UNC staff warn students to stay away from campus

Frustrated with their university’s plan for the autumn, which is slated to include full dorms, a group of professors has broken rank and sent an open letter to students

August 3, 2020
Study lecture at home online
Source: iStock

Many professors think that their institutions’ autumn reopening plans are foolhardy, dangerous or even unethical. But on 31 July a group of tenured academics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took the unprecedented step of directly telling students not to come back to campus next semester.

“We recognize that some of you will have to live on campus this fall semester for financial or personal reasons, and we want to help ensure that campus is safe for you,” the 30 professors write in an open letter to undergraduates, published in the Charlotte Observer. “We implore the rest of you to stay home this fall.”

Keeping one another “safe and healthy over the next several months has to be our collective goal”, the letter says. “We are teaching online as part of our contribution to that effort, and we invite you to join us. We have spent much of the summer working hard to ensure that our online classes are the best that they can be.”

Contradicting the basic institutional rationale for reopening campuses during the ongoing coronavirus crisis − that the benefits outweigh the risks − the North Carolina professors write that they are “confident that what we offer you, safely, online, will be better than what we can do under the compromised conditions of the face-to-face classroom during the pandemic”.

Staff members at Chapel Hill previously petitioned administrators with demands about the new term, including that no lecturer be required to teach in person or disclose personal health information in order to teach remotely. The chair of the faculty, who did not sign the Observer letter, also recently wrote to the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors asking for more local campus control over reopening plans.

Chapel Hill said in a statement on 31 July that it was as “flexible as guidance allows for those who need to teach, work or learn away from campus”.

Teaching assignments are managed at the department or college or school level, “and professors are encouraged to talk with their deans so accommodations can be made if necessary”, it said. “Students also have the flexibility of studying remotely or on-campus this term.”

The state board says that campuses may not decide on their own to go entirely online for the new semester.

While all 30 signatories of the new letter plan to teach remotely, academics continue to reject the concept of asking for accommodations, which makes age a medical issue and can put faculty members and their chairs and deans in otherwise awkward positions.

Staff continue to object to Chapel Hill’s plan to reopen residences halls at full capacity, against the recommendations of public health agencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the full-dorm model amounts to the “highest risk” for spreading the virus. Sports, social and other potential super-spreader events, and whether students wear masks and practise social distancing on and around campus are among other worries.

Faculty and staff members across the state university system’s 16 campuses are also reportedly preparing a class action lawsuit to delay in-person classes this autumn.

María DeGuzmán, Eugene H. Falk distinguished professor of English and comparative literature, and one of the 30 professors who signed the latest letter, said on Friday that despite staff concern and the CDC guidance, the university’s “official policy is still to have full capacity dorms”.

As academics, she said, “we felt ethically bound to tell undergraduate students to stay home and take classes remotely”.

DeGuzmán, an organiser of an earlier petition about the new term, told Inside Higher Ed in late June: “When we shut down in March, there were 25 people in the hospital. Now in our state, 890 people are in the hospital for Covid-19, so why are we trying to return people to campus with surging cases?”

North Carolina now has 1,151 Covid-related hospitalisations, according to the CDC.

Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine who signed the new letter to students, said that she is “fortunate” to teach in Chapel Hill’s medical school, which has already put 18 months of curriculum online, apart from autopsy courses. But many of her colleagues are not in that position.

As a member of the Faculty Executive Committee of the Faculty Council, Estroff said that she and others have shared their concerns with administrators numerous times. They are worried about student accommodation, athletics − including outbreaks at summer practice − and staff safety, “particularly housekeeping and other employees who have close contact with students”.

Estroff’s biggest concern, though, is “of being haunted by looking back at this time − gasping with regret, shame, disbelief and grief − that we were reckless, wrong, unwise and driven by all the wrong values in what is proposed”.

Chapel Hill did not comment on the letter to students when asked. Reeves Moseley, incoming student body president and undergraduate student government president, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Michael Olivas, who recently retired as William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston, and a former general counsel for the American Association of University Professors, said that it was “wrong for 30 faculty to arrogate such a decision to themselves”. He added: “If they feel so strongly, they could persuade the entire faculty to act, with some widespread support.”

Olivas said that the signatories also open themselves up to a remote but real legal risk, in the form of tortious interference with contract suits by the university or, more likely in his view, withdrawing students who blame their withdrawals on these professors. Rather than a letter to students, Olivas said that the faculty lawsuit was the place for such a sentiment.

Maxine Eichner, Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Law at Chapel Hill and a signer of the letter, said that such an argument is “blowing smoke” and that students would in this case be the third party − not the staff. Moreover, she said, students do not have a cause of action against the faculty since students themselves ultimately will decide to return to campus or not.

As for only 30 professors acting on their own, the letter says that as “tenured faculty, we are among the most privileged members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community. One of the greatest benefits of our position is having the chance to share ideas, and discover new knowledge, with you. But neither our research nor our teaching is as important to us as the health, safety, and well-being of our students and our colleagues, including the staff and campus workers who make our teaching and research possible.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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