COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

App State Board of Trustees refuses to hear from Faculty Senate chair as tensions continue

The Appalachian State University Board of Trustees held its first meeting of the academic year Friday — but it refused a request by the school’s Faculty Senate to speak at the meeting.

Last month Policy Watch reported on the Faculty Senate passing a resolution expressing no confidence in the leadership of App State Chancellor Sheri Everts.  This week, as the school continues to face issues like the COVID-19 pandemic  and an ongoing controversy over an on-campus voting site Michael Behrent, chair of the ASU faculty senate, requested five minutes to address the board as provided for in the board’s by-laws.

In an email this week Vice Chancellor and Chief of Staff Hank Foreman told Behrent that the board considered but declined his request.

Unable to address the board during its meeting, Behrent recorded and uploaded a video of the comments he prepared.

The faculty reaction to the board’s rebuff was swift and negative. On Friday a large number of them wrote to express their displeasure with the decision.

“Faculty would like to work with you and with the executive administration, together, to make Appalachian stronger,” wrote Martha McCaughey, a professor of sociology and member of the Faculty Senate. “However, you rejected, without any explanation, the formal request of our Faculty Senate Chair, Dr. Michael Behrent, to give a short report, and this therefore does not appear on your meeting agenda.”

“It is poor optics to refuse to engage with the Faculty Senate in the midst of a pandemic, and following the faculty’s voicing serious concerns about shared governance of the university,” McCaughey wrote. “Administrators’ meeting with individual departments is not an acceptable substitute for the administration’s obligations related to shared governance as defined in Article IV of the Faculty Constitution and 7.1 and 7.2 of the Faculty Handbook.”

“The Faculty Senate, on which I serve, stands ready to engage with both the executive administration and the Board of Trustees,” she wrote.

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COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors Chairman: UNC System President, chancellors making final decisions on pandemic closings

Three of the largest UNC System universities moved all undergraduate instruction online at the beginning of the Fall semester after out of control on-campus COVID-19 infection clusters.

But more than a month later, it has remained unclear how those decisions were made and by whom.

In July UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey told chancellors decisions about school closings would  be made by incoming UNC System President Peter Hans and the board, not by individual school chancellors.

“I want to be very clear about one thing,” Ramsey wrote in the email to chancellors of the 17 UNC campuses. “I expect Peter and the board to make the decision about this fall consulting with current leadership.”

But after UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and East Carolina University moved online and UNC-Charlotte announced it would begin the semester online until the beginning of October, board members said they had no part in that decision.

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey

Board member Marty Kotis bristled at suggestions by chancellors by chancellors and statements like those from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Public Health that the board mandated openings, overruled chancellors or ultimately decided which schools would close or remain open.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told a faculty meeting he was advised by the UNC System to “stay the course” on opening in-person though the Orange County Health Department advised against it.

That and other statements from school leaders across the system led many to assume the board of governors was directly involved in these decisions. Not so, said Kotis.

“We did not vote, we weren’t e-mailed, we didn’t really participate in those decisions,” Kotis said of the board’s role.

So who did make those decisions and how?

Policy Watch has been putting those questions to the UNC System office for more than a month. This week, Ramsey responded.

“Governor Kotis said the Board of Governors has not taken action to mandate reopening of the campuses nor overruled any campus reopening decisions. What he said is absolutely true, and I agree with him,” Ramsey said in a statement to Policy Watch Tuesday. ” In a large and diverse university system like ours, there is a great deal of shared responsibility, consultation, and collaboration.”

“Since President Hans came on board on August 1st, he has had the support of our board and the full authority to work with our chancellors to make the decisions to modify or adapt operations,” Ramsey said.  “President Hans has made these decisions on a campus-by-campus basis in collaboration with each Chancellor and consultation with the Board.  His decisions have been and will continue to be based on solid data, guidance from public health officials, and the best interests of the health and safety of our faculty, staff, and students.”

Kotis doesn’t disagree that the board has supported Hans and his decisions on which schools may go online or continue in person. But “consultation” isn’t the word he would use for the board’s role, he said Tuesday.

“We might have consulted as far as, we’d send an e-mail to ask about something,” Kotis said. “And we’ve gotten general information on COVID at our meetings. But we didn’t consult on school closings. I found out about it the same way you did, when it was announced. I don’t know what’s going to happen with UNC-Charlotte, but I’m sure I’ll read about it [in the news] and then I’ll get a message about it.”

Kotis said he’d like the board to have more input and more of a consulting role than they’ve had so far, because they’ve really had none. That’s particularly true of things like testing and safety procedures taken on campuses, on which Kotis believes there should be more board discussion and consultation. But that’s not a critique of the way openings and closings  decisions have been handled, Kotis said.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis

“We trust the president and that trust began with [former interim UNC System President] Bill Roper,” Kotis said. “Who’s going to question Bill Roper on this? Who’s going to question the former head of the CDC and UNC Health Care? We were glad to have him in that position during this. I think he and Peter Hans have done a good job.”

But no one — from chancellors and university officials to the public — should be under the impression that mandates or final decisions are coming from the board of governors, Kotis said.

“Some of the people within the schools who are trying to lay the blame at the feet of the board of governors when we had no involvement,” Kotis said. “It’s asinine to say that we’ve mandated all schools re-open when UNC-Charlotte isn’t open, they started online. There hasn’t been any mandate that all schools open. Not that I’m aware of.”

There are still 13 schools in the system functioning with in-person classes and on-campus living, Kotis said. At the schools where that hasn’t worked, the blame doesn’t belong with the board of governors, he said.

“There needs to be a deep, hard look at why the schools that had so many problems had these problems,” Kotis said.

That’s more important than affixing blame, Kotis said — particularly if some people are going to place it on a board of governors that wasn’t actively involved in the decision-making. Those who think the board forced schools to take a certain path are just misinformed, he said.

“Get you own shit sorted out before you go criticizing others,” he said,

But to it’s been difficult for the public to get a clear timeline and verifiable information on how those decisions were made. Policy Watch has requested documents, including UNC-System and campus-level e-mails, related to how the decisions at UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools were made. The UNC System yet to release communications between the Hans, the board and individual chancellors.

Education, Higher Ed

UNC System sets enrollment record, despite pandemic

The UNC System set an enrollment record this Fall semester, despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused several of its largest schools to shift to online-only for undergraduates.

There are 242,464 total students enrolled at UNC System campuses this Fall, the system announced Thursday. That’s an increase of 1 percent system-wide over last year. Undergraduate enrollment increased 0.2 percent over last year and graduate enrollment is up by 4 percent.

It’s a remarkable achievement, and it reflects the determination of our students, the dedication of our faculty and staff, and the enduring value of public higher education,” said UNC System President Peter Hans. “Every one of those students is making a critical investment in their own future and in the future of our state.”

Eight of the system’s 17 schools have recorded record enrollments  — Appalachian State University, Fayetteville State University, N.C. A&T State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, UNC Pembroke, UNC Wilmington, and Western Carolina University.

“The fact that our institutions were able to welcome a record-breaking class of students all in the midst of a national crisis is remarkable,” Hans said during a press conference after Thursday’s UNC Board of Governors meeting. “I simply cannot say enough about the faculty, the staff and the students themselves who have shown such determination in the face of such daunting obstacles. And I’m proud to have been a small part of that collective effort.”

UNC System President-elect Peter Hans.

“Thirteen of our institutions continue to offer in-person learning for undergraduate students,” Hans said. “Three [UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and East Carolina University] have transitioned undergraduate education online, continuing to offer a world class education at a very challenging moment. We’ll have clarification about UNC-Charlotte next week.”

“I think all of us went into the Fall hoping for some version of a normal semester — or as normal as it could be with masks and social distancing,” Hans said. “But we also knew and expected that campuses would adapt as local conditions changed. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Hans also touted the fact that tuition has remained flat at UNC System schools for the last four years, offering what he called “a tremendous value.” He called for the system to make it five years in a row.

“We need to offer students and family a little uncertainty in a deeply uncertain time,” Hans said. “Keeping a lid on tuition is the right thing to do for North Carolina and the right thing to do for families facing economic hardship.”



North Carolina’s elementary schools can reopen for in-person instruction Oct. 5

Gov. Roy Cooper

Citing improving COVID-19 metrics, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that elementary school students can begin to return to classrooms for in-person instruction starting Oct. 5.

Most school districts are only offering remote learning (Plan C). Others are providing a mix of remote learning and in-person instruction under Plan B.

Each district can decide whether to fully reopen schools for K-5 students under Plan A, the option that became available Thursday.

“I want to be clear, Plan A may not be right at this time for many school districts and for every family,” Cooper said. “Opportunities for remote learning need to be available for families who choose it. Districts will have the flexibility to select the plan based on their unique situation.”

Cooper said Plan A is now an option because “North Carolinians have doubled down on safety and prevention measures” to stabilize key COVID-19 metrics such as hospital capacity, which has remained stable.

“We have shown that listening to the science works,” Cooper said. “As a result, our key numbers have stabilized or even decreased and in some instances for a sustained period.”

He said that research showing that young children spread the virus at a lower rate than older children and adults also factored into the decision.

Middle schools and high schools will continue to operate under Plan B or Plan C.

The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) said Cooper is “flirting with danger.”

“Local school districts already have significant flexibility to open for in-person instruction, and loosening guidelines further is flirting with danger,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.

Tamika Walker Kelly

Walker Kelly said the NCAE won’t recommend teachers return to classrooms where it’s difficult to practice social distancing unless they are properly fitted with a N-95 mask to protect their health and the health of those around them.

Cooper’s announcement came a day after state Republicans and a group of parents demanded that schools be reopened fully for in-person instruction.

On Thursday, Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said Cooper’s decision is a step in the right direction but insisted that all parents be given the option of sending children to school for in-person instruction full time.

“His new plan ignores the needs of low-income and exceptional students in middle and high schools for in-person instruction,” Berger said in a statement. “We continue to hear that these decisions are being made based on ‘science.’ What is the science that says it’s safe for 5th graders to be in school full time, but it’s not safe for 6th graders?

In recent weeks, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who’s challenging the democratic governor in the Nov. 3 General Election, has grown increasingly critical of Cooper’s decision to not fully reopen schools.

“These schools know how to open safely,” Forest said during a press conference Wednesday. “They can follow the lead of schools all over the world and do that. They can make it safe for their administrators. They can make it safe for their teachers. They can make it safe for their students. Most importantly, they can let the parents decide.”

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, also a Republican, applauded Cooper’s decision, which he said moved the state closer to allowing families to return to classrooms from in-person learning full time.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger

“While the governor, the State Board of Education, and I have our differences, I join with them today to encourage local school board members to take advantage of this change and open all schools safely,” Johnson said.

Under Plan A, teachers, students and staff will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing. Students and staff must also pass daily temperature checks and other health screenings.

Forest has been critical of the mask requirement.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services, said masks are needed to slow the spread of the virus.

“This is a science and research-based decision, not an opinion,” Cohen said. “That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of 67,000 pediatricians, recommend masks for all children [age] two and up.”

Even before Cooper’s announcement Thursday, some school districts operating under Plan C had begun to discuss opening school buildings for in-person instruction.

The Wake County school system was weighing different options to bring students back for in-person instruction.

Durham Public Schools said in a statement Thursday that it will continue to consider the available options.

“Durham Public Schools is continuing to work with our local health department, medical experts from the ABC Science Collaborative, and a task force of district administrators and teachers in order to assess what is necessary to open our schools safely to students and staff,” district officials said. “We will present survey information to our board on Thursday, Sept. 24, providing insight into our families’, students’, and employees’ satisfaction with remote instruction and desires for in-person learning.”

Education, Higher Ed, News

After intense debate, UNC Board of Governors approves changes to chancellor search process

The UNC System President will be able to insert two hand-picked candidates into chancellor search processes at campuses across the system under a new change approved by the UNC Board of Governors Thursday. One of those candidates would become an automatic finalist, under the change, whether or not local search committees agree with the choice.

Traditionally, a search committee constituted by an individual school’s board of trustees conducts an independent chancellor search and forwards at least two finalists to the UNC system president. The president then chooses a final candidate to submit for final approval by the UNC Board of Governors.

In July, before he had officially taken office,  new UNC System President Peter Hans proposed a change that would allow the president to unilaterally add up to two hand-chosen candidates to any chancellor search process. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward in a slate of finalists for the position, irrespective of the opinions of search committees or boards of trustees.

In effect, the president would have the power to appoint finalists and choose the final candidate from those finalists.

UNC System President Peter Hans.

The proposed change divided the board, with a number of members saying it would essentially allow the system to disregard local search committees and boards of trustees. After a long debate at the board’s Thursday meeting, the proposal was changed so that only one of the president’s hand-picked candidates would become an automatic finalist, not two. The board also announced that the new system will not apply to chancellor searches already underway at East Carolina University and Fayetteville State University.

Those changes didn’t satisfy critics of the changes.

“The founders of our board of governors wanted to ensure that the great institutions were as free from political influence as possible,” board member Leo Daughtry said during the debate. “These institutions could very easily become a dumping ground for tired politicians, for old and big donors and others. When I was in the General Assembly it was the DMV.  If we pass this provision, our president will have the ability to choose a chancellor unfettered. The board of trustees, who have always had that job, could now very easily be by-passed and the president choose a chancellor.”

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