Who makes decisions?
Decision making about whether to reopen a UNC System campus to residential students, especially students in dorms, is a complicated multi-layered process.
Whatever choice is made, a good many constituents will be unhappy, and it seems like everyone will have had an opinion, some of them incredibly strong. The constituents of a public university in a college town are many—students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, townspeople, and parents, to name some. They bring their knowledge, perceptions and misconceptions when offering opinions. All of this played out in Chapel Hill over the summer and with accelerating velocity as we got closer to the start of the semester last Monday. Often, behind the scenes and not visible to most on campus or off, the Board of Governors, the governing body for the UNC System, of which UNC-Chapel Hill is part, issued directives to campus chancellors, including ours. From what has been said in public fora, the BOG told each of the system campuses that they were expected to open. We took that seriously. Provost Bob Blouin led an effort to create a roadmap for fall 2020, called Carolina Together, an intense planning effort, with frequent input from Gillings’ faculty members. UNC-Chapel Hill’s 14 schools, including the College of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, adapted the university plan to the nuances of each school. A lot of thought went into both the central and unit plans, and the views of campus infectious disease experts were sought regularly. Whatever our individual opinions about the riskiness of the enterprise on which we were embarked, we were determined to make it work. None of us believed there was a perfect model; each option had pluses and minuses, risks and potential mitigating factors.
Different perspectives on how and when to reopen dorms and residential activities
When we started planning for a return to campus, most people were optimistic that we would have flattened the curve and been in a far better place than we are today. We have not flattened the curve, and the virus is widespread in communities, with case numbers bouncing around but nowhere close to where they should be now. As the first day of classes approached, townspeople and many faculty, staff and students took strong stands against full reopening. The Orange County Health Department weighed in and recommended a five-week delay in reopening, even as students already were moving into dorms. There was a loud drumbeat, but the decisions were not as simple as open vs. close, remote vs. residential. I was sympathetic to the different viewpoints, but saw angles they sometimes did not see, including the first-year students who wanted a real college experience, the parents who demanded it, the BOG which commanded it, and the financial crisis that would be exacerbated if there were large decrements in housing and meal contracts, sports and other sources of support for university operations.
People do not like to talk about money in higher ed, as though we should be above money, but we cannot pay scholarships, salaries, resources and building maintenance without money. My dean colleagues in other universities are experiencing the same financial stressors we are feeling, and many campuses have taken draconian steps to cut expenses. COVID-19 already has threatened state budgets, and we expect cuts. Finances were not the most important factor in UNC-CH decision making, but we cannot ignore them, and certainly, the BOG did not. Some have described motives for returning to campus as about profit. The university does not make a profit. The structure of non-profits does not include a mechanism for profit, and anyway, we are in a deficit situation, so profit would be out of the reality we face. What we face with different options are different degrees of financial pain, some of which I infer could be excruciating. None of us want to see layoffs, furloughs, closed academic programs and reduced support for students. That does not include the impact on the town of Chapel Hill, which is suffering from the recessionary impact of COVID-19. It is one thing to talk about binary decisions—open or close. But we should not talk about those without also thinking about the consequences for real people, especially those who are the lowest paid and least secure. When they lose their jobs because of budget cuts, the consequences can spiral out of control. Finances and health cannot be separated. It is not one or the other. We need healthy economies and institutions and healthy people.
BOG and campuses have different perspectives
It is sad and unfortunate that decisions about reopening in America have been politicized, and that, too often, choices are not made on the foundation of evidence and science. Our chancellor and provost tried to make decisions from those foundations, with advice from some of the world’s best infectious disease experts. However, they have not had full freedom to act since the BOG told system universities they had to reopen and that individual university chancellors could not make those decisions independently. It is understandable that the lens of the BOG and system president would be different from what each university’s chancellor would bring to the picture. As a dean, I would prefer that decisions be made by chancellors and provosts, with their unique understanding of and accountability to the campus communities they lead, for all are different.
Many people are angry
As I have read tweets and received emails and other correspondence from people who assume that, because we are the school of public health, we make decisions about closures or that we have undue influence over them, the level of meanness and assumptions about motives have been disconcerting. Over the past few days, people have been tweeting about the failure of the Gillings School, the top public school of public health, to effect a different outcome than occurred—in other words, we should have gotten UNC-Chapel Hill to start the school year in remote mode. We, I or Gillings, did not make the decision to close dorms last spring and move to remote learning; nor did we decide to open or how to open, although some of our faculty members provided input into those decisions. And we cannot make Gillings decisions as though we are our own university. What we have done is to figure out what would work for our people and followed the Gillings Way—offering 90% of Gillings School classes remote, and choices of remote or in-person for faculty and staff, giving students, faculty and staff some agency over how they wanted to learn and work. We also have shared evidence with campus leaders and made our views about different issues known. We have given our advice and perspectives in different ways, including in letters to our constituencies, through our voices in committees and other meetings, in digital correspondence, tweets and other digital means, interactions with our peers and a variety of kinds of messages, including this blog. Similarly, many accusations against the provost, chancellor and others have been unfair, failing to recognize that they do not make final decisions and are undoubtedly working hard to be given that authority.
I hope that whatever decisions are made about the fall semester, special consideration will be given to housekeeping staff. We are committed to these people and have been advocating on their behalf. Last week, as we started the unusual fall term, our bricks and mortar school was quiet. Most people had voted with their feet—to stay in place where they were. While some students deferred enrollment, most chose to attend remotely. Fortunately, our enrollment is up overall, which makes sense given the importance of public health in fighting the pandemic. Some of our faculty have been offering remote instruction for more than 20 years; they are good at it and getting even better. We can take the remaining 9% of classes remote, if needed.
Time to take the off-ramp
Carolina Together, the plan for how the university would return to on-campus operations, indicates that if certain conditions prevail, it might be necessary to take an off-ramp and return to remote operations for teaching and learning. Most likely, that also would result in reductions in students living in dorms. The rationale for taking an off-ramp now is that the number of clusters is growing and soon could become out of control, threatening the health of others on campus and in the community and putting scarce resources at risk. While it appeared that students on campus were compliant with distancing and mask use, reports of off-campus behavior showed a different pattern—drinking, no masks or distancing, and crowds. I do not have first-hand observations; this generalization reflects what has been reported and reflected in increases in numbers of cases, reflecting mostly dorm and fraternity-based clusters.
After only one week of campus operations, with growing numbers of clusters and insufficient control over the off-campus behavior of students (and others), it is time for an off-ramp. We have tried to make this work, but it is not working.