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Gillings professor's blog explores ethics, epidemiology and higher education

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Jim Thomas, a professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has been writing an assortment of articles about UNC and the pandemic for Medium. Photo courtesy of Jim Thomas.

As UNC navigated COVID-19 during the fall semester, Jim Thomas, a professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, explored the intersection of ethics, the pandemic and the University in his weekly blog.

In July, Thomas started writing through the platform Medium. Now, his blog has been read by faculty and University leadership alike. Some of the topics Thomas has covered include spring reopening, transparency and the "Carolina Experience."  

"I'm writing a blog on the ethics of bringing students back to the UNC campus," Thomas said. "I'm writing as both an epidemiologist and ethicist to look at questions that are not just the technical aspects of how to do it, but the questions about how it should be done, and what kinds of practices should be in place."

Kim Strom, director of the UNC Office of Ethics and Policy, said Thomas emphasizes the process of coming to a good, ethical decision, as well as recognizing that every choice made will have advantages and disadvantages.

“He is an international expert on pandemic ethics, so we're lucky to have him here," Strom said. "I think his blog is a way to capture in writing some of the things not only decision makers but everyone should be considering.”

Thomas has expertise in public health ethics, as well as epidemiology. Thomas is currently director of the MEASURE Program, which helps countries improve data collection for public health. 

He also worked as an ethics advisor to the director of the Centers for Disease Control for several years. Amid COVID-19, Thomas created a website called, in which he shared guidelines for epidemics or pandemics. 

Thomas said he started his blog because he had a perspective that he had not heard from the University.

"I felt like the issues that were being addressed by the chancellor and his team were merely technical and epidemiological, but not really addressing the other questions that are about how information is communicated about transparency, and about how decisions are made," Thomas said.

Deb Aikat, associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, regularly reads Thomas' work and shares it with others.

"With perspicacious insights, Jim illuminates ethical rectitude," Aikat said. "Jim’s columns succinctly delineate ethical considerations to enunciate his ethical lessons. I feel Jim has no axe to grind. He does not shame anyone.”

Aikat said Thomas' articles were not merely big, long-winded essays that led to nothing. All his articles have a strong underlying lesson, he said.

Thomas said he tries to make his articles as current as possible and address things soon after they occur.

“My last one, for example, talks about the report from the Employee Forum and the level of mistrust that was the result of our experience in the fall of bringing students to campus and then sending them back home again," Thomas said. "And so, I look at these very recent events and then I consider the ethics guidelines that I'm familiar with.”

Thomas said his work has received positive feedback from colleagues — and even administration. 

"I've spoken with the chancellor on a couple of occasions, and he has expressed gratitude for my input," Thomas said. 

University spokesperson Leslie Minton said in an email that UNC appreciates the role faculty play in providing input into its planning. 

"Responding to COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, and we are grateful that our faculty are willing to lend their academic expertise to our efforts," Minton said in the email.

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