This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: So, how are you feeling going into the rest of the fall semester?
Kevin Guskiewicz: I am optimistic. As we said from the beginning, we know that the best Carolina experience is one that occurs here on campus and we tried to, obviously, provide that opportunity for as many students as possible, even knowing it was going to be a different fall semester. But we are, I think, in a good place right now.
DTH: What has been the most challenging aspect of your job as chancellor this semester?
KG: Well, obviously, the situation with COVID-19... It's just difficult whenever there's so much uncertainty. And we’re sitting here now in nearly mid-September with, still, uncertainty about the path of the virus. And as we're beginning to plan for the spring semester, I think that the biggest challenge has just been the uncertainty. And in trying to provide the best opportunities for as many people as possible, continuing to provide flexibility and choice.
DTH: How does it feel experiencing this major shift in the higher education landscape, while still just now starting your time as chancellor?
KG: I've always encouraged our team to think about being strategic, bold and student-focused. So, this is why we talked to so many people as we developed the roadmap for the fall, recognizing that we're never going to please everyone but working really hard to try to accommodate as many people as possible. And so I think that we want to continue to focus on this, and we're gonna have to make some tough decisions again moving forward for the spring, but we're going to do it in a very inclusive way.
DTH: In your email last Friday, you said final decisions about the University "will always rest with the Chancellor” and they flow through the South building. Do you regret any of your UNC’s decisions made over the summer or at the start of the fall semester?
KG: I don't regret any decisions. We've learned a lot — and there's some areas that we know, as we reflect back on the development of that roadmap and the implementation of it in the start of the semester, that I believe we'll look closely at and and modify as we make plans for the spring semester. And what I'm proud of is that we prepared a campus, within the boundaries of the campus here, that was safe. And we said that the safety and well-being of our campus community would be first and foremost. I was proud of the fact that we were able to allow students to come and learn in a classroom setting, to have access to our libraries and the Student Union and the dining halls and all of that, and I hope that we can certainly recreate that for the spring semester.
I think there's certainly some areas with regard to the way in which people adhere to the community standards. While students were here on campus and faculty and staff were here on campus, we certainly saw that everybody was adhering to that. And I think we perhaps underestimated some of the mass gatherings that were going to take place off campus and then how that would potentially influence the spread of the virus within the residence halls. And so that's what we're working really hard on, is to try to do everything to mitigate that as we make plans for the future.
DTH: In hindsight, are there any aspects of the roadmap that you think could have been different, to have made for a more effective reopening?
KG: We announced in late May that we were going to start a week early, that the idea was to get in front of a potential second wave of the virus. We were guided throughout this entire process by our infectious disease public health faculty experts who are some of the best in the country, and they're continuing to work alongside us.
... And so the question I guess is should we have started that earlier perhaps? So we've asked ourselves that question. Should we have potentially moved to an online format for the first few weeks, and slowly moved students into the residence halls to see how that would work? Should we have done some re-entry baseline testing? So we were asking ourselves all these questions and we're learning from, again, how things unfolded here, how it’s unfolding on other campuses. Although also other campuses have tried some of these approaches and they're working in some places and others are seeing significant community spread of the virus as well.
DTH: And so pivoting to planning for the spring semester, is the goal to have students back on campus for the spring?
KG: Obviously that's our hope. But we are going to, again, spend the next several weeks developing the best approach for that. So again, I remain optimistic, but we still have many questions we want to answer. We want to learn from over the past six months, and certainly over these past six to seven weeks. And so, we'll know more probably in a month.
DTH: You mentioned this new advisory group outlined in the email sent Friday. Who all is included in this group, and how did you go about recruiting people to be part of this team?
KG: It'll be approximately 20 to 25, people representing the faculty, staff, students and some members of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community. And so, we wanted to be sure that we have a diverse group. I've spoken with the chair of the faculty, and she's provided some recommendations for us. We've talked to student leaders and gathered feedback there. And we've had some of our leadership team members that work closely with the Town to help us with community members.
DTH: Will there be other elements of planning for the spring semester that will be significantly different from the fall?
KG: Well, I think we really want to focus in on testing. I've been on two or three calls in the last three days, discussing different options for this. The good news is that on the testing front, it's changing by the week in terms of what's available now, in terms of rapid testing, with the sensitivity of those tests are today versus what they were just a month ago. And so, we're looking at this, we're talking with some other universities about what's working for them, what's not working for them. So that's one component that could be different, as we look at that. We have a robust testing program in place ... But we do want to think about if there are techniques that are working in other places or are working in our research centers, that might help guide us down a different path for the spring.
Then I think the other part of it, as I mentioned earlier is that whether a phased re-entry — if we are going to bring students back, might phased re-entry be an approach that would allow us to to ramp up to a point where we can test it along the way across two or three weeks? And so that's another consideration. I don't want you to think that's what we've decided on, but we're going to consider all these different options.
DTH: So turning to the University budget — in your campus message, you reiterated that a lot of the University's revenue sources are threatened by the pandemic. What are some of these measures that would mitigate budget shortfalls?
KG: I think every university in the country is facing a potentially historic loss of revenue and, at this time, most of our losses ... have been in auxiliaries such as housing and dining and parking, athletics — certainly with lost revenue from ticket sales and potentially from TV revenue.
So the good news is, as I tried to emphasize in my message, that enrollment is up. So we are teaching more credit hours right now than we ever have — we're up about 10 percent. And so, I think that's one way to mitigate some of the revenue loss, is to be sure that we are still enrolling as many students as we can, providing a quality education. So, that's one way to do this.
Another is that we are not filling a lot of vacant positions at the University. And certainly that can take a toll on some units and that's a challenge in itself. But it's the fiscally responsible thing to do right now. And so, that will help us should we run in a shortfall with state appropriation, potentially.
DTH: Going into this decade with some potential revenue losses and cuts, what are some of your long-term concerns?
KG: Obviously, when you have a great university as we do, there are oftentimes our faculty — we have incredible faculty that other universities would like to invite to their campuses. And so we're trying to do everything to make sure we can retain our faculty …
… I worry that if there is a budget shortfall — which we have to be preparing for — that we would lose opportunities to retain our faculty. We've been working really hard on study abroad programs for our students, our undergraduates, so we were climbing in the rankings there. And I want to be sure that we can continue to stay true to that. Experiential education, that was part of that being strategic bold and student focused, that we really want to provide more experiential education opportunities — study abroad, undergraduate research and internship opportunities. And so I worry if there's a budget shortfall that we'd begin to lose the ability to provide those opportunities for students.
The good news is that we are right in the middle of a capital campaign. And those are priorities for us to try to raise private funding for those opportunities for students, as well as for professorships for faculty. I worry about those with a potential budget shortfall, but we're doing everything possible to try to mitigate that.