COVID-19, Higher Ed

UNC Board of Governors meets today amid questions, tensions over COVID-19

The UNC Board of Governors will hold a special, full board meeting Friday via teleconference after a full day of teleconference committee meetings Thursday that in many ways offered more questions than answers.

Many questions about how the system will  respond to the COVID-19 pandemic long-term, or even past this semester, were tabled until the full board meeting. A discussion of postponing commencement was brief and did not come to a conclusion. Discussions of the challenges students face in trying to move out of their dorms by this weekend while resuming classes online was tabled for the Friday’s full board meeting.

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis was rebuffed in several attempts to have budget and legislative priorities drawn up a month ago rewritten or tabled in light of the pandemic.

“We can’t stick our heads in the sand,” Kotis said during a budget discussion that involved sending hundreds of millions of dollars in budget priorities to the North Carolina General Assembly.

The asks to the legislature included funding for new classroom and dormitory buildings as well as for summer classes. Kotis said that in light of so much uncertainty about when students may return to campus and the likelihood that the pandemic will stretch into summer, the board should instead be asking for money to expand its online education capacity and should not be approving the use of cash for most capital projects.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis

But the majority of board members present said that while the pandemic is of great importance, the board can’t throw aside long-term planning.

Unable to get the committees of which he is a part to postpone budget and legislative priority items, Kotis instead asked that they at begin putting together updated asks for the General Assembly specific to the pandemic.

“I’d like to request we develop budget priorities specific to the coronavirus impact over the next month and have that be available for the legislature before they return on the [April 28th], including some mission critical items that relate to COVID-19,” Kotis said.

Though Interim UNC System President Bill Roper assured Kotis that was already underway, Kotis did get a commitment that the board will work on pandemic-specific needs, with Roper leading the efforts.

In remarks to several committees, Roper emphasized the seriousness of the pandemic and the questions is raises for management of the 17-campus university system.

In a personal and uncharacteristic aside, Roper referred to The Bible in discussing what he called the “unprecedented challenge” of the pandemic.

“If you read Esther, Chapter 4 it has relevant language for times such as this,” Roper said.

“To state the obvious, we are in the midst of a global pandemic that not only is effecting the university system but every person, family, business and institution across North Carolina and the nation,” Roper said. “In a crisis like the one we’re in, we have to apply the principles of triage  — meaning, we’ll focus on the most critical and urgent issues now and then get to others in due course. But that doesn’t mean way in the future — it means tomorrow, the next day, so on.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

“We’ve set as priorities the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff,” Roper said. “Secondly, continuing our academic mission by transitioning to online learning. I’m pleased to tell you that 95 percent of our classes or more are now ready to go online. We’re ensuring that our students have a place to live with access to online studies and access to nutrition.”

“I tell you, I believe we will get through this,” Roper said. “But it will not be easy. We simply don’t know when this is going to be over and we have to be prepared for the long haul. We’ve been working with the chancellors  and their teams, who are on the front lines — also with state and county officials. I’ve spoken many times this week with the governor, with [House] Speaker [Tim] Moore, with [Senate] President Pro Tem [Phil] Berger, with DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and our board leaders, especially [UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy] Ramsey and we’ve been in touch with our congressional delegation in Washington.”

“There are many other issues that are on peoples’ minds,” Roper said. “Just to name a few of those, beginning with what financial issues do we face, what refunds will students be due such as housing and dining. And I would commit to you that we will in a position to start to answer those questions in the next week. But I say again, we’re in a serious global pandemic and we’re proceeding with the expectation that this will get worse before it gets better. I had the occasion to talk to the leaders of several of our large health systems across North Carolina and they are preparing for an onslaught of patients at their institutions.”

“I will tell you I am confident we  will not get everything right,” Roper said. “But we will make corrections as we move forward.”

The public can listen to Friday’s full meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, which begins at 9 a.m. Friday,  via a live stream.

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