Higher Ed, North Carolina, Public Health

Campus decisions: who makes them, with what consequences and when to change them?

August 17, 2020 |7:21 min read

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.




If the problem was off campus students these changes did nothing to change the problem. It was about UNC saying they are not responsible since the few students that were in campus won’t be any longer.



Thank you, Dean Rimer for a very thoughtful post on the complex issues you are navigating. Can you help us understand why UNC - CH did not require testing of students, faculty and staff before returning or establish readily available, rapid testing centers throughout the campus community, as some others schools, including large universities, have?

Jean M. Breny


Thank you, Dean Rimer, for your leadership and decisiveness in doing the right thing for public health.

Gail Corrado


The Covid response has to have an economic defense as well as a defense to the disease. The virus causes illness, disability and death and it causes both economic and social disruption. Our leaders need to help gather those who need to be on deck to launch actions based on strategies designed to defend against all parts of the problems caused by the disease. It is actually not sufficient to point out that the administration at UNC was under pressure. You folks indeed were and are. I see you as occupying a position where you can, along with fellow administrators, bring people together to help forge novel solutions to exactly this kind of difficult problem. Taking the hand you are dealt should not be in the job description of an administrator during tough times. Our university administrators could have done better and you folks still can. Get together. Create something that can be a beacon.

Ron Calhoun


Thank you, Dean Rimer. Speaking truth to power when it runs counter to the prevailing current is never easy. Thank you for your courage!

Karl Bauman


Thanks much for this Barbara. Virus cases and deaths are going to increase. I hope the planners and decision makers are currently developing strategies for that.

Hal Fischer


Is UNC now being run by idiots or cowards or, worst of all, politicians? I hate to say it, but once again UNC is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Hal Fischer UNC ‘72.



HAMLIN O'KELLEY UNC '94, P '24 (WE HOPE) 08/17/2020 Not the policies of the University....PLEASE DO NOT SEND THESE STUDENTS HOME....4 small clusters does not a crisis make I'm class of 94! My daughter is a freshman and all leaders involved in this should be ashamed! The right decision was made to come to campus and the right decision is to stay with that plan! Don't want to hear you opine about mental health ever again.



Thank you for your frankness and for taking a nuanced and thoughtful approach to telling this complex story. Please continue to share your insights as the next chapter unfolds. All of us at the University are hungry for this level of informed, open and fact-based assessment.

Bonnie Ferguson


"The BOG told system universities they had to reopen and that individual university chancellors could not make those decisions independently." This statement from your post speaks volumes to "what went wrong." From the perspective of a parent, and a responsible citizen, valuing financial health over human health, which is what the BOG's requirements did, is not only immoral, it is impractical. Our family scanned all the information we could get - which was quite limited until very recently - for true acknowledgement of the size and nature of the concern. UNC leadership came across clearly as having started with the prescribed decision to reopen, NOT whether to reopen. I know there was a tremendous amount of effort to address the situation and communicate a plan, but the communication was obviously all one way, school to family, giving NO contact information (a standard practice) making it clear that no feedback was desired and that questions were not really welcome. The live session spent so much time introducing people that the questions were limited to about one-third of the total time. There were a couple of answers that were candid but most were spin and regurgitation. Had this process run with open communication and feedback, perhaps the BOG could have been influenced to change their stance. I understand that the UNC-CH leadership didn't want to say "they made us do it," but with the disingenuous communication we received, it made it seem like they were clueless about the age group in question and they had NOT followed the science, while saying that they had had all this consultation with UNC public health and other experts. Specifically, I wanted to know what the UNC system felt were "acceptable losses" - how many exposures, illnesses, and deaths were required before taking one of these unexplained off-ramps. Without any sense of that we had no other choice but to have our student stay home. The cost of making this decision poorly should ride squarely on the shoulders of the BOG. Appointed by the legislature, that's where the bill should be sent for things like: the hotels where some quarantined had to be sent, the cost of reopening the campus, the cost of wasted food purchased for campus dining, the cost of the faculty who were required to teach on campus to regroup. Again. The funds should not be burdened on individual campuses, since they were not allowed to reconsider such an obviously flawed plan. I did send feedback, but felt like it went into the void. The lesson here - as Dr. Rimer - is about THE PROCESS. There is a critical need to address what worked and did not in the process for the health of the institution as a whole, not just the health of students during a global pandemic. Dr. Rimer, thank you for having the courage to make your view public and for expressing it well.

Lisa Nash


Dr. Rimer, as the parent of a Gillings graduate (2018) who works in hospital emergency management and a current Chapel Hill undergrad (2022), I want to commend you for your courage and balance in explaining the multi-faceted challenges underlying the decision to open campus this fall. While we all want the most "robust" experience for our students, I believe this "one-size-fits-all" decision-making model for the entire UNC system has not served anyone well at Chapel Hill. Our current student lives in off-campus Greek housing, but also happens to be employed as an office assistant in one of the residence halls that has been identified as having a COVID-19 cluster. This fact, and the announcements of subsequent clusters, has been a very unnerving reality for our family, as my husband has multiple risk factors.

Dr. Deborah Girasek


Great to see your leadership, integrity and sound judgement on display Barbara.

Mark H Merrill


Barbara, Very thoughtful and reasoned commentary. Thank you. Disappointing that some have chosen to be critical vs constructive. Regarding next steps you outlined a prudent, rational and evidenced based approach. As new information and developments have transpired it is prudent to have a course modification and adopt a different approach. Such is the public health principled and scientific approach. Mark H. Merrill,MSPH

Pete Kolsky


Thank you for explaining the context, the issues and a clear and sensible way forward (or "next step") far more coherently than I am finding elsewhere on a difficult issue. I happen to agree with your position, but even if I disagreed, I'd be grateful for the clarity and fairness of what you write.

David Naftolowitz MD


Thanks for the thoughtful commentary and advice, which I'm sure will have some bearing on UNC's decision-making. However, there are 2 details that were not fully recognized in your letter - - It was not only the behavior of students off-campus that was a problem - 2 of the 4 clusters occurred in campus dormitories. - Off-campus behavior undoubtedly played a large role. But it would likely be more accurate to say it was "outside-of-the-classroom" behavior that was relevant. Therefore just switching to remote teaching will have a limited effect. Instead, having large numbers of students living in high rise dorms should be prohibited, and it would be safer still if those in apartments around town studied remotely instead from their home towns. In Chapel Hill, they are likely to get-together in unsafe ways if they continue to live on or near a college campus.

Aluoch Ooro


Dear Dean Rimer, Thank you for the note. As a mother, aunt and staffer at UNC, it is indeed a challenging time. However, I do intend to disagree with some of the actions that the University has undertaken. My niece (Michelle a Rober Johnson Scholar) is an undergrad at UNC taking all of her classes for this semester remotely in South Africa. My son (Onunga) is a graduate student at NCCU also taking his classes remotely in Durham. Both of them are class of 2021. All of us, including myself, are products of boarding schools overseas. Both of them have expressed concerns about UNC system re-opening based on their previous experiences and have incessantly bothered me to proffer some ideas. I told them that In the USA, public health at this time, appears to be primarily indivualized, whereas the interest of the community is secondary. Some are adhering but our POTUS is sending mixed messages. On the other hand, since the cluster of these COVID-19 outbreaks are dorm related, why didn’t the University deploy (Prefects, house mother/father as we know them overseas) or in the USA known as Resident Assistants to monitor every activity that is conducted by student residents of that dorm? This would assure compliance at its best without constantly calling the police to monitor students. Finances: This issue is now becoming a source of major concern with the young adults who grow up on Facebook, etc. Their major complaint is why should we be paying in-person fees and tuition for remote learning? Universities will have to revamp their operational activities and justify the fees or promote their existence on these funds , that have been increasingly unfettered for generations. Who is UNC system willing to sacrifice(faculty, student, staff) before it pivots to remote learning?

John Wiesman, DrPH ‘12, MPH


Thanks Dean Rimer for sharing the decision making on COVID-19 for the UNC system. Your leadership is much appreciated. The multiple cluster outbreaks that I received alerts on overt the weekend were very concerning. I support taking the off ramp is the most prudent course for now. Hoping everyone takes good care.

Trude Bennett


Thank you, Barbara. Let us know what we (emeriti and alumni, as well as students, staff, and faculty) can do to support you and the only reasonable choice!

Sue Estroff


Thank you Barbara for your candor and reasoned approach. Finally what we have all wanted--clarity, authenticity, and common cause with complex realities.

Hamlin O'Kelley UNC '94, P '24 (we hope)


Not the policies of the University....PLEASE DO NOT SEND THESE STUDENTS HOME....4 small clusters does not a crisis make

Eric Muller


Thank you for this thoughtful statement, Barbara.

Melvin Jackson


This would be the Public Health thing to take the off ramp. NOW!

Gary Ginsberg


I couldn't agree more with your assessment and recommendations. We have a world renown SPH with eminent scientists/researchers/faculty and policy leaders whose experience, adherence to a scientific process, and guidance should be followed.



This has sadly been a failed experiment. It is definitely not working.

Mary Beth Bell


Thank you, Dr. Rimer, for plainly stating what is going on at the decision-making level. Let’s all hope they read your blog and agree with your assessment, for everyone’s sake. Stay safe!

David J. Ballard, M.D., M.S.P.H., Ph.D.


Barbara, As someone who has dedicated my professional life to patient safety and health care quality dating back to my days in the early 1980s leading the Student Health Action Coalition Clinic, I completely support your position on this issue. It is time for UNC folks to join me remotely as I continue to pursue MBA@UNC program, my 5th UNC degree program since enrolling this month in 1974 as a Morehead Scholar. Thank you for your ongoing exemplary leadership. David David J. Ballard, M.D., M.S.P.H., Ph.D., F.A.C.P. Adjunct Professor, Health Policy and Management, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill https://sph.unc.edu/adv_profile/david-j-ballard-md-msph-phd-facp/

Mike Flynn


I agree whole heartedly, it is time to take the off ramp. No need to wait any longer

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.