Why UNC’s plan to reopen its flagship campus unraveled so fast

They all saw it coming. 

Or so read the editorial from the student journalists at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who delivered a scathing condemnation of administrators’ refusal to heed instructors’ and health officials’ warnings that reopening the campus this fall would undoubtedly facilitate the spread of the coronavirus. 

Warning signs abounded long before the state’s flagship resumed in-person classes on Aug. 10, being one of the first U.S. colleges to do so before abruptly flipping to online courses this week.

In early July, the number of new cases the county health department identified reached record highs of 38 per day. The stunning increase was particularly acute among people in the typical college age range, and some student-athletes and sports staff were testing positive for the virus before the academic year began. Reports of bar activity and parties near the UNC-Chapel Hill campus were rampant, prompting rebukes from school officials.

The aforementioned trends culminated in the health department last month imploring the university to start the year online and reevaluate the possibility of face-to-face classes after five weeks. 

UNC-Chapel Hill didn’t take that advice. Local media reported that Provost Bob Blouin said he felt administrators were addressing the department’s concerns “in spirit.”

Faculty pushed back too. In an extraordinary public knock against their university’s approach, 30 tenured professors wrote a newspaper op-ed last month entreating students to remain home if they were able. 

Their concerns were well-founded. In the first week of classes, UNC-Chapel Hill detected at least 130 positive coronavirus cases among students and five among employees. Because asymptomatic people can spread the pathogen and UNC-Chapel Hill is not testing widely for it, the figures are almost assuredly an undercount. 

So most everyone on the Chapel Hill campus — and those outside of it — had reason to predict what was coming. 

And yet university executives pressed forward, until Aug. 17, when they announced that the spike of positive cases on campus would force them to pivot classes online.

Four virus “clusters,” which the university described as five or more cases in proximity, were successively reported in campus housing. Those several announcements attracted a national media blitz and painted a gloomy picture for the sector: UNC-Chapel Hill’s reopening, a test run for colleges forging ahead with traditional classes in spite of the health crisis, had failed almost as soon as it started.

After all, the episodes at UNC-Chapel Hill are hardly confined to that campus. Instances of college students disregarding health protocols, shunning masks and gathering for parties inaugurating the year can be found at institutions across the country. Outbreaks have commonly emerged in dormitories and fraternity and sorority housing.

The developments at UNC-Chapel Hill offer a cautionary tale for other institutions, say higher ed policy experts, who also point out that the dynamics of the UNC System’s governing body exemplify the deeply politicized debate surrounding campus reopenings.

That’s because the decision to offer in-person classes at UNC-Chapel Hill rests not with Kevin Guskiewicz, its chancellor, or the other 16 heads of the UNC campuses. Rather, the UNC board of governors, a historically dysfunctional panel beset by partisanship, has underlined that the power lies with it and the system’s president. 

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

Retrieved from Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill on August 19, 2020


For the last decade, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature has kept that board on a tight leash. In an odd governance structure for postsecondary education, state lawmakers appoint all of its members, so it’s those politicians who often exert enormous influence on system decision-making. 

Pressures to resume in-person classes nationwide this fall are widespread, and they have trickled down from high-profile Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Reopening proponents’ arguments largely come down to money, experts say, and concerns the pandemic could further bleed colleges’ budgets if students don’t want to pay for virtual courses.

The UNC System illustrates how politics can override most other factors affecting colleges’ operations during the health crisis. For UNC, that includes the divergent challenges of its rural and urban campuses, and the faculty and staff who are scared they’ll contract the virus if they return.

“How are we supposed to go into this year not feeling dread?,” said Andrew Koricich, a higher education professor at Appalachian State University, a UNC institution. “I’m 38, and I’m still sitting here knowing that people that age have died horrific deaths from this.”

Spokespeople for UNC-Chapel Hill, and the system, did not respond to Education Dive’s requests for comment. 

The map to reopening

System officials in late April began publicly discussing plans to bring students back to campuses. Then, their statements were more optimistic. The coronavirus had shut down U.S. colleges, but health officials’ foremost prediction was that the virus would ebb before flaring up again in the fall and winter. State lockdowns meant to stall the virus, however, were lifted early in some areas, allowing activities to resume that fueled its spread. 

There were 5.5 million verified coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday afternoon, 147,000 of which were in North Carolina, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

But at the time, then-interim President Bill Roper said the system was working with the 17 chancellors “to chart a course forward,” and that each would have autonomy to take “unique precautions” to protect the campuses, which collectively enrolled more than 239,000 students last year. These measures, now commonplace among colleges, would run the gamut: altered academic calendars, shrunken class sizes and a close watch on infection rates.

One chancellor even predicted a “normal fall opening,” the News & Observer reported

As the national landscape worsened, however, system officials’ directives took on a different tone. 

Guskiewicz told a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty committee in July that he expected campus administrators would have the authority to shift their institutions’ classes online after the semester started and if conditions necessitated it, according to NC Policy Watch. A day later, the publication reported, UNC Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey emailed the chancellors and made a point of saying that the board and the new president, Peter Hans, would handle reopening decisions. System faculty members and state political observers Education Dive interviewed said they viewed the missive as a minor wrist slap on Guskiewicz

More pressing, Ramsey’s email also demanded the chancellors craft scenarios in which their budgets were slashed by as much as 50% should fall enrollments slide. These projections were meant to be precise to the point that they induced anxiety among campus faculty and staff. They were to detail specific academic programs chancellors would ax and jobs they would furlough or eliminate, Ramsey wrote.

The bleak exercise served a dual purpose, faculty and higher ed pundits told Education Dive. Yes, the system needed to prepare for possible catastrophic financial downturns in the fall. But they also felt the board was flexing its governance muscles. 

Koricich believes the plans the chancellors ultimately submitted reflect their resistance to the governing board’s approach to the fall term, noting that some summaries weren’t quite as meticulous as the board wanted. UNC-Chapel Hill didn’t provide exact numbers in certain parts of its report, merely outlining that in the worst-case situations, it would “implement extraordinary, unprecedented, and wide-ranging actions” that would incorporate “substantial” programs and employee cuts. 

“I actually see that as small acts of defiance, … that the chancellors said, ‘We’re not going to tell you everything, it’s not going to be that easy,’ in the moment when the sky is falling,” Koricich said. He added that he wished they would take a stronger stand against the governing board. 

“They’re paid incredibly well to do these jobs, and they’ve had a lot of nonturbulent times,” he continued. “I would hope those are the people willing to risk their job to do the right thing.”

Overwhelming dissent ignored

Shortly after the news broke that the board was seeking doomsday budget scenarios, Mimi Chapman, UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty chair, wrote to its members and UNC-Chapel Hill trustees requesting that the campus be allowed to decide when to close.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s assumptions on what the fall would look like no longer held true, Chapman wrote. Confirmed coronavirus cases were escalating in vast swaths of the country, mask-wearing had become a nationally contentious practice, making enforcement difficult on campuses. And around the system, housekeepers were objecting to a perceived lack of personal protective equipment, which they said put them at risk.

“We are willing to do our part. But at this point, I believe that our University and perhaps the entire UNC system is being asked to turn straw into gold,” Chapman wrote. 

The board did not respond to the letter, Chapman said in an interview with Education Dive days before UNC-Chapel Hill opted to move classes online. On Aug. 15, Chapman wrote to board members again, this time with a more forceful plea: With the virus unchecked, she wrote, they had a “moral duty” to give her campus control.

Chapman said in an interview she respected her chancellor and provost, pointing out that the public’s displeasure with them was somewhat misdirected considering they had little say in whether to shutter the campus. She gave them credit for trying to construct a safe environment, and said students by and large complied with the rules. As of Friday, a vast majority of students were donning masks and keeping apart, and Chapman said she wasn’t aware of instructors who had been forced to teach in classrooms if they didn’t want to.

Still, the confirmed cases in student housing rattled the campus, and many people there craved more transparency, Chapman said. University officials refused to release the exact number of positive cases in each cluster to the media, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That earned them skepticism as to whether the federal privacy law applied. 

UNC-Chapel Hill switched from in-person to online instruction shortly after fall classes began.

Retrieved from Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill on August 19, 2020


“(D)on’t we have a right to know? There is a significant difference between five positive cases and, say, 20,” journalists with UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, wrote in an op-ed that drew national media attention for its biting play on words: “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.”

When the governing board is interfering, Chapman said, reopening decisions and campus administrators’ actions are hard to evaluate. 

“We don’t know which decisions are actually ours,” she said. 

A collection of instructors and staff members from across the system also sued the board and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper this month, arguing UNC’s safety measures are inadequate to shield them from the virus. 

Kevin McClure, a higher education professor at UNC-Wilmington, said the lawsuit may have factored into the decision to shift Chapel Hill online. The system’s argument that it could keep students safe was significantly weakened with the explosion of campus cases, he said. 

“It’s possible … they were looking to do it before courts ordered it,” McClure said. 

Education Dive filed public records requests last week with UNC-Chapel Hill and the system seeking communications among the 17 chancellors and governing board members, as well as those among the board and the top legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. These requests were not fulfilled by publication time.  

Neither lawmaker responded to Education Dive’s request for comment.

A history of controversy

State legislators haven’t widely made public statements about the system’s reopening goals, but overlap between the legislature and UNC’s governing body is well-documented. Scandals that mired the board in recent years can overwhelmingly be traced to its partisan roots.

About a decade ago, when Republicans claimed a majority stake in the state’s General Assembly, they began filling the board with like-minded picks, when previously, it maintained some political diversity, said state Rep. Grier Martin, a roughly seven-term Democrat.

UNC’s board is stocked with donors to legislators. Board seats are highly coveted, faculty members and local and state officials told Education Dive. The positions come with perks, such as free admission to high-profile athletic events and the prestige of guiding one of the most prominent U.S. higher ed systems.

As such, when lawmakers want something done within the system, board members tend to listen.

“People definitely want the positions very badly, and they campaign heavily behind the scenes to get them,” Martin said. “Legislative leaders make it very clear to members of the board of governors how they got their jobs, and that they might not get reappointed to another term if they act contrary to the will of the General Assembly.”

The GOP hold on the governing board has coincided with the exodus of several high-ranking UNC officials, moves critics have said were politically driven. That includes those of former system presidents Tom Ross in 2016 and Margaret Spellings in 2019. And the early departure of Cecil Staton as East Carolina University chancellor last year unearthed remarkable infighting within the board. 

“Legislative leaders make it very clear to members of the board of governors how they got their jobs, and that they might not get reappointed to another term if they act contrary to the will of the General Assembly.”

Grier Martin

North Carolina state representative

Other ties between the legislature and the system have raised questions about whether their lockstep is appropriate. Notably, Moore, the House speaker, is said to be pursuing the East Carolina chancellorship and leveraging his influence on system leaders to get it. That’s despite detractors saying he isn’t qualified and that his appointment would further erode boundaries between the legislature and governing panel.  

Moore‘s hiring could benefit East Carolina, said Jeff Tarte, a former Republican state senator, noting Moore would bring clout from his time in the legislature, and likely with it, access to more state funds. But he couched his praise, saying he doesn’t have definitive knowledge of Moore’s prospective appointment, only that it would be “a brilliant move” for the school.

Tarte expects Hans, the system’s new president, to help remedy the board turbulence. Hans previously led the state’s community colleges and, as a political moderate, is popular on both sides of the aisle.

Campuses have different needs

But the leadership handoff doesn’t appear to have fixed UNC’s pandemic-related woes. 

Board members under lawmakers’ thumb may care less about all campuses’ needs during the pandemic, instead concentrating on the academic powerhouses that attract money and renown: UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, said Koricich, the Appalachian State professor.

Tarte likened the two institutions to the big-time college athletic teams and conferences whose revenues help underwrite other sports. 

“NC State and UNC are clearly top of the food chain,” Tarte said.

Coronavirus mitigation strategies that work for the likes of those two institutions, however, won’t succeed among their rural counterparts, some within the system say.

Their smaller size means they have fewer resources, which could dictate how much coronavirus testing they can afford. The better-funded, larger campuses can also more readily draw on their affiliated medical expertise to help combat the virus. 

Some areas of the state are also likely less equipped to treat students and staff who fall ill and need to be hospitalized. Among them is Boone, home of Appalachian State, which Koricich said has access to few nearby ICU beds. Appalachian State is one of the campuses the governing board overlooks, Koricich added — and it has its own problems. The university’s Faculty Senate took a no-confidence vote this week in Appalachian State’s chancellor.

McClure, of UNC-Wilmington, said the issues plaguing UNC aren’t exclusive to the system. Public institutions are tied to the politics of their states, either through their governance structures or, more indirectly, through the funding under lawmakers’ purview.

And while UNC’s COVID response isn’t necessarily emblematic of other colleges’, McClure said, the roadblocks are ubiquitous. Some students won’t comply with health orders, and there’s no sign the virus will slow.

Accordingly, many colleges have backpedaled on reopening campuses as case numbers rise.

But not all. About a fifth of institutions nationwide are hosting primarily face-to-face classes, data shows.

Colleges under pressure to reopen might invoke UNC-Chapel Hill as justification to transition online, McClure said. “It could provide them some cover,” he said.

The colleges that hold fast to in-person instruction will see the same “reckless” scenarios play out, McClure said. The University System of Georgia is attempting a similar reopening strategy as UNC. Georgia’s system was blasted for not mandating masks on its campuses, though public outcry compelled it to walk back the policy.

“Worst-case scenario: Colleges will be directly responsible for increasing case counts in a region or state,” McClure said. “To me that’s a failure to assume the public health responsibility.”

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