Many professors think their institutions’ fall reopening plans are foolhardy, dangerous or even unethical. But a group of tenured faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took the unprecedented step Friday 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 wrote 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 wrote 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.”
Faculty members at Chapel Hill previously petitioned administrators with some demands about the fall, including that no faculty member 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 Friday that it is 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 fall.
While all 30 signers of the new letter plan to teach remotely, faculty members 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.
Faculty 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 the full dorm model amounts to “highest risk” for spreading the virus. Sports, social and other potential super-spreader events, and whether or not students wear masks and social distance in neighborhoods surrounding 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 fall.
María DeGuzmán, Eugene H. Falk Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and one of the 30 professors who signed the new letter, said Friday that despite faculty concern and the CDC guidance, the university’s “official policy is still to have full capacity dorms.”
As faculty members, she said, “we felt ethically bound to tell undergraduate students to stay home and take classes remotely.”
DeGuzmán, an organizer of an earlier faculty petition about the fall, 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-19-related hospitalizations, according to the CDC.
Sue Estroff, a professor of social medicine who signed the new letter to students, said she’s “fortunate” to teach in Chapel Hill’s medical school, which already put 18 months of curriculum online, save autopsy. But many of her colleagues aren’t in that position.
As a member of the Faculty Executive Committee of the Faculty Council, Estroff said she and others have shared their concerns with administrators multiple times, in multiple venues. Among them are dorms, athletics -- including outbreaks in 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 specifically 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 the 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 it’s “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 the faculty signers 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. Better than a letter to students, Olivas said the faculty lawsuit is the place for such a sentiment.
Maxine Eichner, Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Law at Chapel Hill and a signer of the letter, said such an argument is “blowing smoke” and that students would in this case be the third party -- not the faculty. Moreover, she said, students don't 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.”