UNC System aiming for fall re-opening of campuses, avoiding tuition increases

All 17 UNC System campuses should be able to return to on-campus instruction in the Fall semester, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said in a statement this week.

It may not immediately be “the ‘normal’ we were all used to prior to COVID-19,” Roper said, but the system is working with individual campuses and their chancellors on plans for how to get there.

“We are optimistically seeing indications of improvement and hopeful that this will continue,” Roper said. “But these trends will continue only if we stay focused and diligent, which we must and will do. North Carolina will likely have improved capacity for tracking student exposure and greater access to the tools, materials, and supplies that can help minimize the virus’s threat.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

Chancellors at the individual universities will be given the flexibility to determine what is best for students and staff on campus and off, Roper said. Some may consider staggered or shortened calendars and may take steps to to reduce the number of students in campus housing and in classrooms.

“Above all, our steps forward will be contingent on what we discover through ongoing monitoring of infection rates and North Carolina’s testing and treatment capacity,” Roper said. “We will continue to follow the advice of the nation’s infectious disease experts and our own experts at UNC Health. We will remain in frequent contact with Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of NC Department of Health and Human Services. And we will continue to coordinate our operations with Governor Cooper’s executive orders.”

Students, teachers and administrators throughout the system did a remarkable job shifting to online-only education last month, Roper said. But it’s not a permanent solution.

“For many in the UNC System, digital learning technologies simply cannot be a long-term substitute for the facilities and community that our campuses provide,” Roper said. “The majority of our faculty and students need access to our libraries, labs, classrooms, and medical and agriculture facilities to fully engage with their research, teaching, learning, and service work.”

This week students filed separate lawsuits against East Carolina University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington over the shift to online education. The complaints say that though the pivot was necessary, thousands of students across the state didn’t get what they paid for in their college experience and pro-rated refunds for unused meal plans and on-campus housing don’t fully compensate them for that.

The complaints filed against UNC are part of a nationwide wave of such suits and aspire to become a class action lawsuit that could involve thousands of students in the state.

As the UNC system wrestles with that problem, a UNC Board of Governors committee voted this week to postpone any increase in tuition and fees at system schools for the coming academic year. The final vote will be taken at the full board meeting later this month, but there appears to be little support for raising tuition and fees as students and their families deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

At its May meeting the board is also expected to officially approve Dr. Sharon Gaber as the next chancellor of UNC-Charlotte. The school announced her appointment this week. Gaber will come to the post from the University of Toledo, where she was the school’s first female leader. She will replace Philip Dubois, who served as chancellor of UNC-Charlotte for 15 years.

Searches for the next chancellor at East Carolina University and for a new President of the UNC System have been postponed due to the pandemic.

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