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Despite COVID-19 restrictions, 30 faculty members have continued research abroad

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UNC Professor Cynthia Radding poses for a portrait on May 3rd, 2021. Radding has recently been approved for a research trip to Mexico this summer.

COVID-19 put a halt to most faculty research that involved travel in 2020. Now, professors are adapting to new pandemic protocols and additional approval processes to continue doing research abroad.

Most faculty research that involves international travel has continued virtually through established partnerships with other institutions, Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer, said.

But Provost Bob Blouin has approved 30 faculty requests to travel internationally since UNC travel restrictions were put in place in spring 2020, according to UNC Media Relations. Eighteen faculty members have been approved for international travel in summer 2021, with five trips extending into the fall semester.

Cynthia Radding, professor of Latin American studies and history, was approved to travel to Mexico for five weeks this summer.

In Mexico City, Radding said she will go to the Archivo General de la Nación and the Carso Center for the Study of Mexican History to explore the archives. She also plans on traveling to the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico to visit an indigenous community in the Mayo River Valley. She wants to visit these archives to do research for two projects.

She will first complete research for a book entitled "Bountiful Deserts and Corridors of Knowledge in Northern New Spain Sustaining the Boundaries of Yoreme Worlds." 

She will also continue research for a new project entitled "Indigenous Borderlands, Justice, and Landscapes of Memory on the Spanish Imperial Frontier of North America." She plans to study the complex relationships between indigenous peoples, Spanish civil governors and Franciscan missionaries in the area of the Pueblo indigenous peoples in present-day New Mexico.

“I have done some research,” Radding said. “I need to do a lot more.”

During the approval process, Radding said she had to provide travel dates, routes, itineraries and destinations. She had to explain the purpose of the travel, how the research would fulfill the University’s mission and how she would manage travel risks. Lastly, she signed an assumption of risk and acknowledgment statement indicating she understood the risks of traveling during a pandemic.

“We simply send that to our department chairperson, to our dean and to the provost,” Radding said. “At each level they approved it.”

She said her request was approved in about a week.

In a normal year, permissions for faculty research are handled on the departmental level. But, because of the potential risks surrounding COVID-19, the project must be acknowledged by the provost and potentially by a supervisor, the department chairperson and a senior administrator, according to the UNC Global website.

“There is no question that COVID has changed the way we go about doing the research,” Radding said.

Donald Haggis, professor of classical archaeology and chairperson of the department of classics, said the biggest challenge is not receiving University approval, but is finding ways to navigate COVID-19 restrictions abroad.

UNC Professor Donald Haggis poses for a portrait on May 3rd, 2021. Haggis's research has been on hold for two years because of the pandemic, and he hopes to get back to it as soon as possible.

Haggis is the project director of the Azoria Project — the excavation of the archaeological site Azoria located in northeastern Crete, Greece.

“I’ve been doing this every year for 20 years,” Haggis said.

Haggis said his main concern is whether he will be able to do fieldwork once he arrives in Greece.

“There are two issues,” Haggis said. “Whether or not the Greek government is permitting fieldwork because of the pandemic, and then under what conditions and whether or not we can work under those conditions.”

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Haggis said he usually convenes his team of 10-12, most of which are archaeologists, to work in Greece from early May through August. Although he has a work permit, he said he worries that conditions in Greece are not conducive to doing this work.

“Europe is still doing really, really badly,” Haggis said. “So, it’s completely up in the air.”

Haggis said he is considering going to Greece alone, but he will not be able to access his grant money in University accounts without University approval.

“If the University doesn’t give you approval, you can’t use those resources," Haggis said. "You can’t use that money." 

Haggis said he has not sought University approval to travel this summer. Because of COVID-19, he and his team have not started any serious planning for this trip.

“It has nothing to do with University approval, because I think the University would probably approve it,” Haggis said. “We need more time.”

Although the landscape has changed, UNC leadership said it is still committed to its role as a top research institution.

“The research enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill represents thousands of global connections which enable our faculty to find promising solutions to some of the most pressing issues in the world,” Stephenson said in a statement. “We look forward to being able to resume more in-person research soon and creating new opportunities for collaboration.”