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The Daily Tar Heel

Over 150 UNC faculty members sign letter calling for remote spring semester

Jay Smith, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill talks at the re-launching of the school's chapter of the American Association of University Professors on Friday, Oct. 9, 2018

The number of faculty members who have signed an op-ed published in The Daily Tar Heel calling for the University to go fully remote for the spring semester has increased from 70 to 162 since its publication on Dec. 2. 

The op-ed signals growing fears that restarting in-person learning as COVID-19 infections and deaths increase across the country could trigger a dangerous surge in local cases. An amendment to the letter included Dec. 9 metrics from The New York Times that showed intensive care units are at 81 percent capacity in Chapel Hill and at 97 percent in Durham.

Instead of resuming in-person classes, faculty are calling for the N.C. General Assembly and the Board of Governors to alleviate the University’s financial challenges through alternative means, including a state-level rollback of budget cuts to the UNC System and a reversal of 2013 tax changes.

Media representatives for the Board of Governors did not respond to The Daily Tar Heel's request for comment by the time of publication. 

Looking ahead to the spring

For the spring semester, UNC anticipates holding about 20 percent of its spring classes in person. All students living in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area will be subject to mandatory reentry and weekly surveillance testing. Faculty and staff will have access to voluntary testing.

Jay Smith, professor of history and a co-author of the op-ed, said he and a group of other faculty and graduate students began drafting the letter a few weeks ago, as they saw COVID-19 cases skyrocketing.

“Epidemiologists and Anthony Fauci and others began warning of a seriously bleak winter if we didn't, as a nation, take steps to get this problem under control,” Smith said. “That sense of urgency in the public health community did not seem to be reflected in the rhetoric we were hearing from the administration and the deliberations of the CCAC (Campus and Community Advisory Committee).”

Smith said he and other faculty members felt a sense of desperation as they watched the University move toward a reopening that many felt was not much different from the fall — even with the increased testing.

“It seems to me that the Chancellor and the Provost are asking us to accept on faith that they've learned enough lessons, and they've done enough preparatory work, that we can allow them to roll the dice and see what happens,” Smith said. “And our position is, it is not worth the risk of rolling the dice, because the numbers are just too massive.”

In response to the op-ed, Vice Chancellor for Communications Joel Curran said in a statement that the University’s new testing policy is a key difference between the fall and the spring. Curran also pointed to plans for improved communication and enforcement of the University’s COVID-19 community standards.

"We are closely monitoring state and national case counts, and we are prepared to adjust our plans at any time and will announce changes no later than Jan. 9 – prior to the return of our on-campus residents, if the conditions necessitate it," Curran said in the statement.

Additionally, during a joint meeting between the UNC Faculty Council and Employee Forum on Dec. 4, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin addressed some of the concerns highlighted by the op-ed.

“Infectious disease experts believe our asymptomatic testing program will identify cases and any trends earlier — as we were able to accomplish in mid-semester this fall with our pilot surveillance testing program — which would help stop the rapid spread of a virus into clusters,” Guskiewicz said.

But some professors, including Michael Palm of the communications department, feel that the University’s plans won’t be enough, given rising infections.

“I think there needs to be big, bold, brave decisions made in the face of political opposition to prioritizing health and safety of every member of the UNC community and every resident of the surrounding community of UNC campuses,” Palm said.

A "climate of suspicion"

Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman, who also sits on the CCAC, said although she can’t speak for the faculty as a whole, distrust stemming from incidents such as the NCAA scandal and Silent Sam has carried over into the present day, creating a climate of suspicion — though she believes that things may be improving.

“I do think, from a faculty governance perspective, that we’ve done an awful lot from the beginning of the pandemic forwards, to push for more and more information and openness and transparency,” Chapman said. “And I think we’ve gotten that.”

But Palm said he struggles to find something in the last year that has made him feel better about the University’s administration.

“If there aren’t some drastic improvements made soon, I think you’re going to see a real push among the faculty for a complete overhaul to not just faculty governance, but campus governance,” he said. “I think that crisis was there before the pandemic, but it’s been laid bare in literal life-and-death terms.”

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University's financial implications

One theme running through both the University’s reopening plans and faculty concerns is the University’s financial stability. During the Friday meeting, Guskiewicz said although UNC’s student enrollment increased in the fall, many other universities saw students taking gap semesters if there was no opportunity for an on-campus experience.

“Hopefully, our enrollments will stay level for the spring,” Guskiewicz said. “If they don’t, then there are financial implications with that.”

Smith said that although he understands that a remote spring semester could decrease student enrollment and ultimately hurt the University’s bottom line, he doesn’t think it’s worth risking lives.

“Implicit in that idea is that some faculty may be laid off or furloughed, or some programs could be shut down, and we, the faculty and the community, will face dire financial consequences,” he said. “Yes, we do have to pay the bills. Nevertheless, I think most of us who signed that letter consider it immoral to place financial considerations above health considerations in this ongoing emergency.”

Smith said he and other faculty members hope, with the arrival of the vaccine, the spring semester will be the last semester disrupted by COVID-19.

“That’s the silver lining around this cloud, but there is a cloud here,” he said. “Most faculty love teaching, love being in the classroom with our students. We love the day-to-day interaction, the dialogue, and we miss it too.” 

But, Smith said, the sacrifices faculty, students and staff have made during the pandemic are essential to ensuring the health and well-being of the community. 

“We have, if not an unprecedented, at least a once-in-a-century public health emergency here,” he said. "And it’s incumbent upon all of us connected to the University — students and faculty and staff — all of us, to be patient for a few more months, swallow hard, and accept the reality that we just can’t have a normal semester in the spring.”