As the first week of classes for UNC's fall semester concluded, Editor-in-Chief Praveena Somasundaram spoke with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz virtually to discuss COVID-19, the University's reopening and future plans for UNC.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: In October, you’ll be coming up on one year officially as the Chancellor of UNC and leading the University through challenging periods. How are you feeling about that?
Kevin Guskiewicz: I’m feeling very optimistic. It’s been great to be out around campus the past week, moving in, welcoming students back about ten days ago. I feel very optimistic that we’ve put a good plan in place. We’ve planned extensively for return to in-person instruction and we will continue to monitor the situation and we work closely alongside our world class public health experts as well as the Orange County Health Department and we believe that with the right approach, as I’ve said before, we don’t have to choose between safety and in-person learning. I think with respect to the pandemic and managing that, I think our layered approach can work. We’re going to rely on everyone being responsible, playing an important role in keeping the community safe.
We can dial these safety measures up and down as needed to try to help control the spread of the virus and try to maintain our ability for in-person learning. I’m feeling really good right now about that, but we have to continue to emphasize that there will be positive cases on our campus, as we’ve seen those positivity rates across the state go up over the past three weeks.
DTH: With the rising cases and prominence of the delta variant, faculty, staff and students are concerned about the reopening. Does the University plan to have an off-ramp or other measures if COVID-19 on campus gets more dire?
KG: The twice-a-week testing really came about because we felt an additional layer could be helpful to try to identify cases. Again, seeing that we’ve had over the past three weeks increased positivity rates across the state, we have an incredible testing program — our Carolina Together Testing Program — we have the capacity to test more students. Last spring, we were testing upwards of 10, 11,000 people a week. So, we have the capacity to do that.
Eighty-eight percent of our students have attested to their vaccination status, and we have about 2,600 students that have either not attested to it or have indicated that they are not vaccinated or will choose not to be vaccinated. So, those 2,600 students will need to be tested twice a week, and I think it’ll provide just an extra layer of protection. So, that’s one example of a change that we’ve made, again, in consultation with our infectious disease and public health experts, as well as with my Campus and Community Advisory Committee — I want to emphasize the importance of that committee.
Their input is very important and we’ll continue to, again, monitor changes here locally and if modifications need to be made to any of the current standards, we will be prepared to do that.
DTH: A big cause of concern from community members is the lack of a vaccine mandate. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Indiana University, which is also a public university, to require vaccination. Why hasn’t UNC followed suit?
KG: Right now, the UNC System has advised campuses that under state law, the only group that can actually mandate a vaccine is the North Carolina Commission for Public Health. And if they were to mandate the vaccine, then the UNC System would be able to mandate the vaccine. Again, I think our layered approach to safety this fall has our vaccination rates really high.
I have stated publicly and I will here that I do support a vaccine mandate, but I’ll also say that I’m really pleased with the vaccination rates that we have right now even in the absence of that mandate.
DTH: At the System level, you explained campuses cannot mandate the vaccine individually. So, the University is not currently looking for a way out of that for UNC alone to mandate a vaccine?
KG: We cannot make that decision unilaterally. However, we are prepared. We have plenty of vaccines and a plan in place that, should the North Carolina Commission for Public Health mandate it at any point, we would be prepared for — we’re prepared right now.
I’d love nothing more than for us to be 100 percent vaccinated, here over the next week to 10 days.
DTH: Have there been any disciplinary actions for students in relation to violating COVID-19 guidelines thus far this school year? And what is the status of the University’s request for joint jurisdiction between UNC Police and the Chapel Hill Police Department?
KG: I’m unaware of any current COVID violations that have been reported or are being investigated. We do not have joint jurisdiction — with the exception of Granville Towers — we do not have joint jurisdiction as we had requested from the Town of Chapel Hill last year. It’s still under consideration, but I’m not optimistic at this point in time.
The Town is well aware of our requirement that we announced two weeks ago that states that indoor events for any University-related activity for organizations that have an official affiliation relationship with the University would require masks — whether they’re being held on campus or off campus.
DTH: Dean King announced that she would step down from her position when a successor is named and this news follows the situation with Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure this summer. Can you talk about your thoughts on the challenges facing the journalism school, in particular the disagreements over Walter Hussman’s influence and conservative influence in general?
KG: As I have said often, in my job as chancellor and certainly in Dean King’s job as dean, we are always responding to and trying to work closely with a variety of constituencies… that are all important constituents, that all have opinions. And sometimes those opinions are going to be in opposition of one another. So, I’m always working to try to educate those various constituencies around the mission of this great University and I know that Dean King tries to do the same as dean of the Hussman School.
I think there are always going to be different opinions, but I want to be sure that we are staying true to our values here at Carolina and that’s what I’m committed to.
DTH: A conversation that was happening this summer was about Walter Hussman’s core values, which are on the wall of the journalism school and the potential to remove them. Can you talk about your thoughts on them and what could happen with them moving forward?
KG: I think there needs to be more conversations with the faculty and with leadership within the school. I believe that from the outset, there have been some questions about what involvement the faculty may have had in understanding the commitment to those values and how they were going to be placed within the framework of the school, if you will.
I think we’ll get to the right place, but I think there’s going to perhaps need to be some compromise. But I do think the faculty and I would say the students’ opinions are important here — that’s what shared governance is about.
DTH: Mimi Chapman recently held an emergency meeting over concerns that you would be removed as chancellor. Do you have any updates on those conversations and where your head is in thinking about your role at Carolina?
KG: I appreciate the question. I’m not going to speculate on what that was all about. I’m focused on leading Carolina, I hope, for a long time. I have no indication that there’s any concerns moving forward and I’m working really closely with our Board of Trustees.
There are seven new members on our 13-member board and I’m really enjoying getting to know them. I’ve been spending a lot of time with them one-on-one trying to better understand the unique talent that they each bring to our board.
I know that they believe in that (Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good) roadmap that we put together for the future of Carolina. And we spent a lot of time talking about that at our first trustee meeting. I feel I have their support and I’m looking forward to the year ahead.
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