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How the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted growing distrust in the University


DTH Photo Illustration. The university’s response to the pandemic worsened the distrust people already felt toward UNC after events such as Silent Sam and Title IX concerns.

Deb Aikat has been a journalism professor at UNC for 25 years and has witnessed multiple events and scandals that have eroded trust in the University. 

But he said this year “trust is at a new low” due to the University’s handling of reopening campus during the pandemic.

“I would say in terms of Carolina as a community, trust is an issue that has been at the forefront of everybody's mind,” Aikat said. “And it has been on everybody's mind, unlike the athletic scandal or unlike Silent Sam, because the pandemic affects everybody.”

Mimi Chapman, chairperson of the faculty, said the broad distrust that has emerged in recent months is partially due to a series of past events, like the NCAA scandal, Silent Sam and Title IX concerns. The erosion of trust that resulted from these events was never fully regained, and new University leadership has assumed the responsibility of repairing past harm while confronting new challenges. 

“It's a recipe for all of the distrust of the past to erupt in just a huge way, and that's a huge challenge for anyone in leadership,” Chapman said. “No matter how good a leader they are.”

Ryan Collins, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Federation, said how much trust people have in University leadership varies, but he believes there is greater distrust this year because of perceptions of how the administration responded to the pandemic. 

Admissions ambassador Jenny Rubin said she also got this sense while watching the fall semester unfold as it did and having conversations with other students. 

“I think from my own personal experience and through discussions with individuals that I interact with daily, there is an unflinching belief that the administration of our University does care about the student body,” Rubin said. “However, that care does not always outweigh the financial needs of the institution, the influence of large donors and the overarching business side of the University compared to the human side of the University.”

Rubin said although she was prepared to answer questions for prospective students about the University’s reopening plan, she only gave one tour this semester. While the Ambassador program had prepared her to field questions about COVID-19, she said she did not personally feel comfortable honestly answering questions while still providing a positive representation of the community.

One factor in this distrust is that some community members have been disproportionately impacted by the events of the past year, said Ethan Phillips, an undergraduate representative on the Campus and Community Advisory Committee. In particular, he said members of marginalized communities have felt a greater sense of distrust and been excluded from decision-making. 

“Decisions made in the best interest of students aren't in the best interest of every student,” Phillips said.

Trust in institutions is also distinct from trust in leaders, said Joseph Richards, a doctoral student and graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication. But they said they believe the ability to trust in leadership is inherently connected to identity and privilege. 

“If you're losing trust, that means you were privileged enough to have been able to have trust in the first place,” Richards said. 

Aikat, who also serves on the Faculty Executive Committee, said this lack of trust may be more visible this year because students and faculty are more willing to share their opinions and criticize the University for its actions both in conversation and on social media.

But Chapman worries a sense of distrust that goes unaddressed can create an environment where people don’t want to participate in broader University life. She said people may cease to see themselves as part of a larger community, and they might doubt the importance of their voice in problem-solving. 

“And for other people, it really produces a sense of outrage and anger that they begin to kind of live in, and it's hard to break out of that once you get used to living there,” Chapman said.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement that strong relationships with students, faculty, staff and neighbors are vital to the University's mission to teach, research and serve. Guskiewicz also said this past year has brought unanticipated challenges, and the administration recognizes that community members are counting on strong leadership in the coming months. 

“We have learned a great deal, and I recognize there is work to be done,” Guskiewicz said in the statement. “I am fully committed to working together to forge an even stronger bond with our community.”

Provost Bob Blouin said at the Employee Forum Community Conversation meeting on Nov. 23 that he is committed to creating trust at every level of UNC’s administration. Blouin said the responsibility of building trust needs to involve not just Guskiewicz and him but also lower-level administrators, such as deans. 

Potential solutions

Aikat outlined four ways he thinks the University could improve trust: transparency, community engagement, communication and accountability.

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Collins said he thinks the University’s transparency and openness have improved since the summer. Over the summer, Collins said, leaders would ask for feedback on decisions that had already been made. But now, he said University leaders have become better at seeking proactive input into decision-making as demonstrated by the formation of the Campus and Community Advisory Committee, which advises on spring planning. 

“I don't think there's a deliberate effort to deceive or keep anyone in the dark,” Collins said.

Rubin said transparency could be improved if the University administration publicly explained the rationale behind their decisions. 

“We deserve an answer as to why they're making the decisions they're making, how they're coming to that conclusion, and whether or not students have any say in the decision-making at all,” Rubin said. 

Aikat said he would like to see the University change how it conducts its “community conversations," so attendees can directly engage and ask questions of leaders, rather than the current format in which University leaders often present for the majority of time.

“UNC leaders should communicate in a much better way," Aikat said. "And not only communicate, but give all of us an opportunity to ask questions."

One way staff have suggested the University could improve its communication is by abandoning “toxic positivity,” an overly optimistic attitude that minimizes people’s authentic emotional experiences, which was a recommendation of the October 2020 Employee Forum Report

Phillips said while including more voices in University decisions is a step towards rebuilding trust, it will only be effective if the University takes these voices seriously. 

Remaining doubts

Lindsay Ayling, a doctoral candidate in the history department, said she has concerns about the University’s ability to listen to people. 

“A lot of what they do just seems cosmetic to me or maybe even not that deep,” Ayling said. “I think that I've been to a lot of public meetings where you make comments, and then they just proceed to totally ignore everything you say.”

While Phillips said he has trust in the University’s general motives and intentions, he also said decisions regarding reopening led him to question its ability to translate their intentions into effective outcomes. Phillips emphasized that task forces, committees and conversations are meaningless if they continue to result in similar outcomes.

Chapman, co-chairperson of the Campus and Community Advisory Committee, said she sees the value of the committee's work, as some of their recommendations have already been taken into account for spring planning.

“People can believe what they want about it being performative, but I don't see it as being performative at all,” Chapman said. “And given the amount of time it takes, I can tell you if I thought it was performative I wouldn't do it.”

Given past incidents that have led to an erosion of trust and the extent to which trust was lost this fall, Collins said the University faces a challenge in regaining it.

“I think the more that you can speak to people directly, and the more that you can acknowledge the mistakes that have been made in the past, the better that will be,” Collins said. “But it is something that I think they're going to continue to struggle with. And I don't know that there's an easy answer, because trust is much more easily lost than it is regained.”