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Tuesday April 13th

Heel Talk episode 12: Faculty and staff petition UNC against return to campus

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The 12th episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

Many UNC faculty members, professors and teaching assistants are petitioning UNC administration to guarantee that no instructor will be required to teach in person during the fall 2020 semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other concerns. 

Host Evely Forte spoke to The Daily Tar Heel reporter and incoming Assistant Copy Editor Sasha Schroeder and incoming Assistant Online Editor Praveena Somasundaram to understand what the petitioners are demanding and how they hope the University will implement changes. 

Reporting was done by Sasha Schroeder and Praveena Somasundaram. Episode was co-edited and co-produced by Evely Forte and Meredith Radford. 



The transcript of Monday’s episode is available below: 

Sasha Schroeder: He said that he was really worried about there being a power imbalance there. He’s sending his grad students into recitations every week and they’re having to put themselves at risk, and he’s not assuming the same risks that they are.

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel and this is Heel Talk.

Many UNC faculty members, professors and teaching assistants are petitioning UNC administration to guarantee that no instructor will be required to teach in person during the fall 2020 semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other concerns. 

On June 15, the Faculty Executive Committee met to discuss the plans for the Roadmap for Fall 2020 and to discuss the results of a recent faculty survey that found remote teaching was the preferred method of instruction among instructors who responded.

I spoke to DTH reporter and incoming assistant copy editor Sasha Schroeder and incoming assistant online editor Praveena Somasundaram to understand what the petitioners are really demanding and how they hope the University will implement potential changes. 

Praveena Somasundaram: Thank you for having us; I’m really excited to be here, Evely.

SS: Thank you for having us, Evely.

EF: So Sasha, could you start us off by explaining why this petition was created? 

SS: During the first week of June, over 650 faculty, fellows and teaching assistants signed this petition that was begun by María DeGuzmán, who’s a professor of English and Comparative Literature, and one of the original drafters of the petition, as well as Michael Palm, who’s an associate professor in the Department of Communication, and he’s also president of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors. So, they co-authored the petition together. 

Their petition was largely based on a letter that the Duke administration sent to faculty at Duke University. Michael Palm told me that a lot of the language was actually almost identical to that letter, so, the petition calls for the following: The guarantee that no instructor will be required to disclose any personal health concerns; that all members of the campus community be required to wear masks and practice social distancing in classrooms and public settings; that all staff, students and faculty be tested for COVID-19 during the first weeks of classes; and that a plan for regular and ongoing coronavirus testing be put in place. 

So, by the time that the petition stopped collecting signatures, which was Monday, June 8th, there was over 650 signatures. And, this was comprised of faculty, teaching assistants and fellows. 

EF: So what exactly are these faculty members, professors and teaching assistants really demanding of the University? 

PS: Yeah, so I think I saw some of what they’ve been demanding from the Faculty Executive meeting on June 15th, that I covered. And, a major concern that they had was about teaching methods. So, the methods that the University are considering right now, are the face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, model, remote options and then hybrid models that would combine the two. So, I think what I’ve garnered from my coverage is that faculty really want to know about the provisions that the University will have for faculty who might have circumstances that would make it unsafe for them to teach on campus, as well as the off-ramps for the Carolina Roadmap. So, what metrics the University will use, and at what point in-person classes or in-person class components would need to be stopped, should that need occur once the semester starts. 

Another significant concern that I’ve seen from these faculty meetings and conversations is whether it’s safe to return to campus and whether it’s fair to ask teachers to put that pressure on themselves to return and teach students. One example of that kind of promise that the University has given is the College of Arts and Sciences dean, Terry Rhodes, recently announced that students of the College of Arts and Sciences will most likely have three out of five of their classes in person, or an in-person component for them. So, a concern that the faculty had in response to that was whether it was fair to put that pressure on them to teach those components. I think they just want more information about the safety measures being taken, which we, kind of, have seen with the updates recently. And, they want to know more details about what exactly these UNC infectious disease experts, who are so often referenced by University leaders, what is their current guidance and how will that guidance change, depending on how the case numbers change in the state and county going forward. 

EF: So, Praveena, you mentioned that you attended the Faculty Executive Committee meeting, where Chancellor Guskiewicz met with other University leaders to discuss faculty concerns about teaching in the fall. Could you talk a bit about some of those specific concerns that faculty members brought up at that meeting?

PS: Yeah, so at that meeting, Mimi Chapman, who is the faculty chair-elect, presented survey results about faculty teachings in the fall. That survey was sent to voting members of the faculty and they could respond from June 3rd to June 10th, and there were about 1,200 responses, which is a 34 percent response rate. So, of those responses, she said that 46 percent of faculty preferred the remote teaching option and 29 percent preferred a hybrid model, which goes to show the uncertainty of traditional on-campus teaching methods that faculty had. 

And so, I think the specific concerns from that meeting really highlighted that faculty are concerned about the absence of details and specific provisions that they would like to see in the Carolina Roadmap. 

There was also a push, in the same meeting, for University leaders to consider underrepresented faculty. So, while the survey at the FEC meeting didn’t specifically address demographics other than age, Rumay Alexander, who is a professor in the School of Nursing and who previously served as chief diversity officer, spoke about the concerns she was hearing from fellow faculty about the lack of provisions in the roadmap for individuals of color as well as individuals with disabilities. 

SS: So, and I didn’t attend the same Faculty Executive Committee meeting that Praveena is speaking about, but a lot of other specific concerns of faculty members did come up in my reporting. First of all, a huge thing that many faculty are worried about is inclusion in this process to determine how instruction will be delivered in the fall. 

Michael Palm said that there’s a lot of pressure on department leaders and middle managers who are being told that they have to, sort of, make these decisions on their own, about how their specific departments will provide instruction to students in the fall semester. 

And, in a follow-up to my reporting, Michael Palm also sent me a statement from the Accessible Campus Action Alliance. This statement refers to the push for in-person teaching and the risks associated with that. The Accessible Campus Action Alliance statement says that “campus re-openings are an issue of civil rights, particularly disability, racial and gender equity. Given the disproportionate representation of COVID-19 infection and death in Black and brown communities, university policies that emphasize in-person work and teaching, run the risk of compounding the impact of racial inequity. These policies also risk endangering already marginalized members of university communities, including staff and contingent faculty who are less likely to have the option to take time away from work.”

So, another professor that I spoke with for this story, Erik Gellman — he’s an associate professor of history — he said that, in accordance with guidelines, he’ll be recording online lectures for one of his fall classes, but his graduate teaching assistants will have to do recitations in person. He said that he was really worried about there being a power imbalance there. He’s sending his grad students into recitations every week, and they’re having to put themselves at risk, and he’s not assuming the same risks that they are. 

And, I spoke with one of his graduate students that works with him; his name is Benjamin Fortun and his family lives in Los Angeles and they have been really heavily affected by the coronavirus. Both of Benjamin’s parents, who live in Los Angeles, contracted the virus, and now Fortun’s mother still has a lingering cough, and his father was actually put on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. And, he now has lost his ability to walk. He came very close to death, he can’t walk anymore and he has to relearn how to walk. 

Ben was really concerned because, you know, this is something that’s really killing people, and a lot of people, even though they might not have been touched by the virus themselves, or their families, it’s a very real issue and there are families who have been really heavily affected by it. And so, that’s something we have to think about. 

So, many of the tenured faculty I spoke with, and tenure-track faculty, were really concerned about their graduate students and not only were they concerned about their graduate students, but they were also concerned about other staff who work on UNC’s campus, including those who work in the dining halls, who work in the housekeeping and any other capacity that requires being on campus. And, a lot of their concerns are actually that those staff members, and those members of the UNC community are being included the least in these plans for the Roadmap for Fall 2020. I think a lot of members of the campus community would like to see that all members of the campus community are considered and valued in these plans. And, I know that several faculty do not feel like that’s the case currently.

So, and then in a petition published on June 12th, graduate workers expressed their own concerns about the safety and logistics of returning to campus. They previously petitioned the University administration in April to meet a list of demands in response to COVID-19 conditions. 

This graduate worker petition calls for University administration to address three main demands. They’re demanding that UNC does not reopen in person this fall, and instead commits its resources to ensuring remote-course instruction is available for all students. They’re also demanding that no layoffs or furloughs of staff be made, and that during remote instruction, all graduate workers will retain pay benefits and health insurance. They’re also demanding that all graduate workers retain funding and health insurance and that UNC grants all graduate workers a universal one-time degree extension. These demands are a little bit more intensive than the demands made by the faculty petition. And so, it’ll be interesting to see how the University responds to the demands made by these two distinct groups on campus.

EF: And from both of your reporting, has the University consulted professors to determine how classes will be taught this fall?

SS: So, Michael Palm said that his colleagues do not feel even remotely included in the process to determine how instruction will be delivered in the fall. However, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent an email statement to me that many constituencies have been included in decision-making processes. In his email, he said that “our planning has involved Carolina’s world class infectious disease and public health faculty experts, state and local officials, campus leadership and groups of faculty, staff and students.” According to the Carolina Together website, which gives details about the plans for the fall semester, there will be both on-campus and remote instruction during the fall 2020 semester. The website specifically states that “decisions about which methods will be used for specific classes will be made locally by deans and department chairs, with input from the respective faculty members, regarding how to create the right balance of course offerings using these different instructional delivery models.” 

Guskiewicz also said in his email to me that faculty will have flexibility, but he did not provide any specifics about how the flexibility will be provided. He said “we will provide flexibility to faculty, staff and students for remote learning and teleworking so that we can safely and effectively deliver quality instruction and carry out our impactful research and service this fall.”

PS: So, to kind of, also talk about the response of the Chancellor to faculty concerns about the Carolina Roadmap, I recently covered a committee conversation that the Faculty Executive Committee hosted on June 19th, which was last Friday. And, in that conversation, Mimi Chapman presented the quotes and questions from the over 400 open-ended responses that they’d gotten from the survey. A lot of their responses mentioned that they would be flexible and that there would be provisions in the roadmap for the different situations that faculty inquired about, but there wasn’t specific details about when that would happen or what those provisions would look like in the roadmap.

EF: From what I’ve seen on social media, it seems that many people believe that the University’s original decision to implement in-person teaching is in part due to expected financial losses from students choosing to take the semester off if classes were only offered remotely. Sasha, Praveena, from your reporting, have some UNC faculty members expressed a consideration of the economic well-being of the University? 

PS: In the same community conversation from June 19th, there was some talk about the University’s revenue and how that factored into the plan for the fall reopening of the University. Melissa Geil, the vice chairperson of the Faculty Athletics Committee, brought up their concern about whether student athletes were being properly prioritized in comparison to revenue. And, because the Chancellor and the Provost were there, they were able to speak to the importance of revenue to the University in this time. Specifically with athletics, Guskiewicz said the University is in conversation with other schools about how to determine what the season will look like. But, he did also speak about how much revenue that sports bring in, even if not in-person audience attendance, with TV and broadcasting, how much that revenue brings in. As well as with the general student enrollment, the statistic is like, if 20 percent of students don’t re-enroll, or enroll in the University, then that would be equivalent to a $100 million loss. And so, it was definitely clear how much the administration and leaders are factoring in revenue when considering reopening plans for the fall. 

SS: So, in my reporting, when I spoke with María DeGuzmán, she expressed a curiosity about how, maybe, the University can, sort of, dip into endowment funds, or just generally seek other ways to make up for the budget shortfalls that’ll be expected to arise from the coronavirus pandemic.  So, I listened into a Faculty Executive meeting that took place on Monday, June 8th, and they invited Jonathan Pruitt, who is the vice chancellor for finance and operations, to speak a little bit about the economic well-being of the University in relation to COVID-19 economic shortfalls. And, he actually did discuss the endowment, because, I think, several faculty have maybe suggested that this is something that we can look into as a University to maybe make up for some of the budgeting shortfalls. Pruitt said that most of the endowment resources are restricted based on donor intent. So, some of that money can be restricted to scholarships, or to support faculty salaries. So, basically, it’s not a revenue source that can be used to offset broader operating shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic. So, I think a lot of faculty are interested in seeing how we can make up for the budgeting shortfalls, because that is, I think, a main concern of the University in making their decisions to return to campus. 

EF: Well, thank you both so much for your time today in talking to me. I really appreciate both of you being here.

PS: Thank you so much for having us. 

SS: Thanks so much for having us, Evely. 

EF: This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte. I’ll see you next week.

So, if you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode, and sharing it with someone that you think would enjoy it too. I’ll see you next time. 

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

DTH stories mentioned in this episode: 

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving an honest rating and review. 

@evelyaforte

@mereditharadfor

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