luck getting answers on what the university considers “misinformation.”
“We spent Monday afternoon in the Faculty senate meeting with multiple questions asked to please provide context, examples, please tell us what the need was for this communication to go out to all students and what information you’re talking about,” Anderson said. “We asked the questions, but there were no answers.”
Facing a new and record-breaking wave of infections courtesy of the omicron variant, faculty have been fighting to convince the university to change how it operated last semester, Anderson said. The administration hasn’t been receptive, and to now blame faculty for “misinformation” is “a slap in the face,” she said.
“It’s an unmitigated disaster,” Anderson said. “The administration and leadership failures and bone-headed communication is really astounding.”
Anderson has been at App State for 29 years and has served as chair of her department and in the Faculty Senate under multiple chancellors. The morale under Everts is the lowest she has seen it, she said.
“I’ve been at the table for a lot,” Anderson said. “I know good management and leadership and I know when I’m not seeing it.”
Ongoing tensions over COVID
Tensions between Everts and students and faculty at App State have been escalating since August 2020. At the time, the university’s Faculty Senate voted “no confidence” with regard to Evert’s leadership, over the campus’s handling of COVID-19. A no confidence vote is rare in UNC System history.
The relationship between the faculty and chancellor hasn’t much improved since then, said Louis Gallien, the current chair of the Faculty Senate. “I’m trying to figure out how we can move forward and not add fuel to the fire,” Gallien said.
Gallien said he had a productive meeting with the school’s provost Tuesday but hasn’t been in touch with Everts.
Like most chancellors in the UNC System, Gallien said, Everts is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with competing constituencies – faculty, staff and students at her university on one hand, and political appointees on the university’s Board of Trustees and the system’s Board of Governors on the other. Facing a public health crisis on the order of the current pandemic would be difficult under any circumstances, Gallien said. Bringing together diverse and sometimes conflicting interests in a highly politicized environment makes it much more difficult.
“The era we’re living in now in North Carolina higher education history is truly a hegemony,” Gallien said. “You have a majority of Republican legislators who appoint the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors in turn appoint the Boards of Trustees. The Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors choose the chancellor. So you have a hegemonic philosophy of leadership and management those groups have. And it is not totally in sync with traditional shared governance principles.”
Republican state lawmakers and their appointees have largely rejected the sorts of steps faculty, staff and students support, including switching to online instruction during major surges of infections, requiring proof of vaccination or negative PCR tests for on-campus events, and providing and requiring high quality masks in shared public spaces.
Brian Burke, an associate professor in the Department of Sustainable Development, said the situation at App State has become untenable.
“We’re dealing with this COVID moment and we’re right on the edge of losing this semester, the way we did in 2020,” Burke said. “A few bad decisions or unlucky moves and we risk massive disruption and really letting our students down, throwing them into a real academic and personal mess.”
Burke points to a recent survey in which 63.5% of the 441 faculty respondents said the university’s current COVID protocols will not allow the university “to continue to function normally, in a manner that permits them to provide a high-quality education to all of our students, without disruption, for the full spring semester.”
Nearly 63% said they think it is either likely or very likely they will have to move their courses entirely online in the next few weeks due to COVID infections.
Overwhelming majorities also supported allowing faculty members to control the mode of instruction in their classes, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for admission to all on-campus events and requiring all students, regardless of vaccination status, to undergo testing prior to the start of the semester.
The majority of respondents — 76% — said they would be willing to hold courses online for the first few weeks of the semester, until the current omicron-driven surge of infections peaks.
Those are all reasonable precautions to ensure that students can stay on campus and faculty can continue the in-person instruction everyone thinks is best, Burke said. But so far the university’s administration hasn’t been willing to take any of the suggested steps.
In a written statement Tuesday, the university communications office questioned the validity of the faculty survey.
“On Jan. 7, Provost Norris responded to five faculty members who authored a letter and shared partial results of a survey they indicated was sent to faculty on Jan. 5,” the statement read. “They did not share how many faculty members were sent the survey, nor did they share the raw data, or any open responses with university administrators. The survey was neither distributed by nor vetted with the university’s Institutional Research team.”
The statement quoted Norris’s response. “As a faculty matter, this email was forwarded to me for follow up,” Norris said. “The Chancellor ensures that Academic Affairs – and thereby the academic areas including faculty – participate through my office working with Deans and Chairs. I am consistently doing such and invite faculty to work through the established processes within their departments and colleges as we move forward together.”
Though taken quickly in response to the new spring semester, Burke said the survey represents the views of hundreds of faculty members and shouldn’t be dismissed.
“It really feels like a complete disregard for the faculty, the staff and students,” Burke said. “I think it’s really time to look at the leadership vacuum we’re dealing with on this campus, and have been dealing with.”