UNC-Chapel Hill faculty push back on reopening plans, may “vote with their feet”

By: - June 2, 2020 9:00 am

After more than an hour of questions with UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin Monday, members of the school’s Faculty Executive Committee said they still feel confused and uncomfortable about the school’s plan to return to on-campus instruction Aug. 10.

The chief complaint: Faculty and staff were not a significant part of the UNC System decision to re-open campuses to students in the fall semester and are still unclear on how many classes they will be expected to teach in person as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The committee is working on a campus-wide faculty survey about re-opening, which could be go out by the end of this week. But several faculty members pressed Blouin on the degree to which faculty will have the autonomy to decide whether and how they teach in-person.

Beth Mayer-Davis, chair of the Department of Nutrition, said department heads are conflicted about how to balance risk when talking with faculty members about teaching under pandemic conditions.

“What would be the response, what would be your thoughts, if it turns out that…say, 90 percent of the courses end up being remote or primarily remote, partly because faculty understand we have to be able to provide remote access or options for international students who aren’t able to come to campus anyway?” Mayer-Davis said.

Beth Mayer-Davis

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

Blouin responded by framing the question primarily as a financial one.

“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.”

Blouin’s comments got a number of negative responses from faculty. They said they are tired of getting financial answers when asking essential safety questions in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that threatens the health of students, faculty and staff.

Michael Palm, director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication, answered Blouin’s financial analysis of the situation in the chat section of the Zoom conference meeting.

“Translation: help us con the students back into the dorms, or risk a pay cut?” Palm said.

Asked about the safety of bringing students back to dorms without altering dorm density, Blouin said the administration is working with health experts but have concluded that significant social distancing measures within dorms won’t be possible.

The school will encourage students not to gather in large crowds and to wear masks when appropriate, he said. But they won’t be able to stop students from working jobs in the community that require them to interact with the public, like restaurants and grocery stores, and then returning to high-density living situations within their dorms.

Provost Bob Blouin

“It would probably be next to impossible to minimize students from interacting within the dorms,” Blouin said.

Under its Carolina Away program the university plans to allow up to 1,000 students o enroll and take their classes remotely. This would including students with underlying health conditions and an estimated 250 first-year international students who may be unable to return to the United States, Blouin said.

The university expects between 500 to 700 students who would otherwise be on campus not to be in the fall, Blouin said.

That number of remote students will allow the university to devote two of the campus’ 32 residence halls — Craig North and Parker — to housing students who need to be quarantined because they have been exposed to the virus or have already tested positive.

Student compliance with social distancing and mask guidelines is also a concern for faculty. In Monday’s meeting Eric Muller, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law, shared the recent experience of a colleague who asked a current summer school class how much students would comply with the guidelines when they return to campus.

“Ninety percent of the respondents, of the 24 students, said they expected little to no compliance with the rules about masks and social distancing,” Muller said.

Muller questioned whether the university’s plan is realistic about student behavior.

“We all know, having been to college, that part of the college experience that students crave is inconsistent with wearing masks and social distancing,” Muller said. “It involves various kinds of behaviors that masks and distancing really aren’t consistent with.”

Muller is teaching a first year seminar course in the fall, he said. His wife also cares for her 90-year-old mother.

“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. “As to what their exposure has been, what their risks have been, what the nature of their behavior has been.”

Blouin said professors should be able to impose mask requirements in their own classrooms. Students not complying with those requirements may face consequences, Blouin said.

But last week UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said mask and social distancing guidelines will be expectations — but may not be enforceable.

“If a student is not following community standards is it a violation of the honor code?” Guskiewicz said. “We’re not there yet … I doubt we can even go in that direction.”

Like Guskiewicz in a similar meeting last week, Blouin also resisted giving firm answers about how many faculty and staff the school is prepared to see infected before discontinuing on-campus instruction.

Health experts believe COVID-19 will be with us forever, Blouin said. A vaccine may become available, but likely not before the cold and flu season when they expect a second large wave of infections. In that reality, Blouin said, institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill have to decide how best to balance risks they can’t completely eliminate.

“I could not tell you with all honesty we can eliminate all risk to all of our community,” Blouin said. “What we’re trying to do is minimize that risk to all of us and still maintain a healthy and viable environment so faculty and staff can do their work. If that were to not be the case, if we’re looking for a zero risk environment, what would be the trigger, what would the metric be to come back to campus?”

Faculty members understand that reality, they said, but believe they should decide whether to teach in-person under pandemic conditions. They have concerns about staff members and student workers, some of the university’s lowest paid employees, who will be put at the greatest risk under the reopening plan.

A number of faculty referenced this week’s announcement from Duke University that no faculty would be required to teach on campus if they have health and safety concerns . They will not not have to disclose their personal health concerns, the school said.

UNC faculty and staff, by contrast, still face a lot of ambiguity about what will be expected of them. In-person teaching decisions  are supposed to be made in consultation with department chairs, but those chairs say they’ve been given very little direction on how to make those decisions. Blouin did not clarify those expectations in Monday’s meeting, despite several direct questions about it.

Florence Dore

“Why can’t we do what Duke is doing?” asked Florence Dore, professor and director of graduate studies in English and Comparative Literature. “I don’t understand.”

Dore said the way the administration is dealing with faculty as part of its “Roadmap for Fall 2020” is “offensive.”  It seems to suggest quotas for classes that will have to be taught in-person without actually establishing them in writing, she said.

“Why do we not just let people come back as they feel comfortable coming back?” Dore said. “It’s much simpler, much cleaner and you’d make faculty feel much more respected.”

Jennifer Larson, a teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in English and Comparative Literature, said UNC-Chapel Hill’s roadmap document makes it clear faculty won’t be able to individually decide how and whether they will teach in-person in the fall semester.

“I’m a little concerned about what that communicates,” Larson said. “Because 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 they showed us a way that compassion can take the lead there,” Larson said of Duke.

UNC students expect a residential university experience, Blouin said. If they don’t get that, he said, they are likely to take a gap year or “go somewhere else where they would have a better experience.”

“Duke does a lot of things we can’t do,” Blouin said. “I would say we have made a commitment to our students as well. We have promised them a residential experience. I can’t imagine a residential experience without faculty.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.