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Thursday September 23rd

Graduate workers continue to petition UNC, demand not reopen in-person instruction

<p>The Graduate Student Petition and a previous Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) Meeting in Kerr Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.</p>
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The Graduate Student Petition and a previous Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF) Meeting in Kerr Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

The staff and workers expected to carry out UNC’s fall reopening plan have been some of its most vocal critics. 

In a petition published June 12, graduate workers have expressed concerns about the safety and logistics of returning to campus for in-person instruction this fall. Graduate workers previously petitioned University administration in April to meet a list of demands in response to COVID-19 conditions.

In early June, more than 650 faculty, fellows and teaching assistants also petitioned the University to ensure that no instructors would be required to teach on campus in the fall. 

“This is a plan for administrators by administrators, and not for the people who are actually going to carry out this plan and who actually make the University work,” Jennifer Standish, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History who helped draft the graduate workers’ petition, said.

The petition, entitled “Graduate Worker Response to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Roadmap to Fall” and written by a collective of graduate workers, has gained over 400 signatures since it was published.

The petition calls for University administration to address three primary demands:

  1. UNC does not reopen in person this fall and instead commits its resources to ensuring remote course instruction is available to all students.
  2. No layoffs or furloughs of staff be made, and that during remote instruction all workers retain pay, benefits and health insurance. 
  3. All graduate workers retain funding and health insurance, and UNC grants all graduate workers a universal one-year time-to-degree extension.

“I feel like this petition lays out the actual roadmap of those of us on the ground living this experience,” Joseph Richards, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication, said. 

The petition also outlines ways University administration could find money to ensure that the lowest-paid workers retain their salaries and benefits, such as defunding UNC’s police force, using UNC’s liquid assets and endowment funds and cutting the salaries of administrators, coaches and tenured faculty.

Specifically, the petition states that less than half of UNC Police’s $10.48 million operating budget in Financial Year 2019 was used to pay salaries, citing a public records request. According to UNC’s 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, UNC had nearly $440 million in unrestricted cash and cash equivalents on its books.

Danielle Dulken, a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies who helped edit the petition, said that it was important to seek input from undergraduate students and other campus workers, and make revisions based on their feedback so the petition was representative of their views as well. 

Standish said she believes reopening campus this fall is going to “cost lives,” primarily those of the lowest-paid workers. 

“At this time, I would not feel ethical taking part in this plan for in-person teaching on campus because I feel like it would make me complicit in a plan that I believe will cause a number of people to get sick and possibly die, and will just spread corona even more,” Standish said.

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that the Roadmap for Fall 2020 was created in consultation with 30 campus leaders representing all aspects of campus operations and that student feedback has been vital in planning.

Safety concerns

Standish, along with other graduate workers, said their main critique of UNC’s fall reopening is that they believe it is driven by financial interests rather than health and safety concerns.

“What we've been hearing is sort of an overly optimistic view, especially at a time when hospitalizations and cases are on the rise in North Carolina,” Richards said. “It just seems separate from the reality on the ground and so what I would have wanted is more of a people first model, and I think that's essentially what the petition is getting to.” 

In a campuswide email sent June 19, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin wrote that they spent the last several weeks gathering feedback from students, faculty and staff regarding the Roadmap, as well as many of the University’s “world-renowned faculty experts in public health, infectious disease and ethics.” 

“Our plan considers the safety and well-being of our campus community along with other competing interests and values, including the mental health of our community members, the quality of the educational experience and the financial health of our University and our employees,” the statement reads. 

UNC Media Relations also said that the Roadmap is currently a framework for approaching the return to in-person instruction, and feedback from the Carolina community will be critical as University leaders continue to outline details.

Dulken said she is concerned that UNC hasn’t announced what it would take to use one of the Roadmap’s off-ramps. She said it leaves her to speculate how many people would need to become infected and whether it would take one or multiple deaths before UNC would change its plans. 

In their June 19 statement, Guskiewicz and Blouin said they will continue to meet with stakeholders in the Carolina community as they keep refining plans for the fall and “off-ramps,” should they be needed.

Molly Green, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology, said she is scheduled to be a TA for a women’s and gender studies class this fall. However, she said she is concerned about returning to campus and leading in-person recitations for her own safety and because she lives with an immunocompromised individual. 

Green said for these reasons, as well as fear that if she got sick and was hospitalized, her hospital bill could potentially be higher than her entire TA stipend for the semester, she would likely decline the TA position. 

Guskiewicz and Blouin wrote in their June 19 message that the University will be as flexible as its guidance allows with individuals who may need to teach, work or learn away from campus.  

Dulken said if the University does move forward with reopening, graduate workers may have a collective conversation about what it would mean to not perform on-campus duties.

Remote instruction option

Dulken said because she thinks UNC is afraid to lose tuition dollars, the University has pushed to reopen campus and presented the opportunity as providing students with the “college experience.”

However, with requirements of face masks and social distancing, Dulken said that returning to campus will not be delivering the socialization and campus life that students desire.

“I don't think that they can offer the college experience that students are seeking,” Dulken said. “And so rather they should have prioritized online learning as a temporary solution to what's happening globally.”

Ampson Hagan, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology, said he thinks an online fall semester would be an improved experience from the spring since instructors would have more time to train and prepare their classes.

“We're not asking for UNC to shut down forever,” Hagan said. “In fact, we're not even asking UNC to shut down. UNC has the capability, has the money, has the technology and has human capital that have the expertise to do online education up until maybe January.” 

Looking to the fall

Rising junior De’Ivyion Drew, who is a member of the Campus Safety Commission, said she met with Guskiewicz and the commission's Co-Chairperson DeVetta Holman on June 16 about a list of COVID-19 demands she said she derived directly from the graduate worker petition.

Drew said she has been working closely with the graduate workers who organized the petition since her first year, and felt it was important to voice their concerns to the Chancellor because she said their labor is at the center of how reopening in the fall will work.

Her demands included the implementation of hazard pay; fully funded expansions of UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Wellness services for Black students, staff and faculty; free or reduced COVID-19 testing; no layoffs or furloughs for University staff; and no consequences for academic attendance and participation.

In addition to graduate workers, Drew said she also asked the demands be met for UNC’s housekeeping, groundskeeping and food service staff. 

“I am just really interested to see how the administration shifts and how they show up for grad workers this fall, and ways that we can show up for each other,” Drew said. “The administration may meet some things and will fall short on others. For what they fall short on, we have each other's back on.”

In Guskiewicz and Blouin’s message, they acknowledged that they are aware that some members of the campus community have expressed questions and concerns about the presented reopening plan, but assured that UNC is working to refine the plan and “making whatever adjustments are needed in real time.”

Suzanne Barbour, dean of the Graduate School, said in an email statement that she appreciates the concern the group of graduate workers expressed for a variety of constituencies on campus, including graduate students, in their petition. 

Specifically, Barbour said that the Graduate and Professional Student Federation is the official governing body for UNC’s more than 10,000 graduate and professional students, and noted an April 16 response Guskiewicz, Blouin and she sent to the GPSF about their concerns.

“The GPSF leadership is a very strong and effective advocacy voice for the safety and well-being of their constituencies and we enjoy a very collaborative and productive relationship with them," Barbour wrote.

Despite not being the official governing body, the collective of graduate workers who coordinated the June 12 petition continues to be active in voicing concerns of graduate students. Hagan said that since the group’s April petition with COVID-19 demands, they have developed a broader network of support, which he said is continuing with their petition against reopening.

“Petitions serve a purpose in that they're public so that the University cannot say, ‘people support this, people feel safe’ when clearly hundreds don’t,” Dulken said. “Many of us are very concerned and very scared.”

university@dailytarheel.com

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