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Column: UNC’s campus is a 700-acre ADA violation

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Caldwell Hall is pictured on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.

Caldwell Hall is home to the UNC Philosophy Department and the Parr Center for Ethics. It hosts classes, events and guest speakers, with multiple professors having their offices on the second floor and basement. 

It’s an old building filled with new ideas about ethics, metaphysics, logic and political theory. Built in 1912, it's a standing reminder of the ongoing accessibility issues on UNC's campus. 

The building only has one accessible door in the form of a street-level entrance that leads to the basement. Every other door requires a trip up or down a staircase. To get to any Caldwell classrooms using that on-grade door also requires going up the stairs, as the building has no elevator. 

UNC is the fifth-ranked public university, and UNC's philosophy department is tied for 12th in the country. Yet, there is no way for anyone who uses a wheelchair to access opportunities in some classrooms. It’s a disgrace.

This is UNC’s accessibility issue in an infuriating nutshell – an aging campus, basic accommodations being out of reach and an administration that either can’t or won’t step up.

It might seem like a small issue. Caldwell only has three undergraduate classrooms, and according to an email from Accessibility Resources and Services (ARS), these are three of only five totally inaccessible classrooms on campus. The philosophy department does its best to work with students and ARS to get around the building's problem, though Associate Professor and Philosophy Department Chair Matthew Kotzen said in an email that “these efforts fall short of what these individuals deserve.” 

These accommodations are a bandaid on a bullet wound. 

The main problem isn't that the University can’t provide accommodations, but rather that they have to try and accommodate in the first place. Kotzen explains, “I have in mind the world-class scholar and teacher who doesn't even bother applying for a job in the UNC Philosophy Department because Caldwell Hall communicates to them that the department or the University does not take accessibility seriously.” 

The general problem causing this is fairly clear. UNC has been underfunded for years, from the cuts implemented across the System by the General Assembly in 2011, to the revenue freefall experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNC, despite its continuing enrollment growth and strong endowment, simply does not have enough money. 

The same $1 billion deferred maintenance backlog that likely contributed to lead in the water across campus means that, even if the University wanted to and had a plan to make every building on campus accessible, there is simply not enough money to do it. 

Kotzen told The Daily Tar Heel via email that “approximately 20 years ago, there were tentative plans in place to pursue a complete renovation of the building (Caldwell), but that project was put on indefinite hold for funding reasons.”

A full renovation would likely cost millions and require finding alternative classrooms and office spaces for the classes, professors and organizations housed in the building. It seems that even small changes, like the installation of a ramp which the philosophy department has “been working for many years on,” or the smaller scale renovation the department has been working on getting approved for the last 10 years, are too low on the University's priority list.

So while the funding issues are real, they are also easily fixable given the state of North Carolina’s $6 billion budget surplus. It’s easy to pass the blame for not moving funding exclusively to the General Assembly (which would rather cut taxes then fund critical infrastructure) but remember that some of the Board of Governors – who one would hope would advocate on behalf of the University – were elected by the same General Assembly withholding funding. 

It’s not just Caldwell Hall. Students protested last year over accessibility issues that left a student activist stranded in Koury Residence Hall, which was built in 2002 — 12 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. 

It even goes beyond the University. The Daily Tar Heel office's main entrance requires going up a fire escape on the side of a building. The elevator in our own office is not functional.

Chapel Hill is not uniquely inaccessible, but accessibility continues to be an often-overlooked civil rights crisis across the country. Fixing this is going to require a lot of resources and institutions like UNC to make real structural changes. The time to start was, frankly, decades ago. 

The physical campus is the core of what UNC is, and right now that core is shouting at disabled students and faculty that they are not welcome and that they are not full and equal members of the Carolina family. 

UNC’s Diversity statement states the university is “committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment." It's beyond time to actually start honoring that. 

@samadran

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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