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Black student leaders discuss their opposition to fully reopening campus


Five Black student leaders at UNC, from left to right, sophomore Greear Webb, sophomore Lamar Richards, junior Maya Logan, graduate student Jalyn Howard, and senior Tamiya Troy.

Throughout July, UNC student leaders have attended meetings and conversations with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin and other University administrators to discuss reopening campus and the student perspective in decision-making for the fall semester.

Five Black student leaders, sophomores Greear Webb and Lamar Richards, junior Maya Logan, senior Tamiya Troy and graduate student Jalyn Howard, spoke with The Daily Tar Heel about their opposition to fully reopen campus, particularly with respect to student well-being, racial equity, the potential impact of COVID-19 and a lack of institutional accountability.

The student leaders believe the ideal plan for the fall semester entails completely remote learning without a return to campus, excluding certain individuals such as student researchers, international students and those with an unsafe home environment.

This week, North Carolina exceeded 100,000 positive COVID-19 cases, according to the state Department of Health and Human services. UNC has not announced any changes in response to the continued rise in cases.

According to the CDC, racial or ethnic minority groups are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19 due to systemic health and social inequities. These groups include non-Hispanic Black people, Latinx and Hispanic people and American Indian/Alaska Native people.

Webb, co-chairperson of Black Student Movement’s political action committee, said he felt Black and minority students, in particular, were not included in the development the University’s fall reopening plans.

“They can consult with us all they'd like, but when it's time to pull the metaphorical trigger and make decisions about returning to campus, there are no students in the room to serve as that last check and balance on them,” Webb said.

Howard, chief of staff of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, previously spoke about graduate student concerns in a July 13 Faculty Executive Committee meeting. However, even after meeting with University leaders, he said he felt they haven’t given enough answers or clarity.

“I realized that we've been sitting in multiple meetings, and every meeting we're saying the same thing,” Howard said. “We're telling them what's wrong, and we keep telling them what's wrong. And it’s not just us.”

Richards is chairperson of the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity; the Undergraduate Senate passed a resolution to form the commission in June. Logan is vice chairperson and Troy and Webb also serve on the commission.

On July 17, the commission sent a document with 10 formal recommendations to both UNC and UNC System leaders on how to make the Roadmap for Fall 2020 more equitable. The recommendations include adopting more transparent and equitable accountability measures, restricting on-campus living by application for certain situations and offering all fall courses in a fully virtual format.

According to the commission’s document, they also recommended nine University leaders they named to participate in a “Mock-Academic Day” by July 31. The day would simulate an in-person experience on campus, with a schedule similar to that expected for a typical student’s day at UNC.

“And then after doing that, I’d like to see whether or not their perspective changes in regards to whether or not students should be back in person,” Richards said.

Logan said that while it was important for Black student leaders to be involved in various efforts and meetings, it might not be enough for administrative change.

“Right now, I’m just not in a comfortable position to stand on that 'Yes, they will listen. Yes, they will help change and promote the things that we’re doing,'” Logan said. “At this time, I just feel very wary about that, but I am in a decent place where I can say that it was a decent effort on our part yesterday of bringing up these issues.”

Kia Caldwell, a professor in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, has been similarly advocating for racial equity on campus. In a Faculty Executive Committee meeting on June 22, Caldwell, along with professor Sharon Holland, presented a Roadmap for Racial Equity, which she said has not been met with an adequate response from administration.

“I don’t think the pattern that we’ve seen so far has been a positive one,” Caldwell said. “One of the really big things I think is that we do not have diverse leadership on our campus.”

Interim Chief Diversity Officer Sibby Anderson-Thompkins serves as co-chairperson of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, which was charged by the Provost on May 21, 2020. The Council met with the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity on July 9, and Anderson-Thompkins met with student leaders earlier that week.

“They truly impressed upon me the urgency of making space and making sure that they were on our agenda,” Anderson-Thompkins said. “I think what was really compelling was that the students talk about this as a real life or death decision, that it could have very serious ramifications for our brown and Black communities.”

Anderson-Thompkins and the Council are also currently working on recommendations for the Roadmap Implementation Team to consider. The team, led by Blouin, works to update the Roadmap for Fall 2020.

On July 16, the American Association of Professors and UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, hosted a virtual town hall. In the town hall, speakers emphasized the heightened risk of COVID-19 for Black and brown campus workers.

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“It doesn’t surprise me at all that we are all basically in one accord,” Troy, who serves as president of the Black Student Movement, said. “I definitely think it’s necessary for the University and the administration to be receiving pressure from all fronts.”

In an emailed statement, Blouin wrote about the guidance and recommendations of Black student leaders.

“Their input is vital because they are representing the perspectives and experiences of many of our students, faculty and staff,” Blouin wrote. “The Roadmap Implementation Team has reviewed the thoughtful recommendations from the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity, has met with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, and looks forward to continued conversations and partnership as we improve the Roadmap for Fall 2020.”

Though Black student leaders have had the opportunity to put forth recommendations, Richards questioned why UNC’s Black community members were not more involved in the decisions for fall reopening within the Carolina Roadmap for Fall 2020.

“For me, not only as a chair of a commission on student equity, but also as a Black guy at UNC, when I look at the Roadmap, I do not see a place for me,” Richards said.

Howard said in discussions, University leaders often reference survey data showing the preference of students for returning to campus, the development of community standards for the campus community and the financial implications for the University if it did not reopen.

On July 20, a formal notice from the Office of the Chancellor stated that the University would require students to acknowledge community standards as a condition of fall enrollment by July 27. The notice stated that the requirement must be completed through ConnectCarolina by all students, regardless of instruction mode.

“If you bring students back to campus and a lot of people get sick and die, then people might not want to come back to UNC-Chapel Hill, especially when other universities have shown the ability to adapt and have shown the ability to step up in situations and try to protect their students and that would have financial implications,” Howard said.

He also said he feels the lack of proper explanations from University leaders about fall reopening affects the distrust that Black and minority students may already have in the University.

Though it is unclear whether UNC will implement the changes proposed by Black student leaders and other student entities, Richards said he will continue efforts to hold the University accountable.

“I’m going to keep pressing them because I think I’d be doing a pitiful job if I did not continue to speak out on behalf of minorities who have been long and historically silenced by this university,” Richards said.