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Sunday February 28th

Heel Talk Episode 24: Student leaders look ahead to spring semester

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This is the third episode of a three-episode series on preliminary spring planning. To finish off the series, host Evely Forte met with student leaders to gauge their thoughts on shortcomings of the fall semester and their expectations of the University for the spring. 

Featured in this episode: Jorren Biggs, Black Student Movement Outreach Coordinator; Eleanor Murray, Co-Director of Outreach for the Campus Y; Collyn Smith, undergraduate senator in the UNC student government legislative branch; and Greear Webb, a member of the Commission of Campus Equality and Student Equity. 

Episode hosted by Evely Forte and produced by Praveena Somasundaram. Supervising producers are University Desk Editor Maddie Ellis, Digital Managing Editor Will Melfi and Editor-in-Chief Anna Pogarcic.

Transcript below by Jennifer Tran:

Eleanor Murray: I mean, exactly what Greear and Collyn said, it’s a PR stunt that’s meant to make people seem like they’re giving others a seat at the table, but the table doesn’t exist. And your seat doesn’t exist either.

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte from The Daily Tar Heel, and this is Heel Talk. Hey everyone, welcome back to Heel Talk. This is the third episode of our three-episode series on preliminary spring planning.

And to finish off the series, I met with student leaders to gauge their thoughts on shortcomings of the fall semester, and to learn their expectations of the university for the spring. 

What you’ll hear next is the conversation I had with four student leaders, including Jorren Biggs, Black Student Movement outreach coordinator, Eleanor Murray, co-director of outreach for the Campus Y, Collyn Smith, undergraduate senator in the UNC Student Government legislative branch, and Greear Webb, a member of the Commission of Campus Equality and Student Equity. 

EF: So before we start talking about the spring semester, I do want to briefly gauge thoughts about the fall semester. So, Eleanor, would you start us off by maybe talking about some of the shortcomings, in your opinion, of the planning process that took place for the fall semester?

EM: Yeah, of course! I think Collyn could definitely maybe answer this question a bit better than me. I wasn’t really present in a lot of meetings with the leadership team and admin, but definitely as a student who has disengaged, didn’t know much about the planning process, I can definitely say how the DTH defined it and how many other people defined it is completely correct. Did not work out well for anyone.

I think one of the most immediate shortcomings that we see right now is currently students are super burnt out. I think it was clear who the university was not listening to: it was students, and it was mainly Black and brown students, and it was the workers who keep our campus running. It just feels like once the university found out that they needed to make money, and that Black and brown students were mainly being affected, it really was clear that they were not caring or listening.

EF: Yeah, thank you so much for getting us started. Collyn, Jorren, do either of you have anything that you would like to add as far as shortcomings that you either personally felt or identified?

Collyn Smith: Yeah, I think something I can offer insight into, like, a lot of these admin conversations in those spaces, like Eleanor mentioned, so I appreciate that. I think one of the biggest things, honestly, is we heard this phrase consistently all summer, like starting April is: ‘We’re listening, we’re here and we’re listening.’ And we were offered all of these spaces that were feedback spaces, or like FAQ sessions to hear. And it always was: ‘We’re listening to your concerns.’ But then we turn around, July, August, the concerns are not being listened to.

So, we heard that phrase over and over. And that's just — it just wasn't the truth, talking on a specific issue that I've dealt a lot with and I'm still dealing with right now is how the university handled housing. I was in conversations with people that were in upper-level student affairs positions, that when I talked to them about housing and also housing stuff, especially, they're like: “Our priority is to make sure that these situations don't go the way they did.” And then we turn around two weeks later, we've furloughed an entire staff for a month early, while we have so many people in administration sitting there with over six-figure salaries that have yet to take any kind of cuts to that.

EF: Yeah, thank you both for sharing your thoughts on the fall semester, and some of the shortcomings. Now, let's talk a little bit about the spring semester. As you may know, the Daily Tar Heel has reported extensively on the Campus and Community Advisory Committee. And this is that new spring committee that Chancellor Guskiewicz created of faculty, students and community members. 

In a message to campus community members, Guskiewicz said that the purpose of this committee is to quote: "Examine how we, (the University) can provide the best Carolina experience for as many students as possible with safety and well being as a priority." Collyn, I'm going to give this question to you to start. Do you think the committee is an effective way to respond to some of the shortcomings identified from the Fall, that we just spoke briefly about? And I guess in other words I'm asking: Is this committee enough to address some of these problems?

CS: Yeah, so I think something that's really important when we're having these conversations to recognize is there's no way to have the Carolina experience. What we deem the Carolina experience we — we just have to stop pretending like that's going to be able to happen right now. I think that the Campus Advisory Committee — I think it's a good start, but I don't think it's enough, and I don't think that there is going to be enough, so there's — for the first time I think, it's been sought out beforehand without having to — I can't even say, like, without having to push though, because the student voice on this has been a journey that's been pushed for a while now, like this is not something that came out of the graciousness of administration, this is the work of students here. 

For me, UNC is always a very, like, public relations image-driven university, and I think that this was another example of  'we can start to address student concerns, but also make ourselves look good by image.' So while I think it is a start, it's still not enough. I don't think it'll ever be enough until decision-making power is put with students, community members, graduate professional students.

Greear Webb: Yeah, if I could just add on to what Collyn said briefly, specifically that last point is really important and something I think that needs to be harped on is the decision-making power, and my two concerns with this commission, if you want to call it that, are accountability and purpose. First of all, what is its purpose? I've already heard, like Collyn said for many members, that the time frame is being rushed, that they didn't even have ample conversation about not returning to the spring, that they were tasked with 'we're going to return to the spring, what should spring break look like, should we have midweek breaks?' You know, 'Should we end early?' Like, we are on a compressed and compacted schedule, like the fall semester. 

And secondly, the accountability piece is very concerning to me. If this board, you know, recommends something, I don't know if the provost and the chancellor have any responsibility to enact what they say or what they recommend. I think it's just, again, as Collyn said, more therefore for image, and so while it is good that students, students of color, faculty, community members that have been speaking out are on that commission, if they aren't going to be listened to when it comes to action, it's kind of a slap in the face to them and to the University at large.

EF: Thank you both so much for bringing up those points. Eleanor, Jorren, did either of you have anything you wanted to add to that?

EM: I agree with Greear and Collyn, as much as someone can agree with someone else. I think the key thing here is: I'm sick of committees. I'm sick of advisory committees. I mean, exactly what Greear and Collyn said, it's a PR stunt that's meant to make people seem like they're giving others a seat at the table. But the table doesn't exist. And your seat doesn't exist either.

Jorren Biggs: I think Collyn and Greear made fantastic points, but Eleanor's point about being tired of committees, I think, UNC is always like this perpetual fish that wants a standing ovation for swimming. I'm always wary of giving them any flowers for doing their own job. So I think that with this, in particular with the ambiguity around the commission, I think they're just ready for us to act like they're doing something better when they're doing something they should have been doing on the front end.

EF: Yeah, I think, Jorren, the point you brought up actually serves as a great segway to my next question, which is: What are those factors or those conversations that these committees should be having? You know, as you mentioned, many student activists on social media and students have voiced concerns about reopening the university in the spring, and others have voiced concerns about the impact that not reopening would have on campus workers and employees at the university, for example.

So I'm curious to hear from all of you, really, about what are some of those factors and those points of friction that the university should really consider as it plans to reopen next semester.

GW: I guess I'll just jump in briefly and say that for me and many folks that I've talked to including my family members and friends, the foremost question needs to be: Should we reopen in the spring? I mean, I'm just really at a loss to understand how we are in any different scenario with no viable testing option being released by the university then we were in March when they sent us home for an extended spring break. And I think right now, if the answer is 'we don't have a wide-scale testing plan,' then 'no' should be the answer there.

CS: Yeah, I think something that I think about a lot, too, is personally, I don't think that finances should be our top consideration, but if our leaders at UNC, all the way up to the Board of Trustees to the Board of Governors to the General Assembly, are in their positions for the altruistic reasons that they claim, to hold them accountable — to hold it accountable from the top-down to ensure that our essential workers, our housekeeping staff, our dining staff or custodial staff, that those people are still receiving the pay that they expect.

EM: I do think something that is worth talking about in these committees is de-densifying. Like Greear said, we have over 20,000 people who attend this University. I'm also a Chapel Hill community member; I've grown up here my whole life. And I know a lot of people who went to like Carrboro town council meetings, Chapel Hill town council meetings, and voice the worries about having these students living next to them again throwing parties. Like, you can go down some streets in Chapel Hill right now, and you can see people tailgating, and they're very clearly students. I think the question should then be: Who is going to come back and who will not come back?

EF: And thank you, all, for all the points that you've brought up so far. I want to talk about some of those tentative changes to the academic calendar if we were to reopen in the spring. But first, a word from our sponsor. 

EF: This podcast episode is sponsored by UNC Summer School. UNC Summer School is here to help you achieve your goals and reduce your stress along the way. With over 500 courses offered, you can finish required credits, build your GPA, and take classes to make space during the school year. So if you are ever stressed about your schedule or future plans, remember, there is always UNC Summer School. Go to summer.unc.edu to learn more.

EF: So the DTH reported that the Campus and Community Advisory Committee met Tuesday, Sept. 29, and it was there that members discussed scheduling options for the spring semester. And they discussed three possible options, including start dates of Jan. 11, Jan. 13, and even starting as late as Jan. 19. With each of these options, of course, having different implications for days off and breaks for students. So Jorren, if you could start us off, could you share your thoughts on these tentative changes to the academic calendar?

JB: I think my biggest worry is just spring semester ending up in this mass exhaustion that we are seeing right now. I think students are just tired and aren't sure when they cannot be tired again in a school setting. So I think my biggest worry is a schedule being pushed back cosmetically, say one week or two weeks before we're supposed to, but still being condensed like Greear was talking about earlier, or still creating an environment in which students never really have a chance to take a break, and just the impacts that has on mental health amidst a global pandemic.

EF: Yeah, that actually brings me to my next point. I did want to spend at least a few moments talking about student mental health. And I know that's something that's been on the forefront of all of our minds as students ourselves this semester. And Greear, as a member of the UNC Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity, I wanted to ask you about that survey that was created to kind of gather student feedback regarding these changes. And so, Greear, as a member of that commission, could you talk a bit about the motivation behind that survey and any insight that you've gained from student responses so far?

GW: Yeah, definitely. I mean, as a member of that commission, those responses really poured in pretty quickly, and a lot of the students were saying the same thing — saying that students did want a break if we decided to return in the spring, and that the whole decision to return in the spring should not be taken lightly. And so that was really powerful to see students of all backgrounds and all experiences coming together on one platform, right, the survey, and saying, "No, the university really needs to listen to us on this issue." 

So obviously, there's a lack or a decrease in motivation, being at home or being off campus versus being on campus and looking forward to a club event at the end of the week or knocking out our work so we can get to a football game on Saturday. It's just different. And so to understand and reflect upon that, and accept that, and support that from the University perspective is going to be so important in these next few weeks.

EM: I'd love to add to that, if I can. I also think something that is important when we think about mental health is not just being able to take a break, but what makes a break an actual break. There are a lot of students who are low-income who go to UNC. I personally received a lot of financial aid so I'm able to attend UNC. And last semester I was able to use the Student Impact Fund to reimburse myself because I had to fly back from Korea to UNC because my study abroad got canceled. That was a big financial burden on me. It was hard that I had to ask my dad, like: "Hey, can you cough up this money to send me back?" It's pretty ironic looking back at it now, but there — I also lost my job at UNC because of budget cuts.

They couldn't make the money up, and I said: "I'm sorry, I can't do this if I'm not getting paid." So, luckily for me, I'm trying to get a job over winter break, that's like a temporary, like, sales associate kind of thing. But there are students who don't have ready access to a car or anything, who are still struggling with making rent, getting food, making utilities. And I think the biggest thing that we have to recognize here is that those students are maybe not filling out that survey, they're maybe not being interviewed for things, and they're maybe not willing to speak about it. That's what I think is really pivotal when we're thinking about this is you have to understand how pivotal financial support needs to be.

EF: Thank you both for bringing up those points. And in my last question here, I'm going to just pose it to the floor, so whoever feels ready to answer, please just jump in. Just as far as this conversation goes, you know, we've discussed reopening and whether or not to even have these in-person classes. And I'm curious to hear from all of you really. Is there anything that has been left out of discussion by the administration, and, in short, what aren't we talking about that we really should be?

CS: I think it's a really hard question, but I think the way that I really think of it is just the reality of the world right now in general, just to sit and pretend like we're going. It's been talked about so many times already, but just to pretend like we can return to any normal. It's really hard to accept a university community, we especially need to understand that the Carolina that we've known and the Carolina that we want to know — just, it can't happen. Especially if we are trying to make the Carolina that we know and have known be a place where the well-being of our community — so, students, staff, faculty, everybody, community members — if that's really our concern is the well-being, we have to understand that we have to give some stuff up.

EF: Definitely. Jorren, did you have any points that you'd maybe want to add, either from your perspective as part of the Black Student Movement, or beyond that as well?

JB: You know, I think everything Collyn said was right on point. In just the university, of continually framing this as a return to normalcy instead of reckoning with the missteps we had this semester, I think any progress we attempt to make isn't valuable if we're not willing to acknowledge what we've done wrong. And I think particularly on the points Eleanor and Greear were making earlier about finances and student finances in particular, and VSOs Mutual Aid Fund and the mutual aid fund made by the other commission on campus. I thought it was ironic the day the U.S. News rankings came out and Carolina was quick to post that we had risen in those rankings. Note, due in no small part to the work of students, but I could find no posts on how to access funds. I didn't see them put in BSM, I didn't see them put in the commission.

EF: I want to thank you all so much for taking the time out of your day to share your perspectives and to share the insight that you've gained from talking to students and from being a student yourself. Thank you all so much. I really appreciate your time and your input.

EM: Yeah, thank you, Evely!

CS: Thank you so much for establishing this and making this happen today.

EF: That's it for this week's episode of Heel Talk. This episode is hosted by Evely Forte, and produced by Praveena Somasundaram, our supervising producers, our University desk editor, Maddie Ellis, Digital Managing Editor Will Melfi, and editor-in-chief, Anna Pogarcic. Stay safe everyone. I'll see you next week. 

EF: 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.

EF: Our City and State desk has a new eight-week podcast called Before You Vote. Here's a preview.

Sonia Rao: Voting is complicated, especially for college students who are often first-time voters or have just moved to a new county or state. Voting during a pandemic is even more complicated. I'm Sonia Rao, the City and State editor for The Daily Tar Heel. Welcome to Before You Vote, where we'll be breaking down what you need to know about voting every Tuesday for the next eight weeks.

EF: We hope you'll listen to this podcast as well if you're planning to vote this year.

university@dailytarheel.com

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