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'This road leads to a disaster': Faculty express reopening concerns in letters

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Screenshot from the virtually Faculty Committee Meeting on Friday, June 19, 2020 to discuss the Carolina Roadmap.

Editor's note: This story is the first of a two-part series on faculty concerns with the University's reopening plans. 

Students, faculty and staff have expressed concerns about UNC's plans for a fall return to campus for months — and some recently turned to letter-writing to make their voices heard. 

Erik Gellman, an associate professor of history, said he and other faculty members have expressed their concerns about fall reopening plans to UNC leaders, in Chapel Hill and System-wide.

“The original Roadmap (for Fall 2020) was based on a false premise that starting the semester early would allow for us to start at a level where the number of COVID cases in North Carolina and elsewhere were at a low point,” Gellman said. “I get why when you have made a plan, you want to stick with it, but for a long time, this Roadmap has been driving us down the wrong road. There’s a feeling that ‘oh we’ve gone far enough down this road we might as well just continue down the road,’ but I think this road leads to a disaster."

The recently-released COVID-19 Dashboard on Carolina Together’s website tracks positive cumulative cases. Thirteen students have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, according to the dashboard. 

Last week, Gellman and more than two dozen tenured faculty members turned their voices directly to students in the form of an open letter published in The Charlotte Observer. In part, the letter encourages students who have the ability to stay home and take remote courses to do so. 

Gellman said the University’s plan to allow students to return to dormitories at full capacity is a recipe for how to start an outbreak, rather than prevent one. 

“Whatever goes on in the dorms is going to be like petri dishes,” María DeGuzmán, a professor of English and comparative literature and one of the letter’s signatories, said. “The CDC has already said this represents the highest risk possible when you have full capacity dorms. And that is what UNC-Chapel Hill decided to do and that is going to spread to every other part of campus, into the classrooms and into the town.”

DeGuzmán said she is especially worried about systemic health disparities affecting Latinx people and African Americans across the state, which are being exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black or African American people account for 21 percent of the population in North Carolina, but make up 24 percent of COVID-19 cases and 31 percent of deaths. Hispanic or Latinx people account for nine percent of the population, but make up 41 percent of COVID-19 cases and 11 percent of deaths.

Michael Palm,  an associate professor in the Department of Communication and one of the letter's signatories, said it aimed to address the fact that risks for campus community members are not distributed equally. 

“As tenured faculty, we do have more protection in terms of being able to decide how we want to teach or whether we want to be on campus, than a lot of other groups and communities on campus,” Palm said.

The letter is a “desperate move,” he said, following months of attempts to demonstrate to leadership at UNC and the Board of Governors that members of the campus community have an established consensus that it is unsafe to reopen campus at the current planned scale.

Palm, who also serves as president of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said a primary frustration throughout the summer has been a lack of transparency in decision-making on the part of the administration. 

“Everybody understands that UNC and the leadership of the campus are under tremendous political, as well as financial pressure,” Palm said. “It's become painfully clear that they are incapable — or unwilling — of standing up to that pressure.”

Advocating for autonomy

BOG Chairperson Randy Ramsey said in mid-July that chancellors would not have autonomy in deciding if and when to close campus due to a rise in COVID-19 cases. He said the decision would remain with the BOG and UNC-System President Peter Hans. 

In response, Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman sent a letter on July 21 to the chairpersons of the Board of Trustees and BOG. She expressed her concerns for the fall reopening and the lack of autonomy considering each campus’ unique situation.

In her letter, Chapman noted that the circumstances create an “extraordinarily stressful reality,” for faculty and staff. 

“Many of the assumptions that the Roadmap is based on are not holding, and that’s not anyone at the University’s fault,” Chapman told The Daily Tar Heel. “I believe the right thing to do is for our campus to have the freedom to make decisions based on our local circumstances.”

BOT Chairperson Richard Stevens and a media representative for the UNC System did not respond to requests for comment. UNC Media Relations directed The Daily Tar Heel to the Carolina Together website about flexibility available for University employees. 

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“As we plan for our phased reentry to normal campus operations, we request and expect that we will all operate out of compassion, understanding and concern for each other,” the website states. “We will work to balance individual needs for flexible work arrangements with the broader needs of the campus unit/department and the overall University mission.”

For faculty concerned about returning to work, the web page states that the University will ask employees to use the Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations process when there are requests for accommodations or flexibility based on medical circumstances. 

When requests are made for non-medical reasons, such as due to child care needs, age or living with a high-risk individual, employees should work with their managers, supervisors and department chairs to seek solutions that “balance individual needs with those of their respective schools and units, and the University as a whole,” UNC Media Relations said in a statement.

In her letter, Chapman said many faculty members have committed themselves to teaching in person in the interests of students, particularly those from vulnerable communities.

“We are willing to do our part,” Chapman wrote. “But at this point, I believe that our University and perhaps the entire UNC System is being asked to turn straw into gold.”

@maydhadevarajan | @forepreston