As 2021 comes to a close, Editor-in-Chief Praveena Somasundaram spoke with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz about his reflections on the past year, concerns surrounding mental health and the University's shared governance, as well as what to expect for next semester.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: Reflecting on the past year as chancellor, what are some of the lessons you’re taking with you into the next semester?
Kevin Guskiewicz: When we last spoke, I said that I was cautiously optimistic. I felt we had a really good plan in place and I think our communities met this year with resilience, perseverance, commitment to each other. I'm glad to see that our community is built on a legacy of service to each other. We talk often about the importance of our mission, research and service, and I think I'm most proud of how the community came together to support each other. I had the opportunity to visit classes and I heard from both students and faculty about how important it was to be back in the classroom together.
In terms of looking back, I spoke with you earlier about our Carolina Across 100 initiative, working with communities across our state to find ways of channeling our research insights for their benefit and helping to mitigate the impacts of challenges such as COVID. I think that's one example of our perseverance and staying true to what we said we would do this year. We just announced three Rhodes Scholars winners, a new record for Carolina — to have three in one year. I think it just speaks to the talent that we have here at Carolina — incredible students and world class faculty, and that's why we were again ranked number five among public universities for the 21st consecutive year.
DTH: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the past year?
KG: We know the pandemic has taken a toll on our mental health. And during the fall semester, the current mental health crisis facing our nation hit home with the tragic deaths of students on our campus. I'm grateful for the compassionate campus community that surrounds us. We have staff who worked tirelessly to help students who asked for help navigating the challenges. Faculty were incredible in stepping up as I met with groups of students who talked about their faculty providing the flexibility that was necessary.
We had some important conversations during the Mental Health Summit that we held a few weeks ago, and it's one of several things that we did as a community to address the crisis. And I think that summit focused on three topics which we're continuing to work on, and there will be a number of initiatives that will result from this.
DTH: Mental health has continued to be a big topic of conversation, especially this semester. What is your plan to help address mental health concerns further going into next semester?
KG: We will be announcing very soon, probably within the next few days, a plan for the spring semester. We are going to add one wellness day to the schedule. Also in late October, CAPS started providing additional telehealth therapy in coordination with Uwill. This partnership has allowed CAPS to eliminate the waitlist for brief therapy, and also connects students with a therapist as quickly as possible. We’ll continue this pilot program through the 2022 academic year.
We know that this one summit or adding a new service doesn’t fix this crisis, but these are just a couple of steps forward that are already serving our community that are going to be important.
DTH: What can students expect to see next semester in terms of COVID-19 protocols, class operations, etc.?
KG: A lot of things that we had in place this semester will likely be carried over to the spring semester. As of today, I do anticipate we’re still going to be wearing masks indoors, certainly for the classroom experience. We are going to keep in place our testing program as it currently exists for the first three weeks of the semester and evaluate. We think it’s important that as students reenter campus following the holiday break, we have all those precautionary measures in place. And we’ll reevaluate and see if adjustments can be made as we move further into February.
Our infectious disease and public health experts are assessing the new variant that has many people concerned and we’ll provide additional updates regarding that as we have them.
DTH: Another topic the community is talking about is how the University uses Alert Carolina and sends out emergency alerts. UNC recently sent an alert about a series of reported sexual assaults. Right now, what guidelines is UNC using for the notification process and will that process be changed?
KG: So let me start by just saying that the safety of our students, faculty and staff is our highest priority, and the University issued the Alert Carolina in compliance with the Clery Act, which dictates how and when and what information universities must share with the campus community. And I just want to emphasize that we have taken steps to protect the campus community. We're bound by various privacy laws, including the (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), that prevents us from being more specific and the information shared and that the University did issue the alerts as soon as it received the third report of assault to follow the Clery Act. It doesn't mean that the University had not acted prior to the campus-wide communication.
DTH: I’m sure you’ve seen the op-ed Faculty Chairperson Mimi Chapman wrote in the DTH. What is your response to people who have been concerned about UNC’s shared governance and its decision-making?
KG: As I’ve said, on many occasions that shared governance is extremely important, and I'm grateful for the feedback and the work that everyone has put toward not only this provost search but other ongoing searches. I think it's really important that all those stakeholders can provide input. We asked for candidates to meet with a diverse group of individuals around campus. And we're following our typical process for all these searches. A diverse first search committee is formed. The committees identify the lead candidates and then we receive a shortlist of candidates for further consideration which is consistent with how we handle all of our senior administrator services. And then eventually, in this case, we will put a nomination forward to the Board of Trustees, and the Board of Trustees has final approval of the appointment.
I can't speak to additional questions about the ongoing hiring process, but I'm confident we will secure the best provost to move our campus forward.
DTH: What are the goals you have for the upcoming semester?
KG: I'm really looking forward to the spring semester. This year, we welcome the largest incoming class in Carolina's history and while I have heard from many of them that they had a very good first semester, productive first semester, despite the challenges that we've talked about, we have to be sure that we are providing that same quality experience, both in the classroom and beyond for them this spring. So that's where my focus is.
We are also preparing to start a new general education curriculum for our undergrads, IDEAs in Action curriculum. And we're working on hiring the best faculty. We have a number of faculty searches that are ongoing. We believe that there's value in our students learning from faculty who represent diverse communities, and I know that our deans are working hard on that. And then I'll just add that we're also coming down the homestretch with our capital campaign, where we will soon reach our goal of $4.25 billion, which we set that goal about seven years ago. We’ve had a very successful campaign and nothing I enjoy more than bringing students in to talk about the value that philanthropy brings to their Carolina experience, so I look forward to continuing to do that as we meet with our alumni and donors as we bring the campaign to a close over the next 12 months.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.