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.
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.
“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.