UNC-Chapel Hill provost defends withholding county health department pandemic recommendations

This week UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin defended withholding the Orange County Health Department director’s recommendation that the school move completely online for the Fall semester and cut on-campus housing to a bare minimum.

Blouin’s explanation came during a Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday afternoon.

The health department letter, which many faculty members first learned about through media reports, led to a tense faculty meeting last week at which Blouin and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz faced strong criticism. Many faculty members, who also heard about this summer’s cluster of infections among student athletes on campus through media reports, called the continued lack of transparency from school administrators disappointing. Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, called the failure to disclose the health director’s recommendation “a serious breach of trust.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin

On Monday Blouin returned to the letter, explaining that he and Guskiewicz did not believe that a memo from the county’s health department’s director was the department’s official position.

“Was this an official position of the health department?” Blouin said. “I guess we didn’t treat it as a position statement. If it was, they would have posted it on their website as a public release.”

The detailed three page memo, on health department letterhead, was addressed to Blouin, Guskiewicz and Vice Chancellor George Battle. It was copied to the county health department medical director and the medical director of occupational health care at UNC.

It contained the following paragraph:

“At this time, the Orange County Health Department recommends that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill consider the following:

* Restrict on campus housing to at-risk students with no access to equitable educational resources and those with true housing needs (i.e. International students, Carolina Covenant & marginalized students)

* Consider virtual classes for the entire Fall Semester but at minimum begin the first 5 weeks of the semester with online instruction only with plans to reassess the situation at the 5 week mark.”

It also concluded that the department’s recommendation did not come lightly but “from the public health perspective with the best information we have at the current time during these extraordinary circumstances.

Given all that, several faculty members seemed incredulous that the administration did not consider the memo an official position of the health department or something that warranted sharing with the wider community.

Administrators thought of the memo as a more of an informal summation of ongoing conversations, Blouin said. He didn’t see it as a public document or “something that needed to be shared,” he said, and didn’t believe the health department did either.

Sources inside the health department told Policy Watch last week that the memo was the result of the department’s suggestions not making any impact on the school’s decision making. When the memo itself did not change the school’s plan, the department ultimately sent the memo to local elected officials, who made it public.

Eric Muller, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and member of the Faculty Executive Committee, asked why the administration had come to the conclusion that those recommendations did not warrant immediate action whether or not it was made public.

Blouin said they believed they were already addressing the health department concerns “in spirit.”

That answer did not satisfy many faculty members.

Rather than going online for the fall semester — or at least the first five weeks — the campus began classes Monday, with a mixture of online and in-person instruction.

Instead of restricting housing to those without other available housing, the university pushed forward with a plan to have full capacity dorms. The density in the residence halls is down to 61 percent overall, Blouin said, Monday — but that is not the result of university restrictions but concerned students and their families getting out of their housing contracts.

“We thought it would be better if students made the determinations more on their own rather than being directed in one way or another,” Blouin said last week.

The university extended the period in which students could withdraw from contracts, but did not encourage them to do so. The school’s Carolina Away online program has been popular with students opting out of in-person instruction but, again, the university has not actively encouraged students to move online and away from residential, in-person instruction as a result of the pandemic.

With the university having therefore followed none of the recommendations from the health department, several faculty members said, it was difficult to determine how administrators considered they were already well on their way to addressing the department’s concerns and didn’t need to make the community aware of them.

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