which lessons learned?

As I’m sure everyone knows, after an ambitious plan to open the campus for in-person instruction one week earlier than normal, we at UNC-Chapel Hill had to reverse course only a little more than week in, moving nearly all classes online and sending most students home. This post is my attempt to draw lessons from this very demoralizing experience.

First, though, a disclaimer: I have not been involved in any of the decision-making process, and I don’t have access to any more official information from that which is publicly available. I draw on my knowledge and understanding of UNC and my observations along the way.

I thought, and continue to think, that reopening colleges is an important thing to do; that we ought to be relatively ambitious in trying to do so; and that Carolina could reopen safely, though of course there would be greater risk than in normal years. I think the work we do is essential, and I think the students who are already most at risk are most vulnerable to harms from having to stay off campus. Morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 are very low for students in our main age group, so the risk to most students seems low even though there would certainly be some spread. I believed we could contain that spread and protect faculty and staff through PPE and behavioral changes, we could treat those who became ill at UNC Hospital, and the Carolina Away program would allow for remote education for any student who needed or wanted it.

Furthermore, I think the risk analysis by those who opposed reopening altogether was flawed. We can’t know how many of our students would contract the virus in their home communities or other places they live if they can’t come to campus. We don’t know what the medical facilities are like in those communities (There are two world-class tertiary medical centers within about 10 miles of UNC). And we don’t know what students’ home lives are like: do they have a safe, quiet place to work? Fast, reliable internet? A safe home? Food? These risks are unknown but definitely not zero. The risk of infection among students, as we observed, was high. But what was the risk of severe illness, long-term sequelae, and even death among students on campus? Of spread to more-vulnerable staff and faculty populations? Also, of course, nonzero. Making these parameters and expectations explicit would have helped a lot in planning and interpreting the reopening.

So, based on the thinking above, I was happy to sign up to teach my class (a first-year seminar) in-person. We met twice before we had to move fully online, and in both those sessions my students fully complied with precautions: they all wore masks, dutifully sanitized their hands upon entering the room, and sat with three seats between them. And yet the conversations were good; students worked to meet the challenge and engage with me and with their colleagues. I’m sorry we had to switch to remote learning, though I agree the outbreaks here were fast and severe enough that there was really no other choice.

The biggest operational lessons I would draw are that testing is crucial and that students need to be enrolled in the shared task of pandemic response. The university’s general stance on testing–backed up, on the record, by public health experts–was that it would bring a false sense of security: students with negative tests might feel they were invulnerable. Furthermore, because many students don’t live in campus housing, the population of who was subject to testing would have been unclear.

Lots of people questioned that stance, but it was reinforced by administration and public health faculty, many of whom continue to think it was right. Given how differently we’ve fared from institutions that did more testing (even that other one down the street), I think the critics turned out to be right. The basic testing, treatment, and supported isolation (#ttsi) framework remains the best bet. It’s a huge challenge with a university as large as UNC, and at which so many students don’t live in university housing. But it might have made the difference. I’m interested to see how those institutions that are doing better now fare as the fall wears on.

There’s been a lot of indignant hand-wringing about administrators blaming students for partying irresponsibly. I don’t buy that–students had all the information they needed to behave responsibly by avoiding large gatherings, wearing masks, and isolating when sick. And plenty did–but enough didn’t, even in the face of overwhelming information, that they made campuses into superspreaders. We would never accept a “aw shucks, kids will be kids” excuse for academic misconduct or sexual assault, but somehow it’s administrators’ fault that some students found it irresistible to party in their first week back on campus? No. Students made bad choices with predictably bad outcomes.

That said, Sarah Strowd (director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics) made an important point that I think bears repeating: treating students’ behavior as in need of punishment or external discipline is less likely to work than asking them affirmatively to be part of a shared mission and shared sacrifice: we can accomplish ambitious education and research together, but we have to acknowledge the shared sacrifice involved and inspire students to be part of the shared mission.

Two other dimensions deserve consideration. The first is institutional leadership in a fraught environment; the second is the role of money in all this.

UNC-Chapel Hill is a very tough institution to lead. It’s big and diverse, with a huge variety of constituencies inside and out. It’s subject to governance by not just one but two active governance boards: the Board of Trustees (BOT), which governs the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, and the Board of Governors (BOG), which governs the 17-campus UNC system. Even leaving aside the (very substantial!) ideological issues, reporting to two distinct governing boards, alongside all those other constituencies (students, faculty, staff, alumni, athletics, donors, etc.) is a bureaucratic nightmare. Add to that that the BOG is appointed by the state legislature, which has been controlled since 2010 by a Republican majority very skeptical of the UNC system and of UNC-CH in particular. The BOT is appointed by the BOG (8 seats) and the legislature (4 seats), so both bodies, particularly the BOG, are suspicious of local administration and shared governance at Chapel Hill. And the BOG declared that campuses would open in the fall, largely for ideological reasons, removing that decision from the university.

Having met and worked with many of the BOT members, and a few of the BOG members, I think many are smart, dedicated people. But even leaving aside the ideological motivations some of them clearly harbor, they at least don’t have the specialized knowledge nor the on-the-ground experience to make complicated operational decisions like these. Campus leaders need the latitude to lead appropriately, including to listen to the people on the ground as they forge policies. And those decisions needed to be allowed to be local—based on community rates and campus missions, setups, and resources.

The damage will be significant, I’m sure. There is damage to trust among administration, governance boards, faculty, staff, and students. Damage to students’ education, as the disruption itself as well as the longer shift to online learning. Damage to our reputation as a university. And, yes, financial damage.

Let’s talk about the money. In the debate about reopening, critics often pointed to administrators and governing boards wanting to open “just for the money.” They were driven away from the ethical choice, the argument went, by the allure of filthy lucre. But that money is what keeps academic life going. None of us is willing to forget the budget when it comes to questions of faculty raises, student stipends, or faculty hiring; where do we think that money comes from? A huge financial hit will mean fewer jobs for young scholars; less opportunity for students; less great research; and less or no income for adjunct and other precarious scholars. Higher education deserves much more support from state and federal governments, given its pivotal role in civic, scientific, health, and economic recovery, and the extent to which per-student spending has never recovered from the 2008 recession. I very much hope such support will be coming, but I’m not optimistic in the short term.

I don’t know the extent of financial damage here at UNC. Certainly plenty of money was spent preparing the physical plant for a safe return, buying protective equipment (masks, wipes, sanitizer, etc.) for students, faculty, and staff, and so on. And the university will be refunding students’ prorated room and board fees, which is a large sum of money. That money could have been spent, for example, on a robust testing regimen.

UNC has a substantial endowment — about $3.5 billion. As the finance people will be quick to tell you, the endowment is not mostly a rainy-day fund. Most of the funds in it have been designated by their donors for specific uses, so the university can’t just decide to redirect those funds. And the university counts on returns from the endowment for its year-to-year operations, so much of it is baked into the annual budget.

Both of these points are true, but I think they overstate the constraints. Generally, the endowment returns much less to campus units than its actual returns; annualized annual returns over the past 10 years have been 9% (https://uncmc.unc.edu/files/2020/02/FY-2019-UNCIF-Annual-Report-FINAL.pdf ) while units with endowment income typically receive between 4.5% and 5.4%. The difference is used to support various efforts, including at least part of the university development (fundraising) effort, and to hedge against poor returns in bad years, so units can plan on support from the endowment even when it loses money (as in FY2016 when, if I’m reading correctly, it lost 2% but the resultant payout remained 4.7%). This article shows that many universities behave this way: conserving excess returns in good times, but not supplementing returns in bad times.

There’s no question that this is a bad time. Given the unprecedented pressures on the university, I think the endowment should increase its payout rate to the university to cushion against these hits. Increasing that payout would allow us to keep doing education, research, and service, and to foster ambitious work. And we can replenish in future years by taking lower-than-otherwise-possible returns.

Finally, inclusive, frank, multidirectional communication among administration, technical experts, governing boards, and faculty, staff, and students is absolutely essential. It’s far too easy to skip this step, because it can be messy and frustrating.

What lessons would I take from this experience?

  1. Testing — early, routinely, and fastidiously — is crucial, with supported isolation for those who test positive. Early funds here might have prevented later losses.
  2. Enroll students in the shared sacrifice and shared project of education while protecting against the pandemic.
  3. Reform system and university governance to allow decisions to be made by local administrators, faculty, and students for sound scientific and educational reasons based on the conditions of their students, staff, and faculty.
  4. Convene “think tanks” of community members (faculty, staff, students) based on their expertise and listen to their concerns, ideas, and suggestions.
  5. When possible, spend aggressively to protect and promote development, hiring, and improving research and education.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “which lessons learned?”

  1. Well, the local health department, and public health experts around the country, all said it was a bad idea. And it turned out to be a bad idea. Doesn’t seem that complicated. We don’t get to have nice things, like in person school, if we don’t do the right thing to stop the pandemic. That’s where our energy needs to be applied, not to our freshman seminars.

    Liked by 1 person

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