UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health moves to online instruction for first three weeks of semester

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health (Photo:UNC.edu)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health is moving instruction online for the first three weeks of the Spring semester, which begins for undergraduates Monday.

The announcement came late Friday in an email from the school’s dean, Dr. Barbara Rimer and  Dr. Laura Linnan,  senior associate dean for Academic and Student Affairs. Their message cited and linked to Policy Watch’s recent story on UNC epidemiologists’ projections that under current conditions the campus could see more than 22,000 COVID-19 infections  in the next month, due to the more infectious Omicron variant.

“At Gillings, our leadership team has actively monitored this situation,” the message read. “We have sought and received input from faculty, staff, students, and colleagues across campus. We have been in regular contact with our infectious disease experts here at Gillings and on campus and know from them that we can expect high rates of infection this month. The safety and health of students, staff and faculty remain paramount.”

“For this reason, we believe the best public health decision for our staff, students and faculty is to adopt remote instruction for the first couple of weeks this semester with the full intention of returning to in-person instruction, unless public health and safety dictate otherwise, the week that begins with Monday, January 31,” the message read. “This decision is consistent with a consensus vote of our school leadership team. We know it will disappoint some that we will start entirely in remote status, but the intent remains to be in-person by the end of January.”

Read the full email here.

Federal health officials believe the COVID-19 omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant, but could cause milder symptoms. However, omicron has led to record numbers of infections in the state, as well as high rates of hospitalizations; the severity of the disease can vary depending on a person’s vaccination status and underlying health conditions.

A desire to return to in-person instruction at UNC System schools has clashed with caution over the current wave of infections. While faculty and students at a number of the system’s schools have pushed for a fully remote beginning to the semester, administration at Chapel Hill instead decided to leave decisions about modes of instruction up to deans at each of the schools at the university. While some deans are allowing more flexibility than others, most are citing university administration’s assurance that the school’s own health experts have assured them that in-person instruction can be done safely. Opinions among deans could shift with Gillings, home to some of those experts, now opting to go fully remote for the balance of the month. Many faculty on campus said Friday and Saturday they hope the decision will serve as an example to their own schools, whose leaders have warned against substituting one’s own judgement for that of scientists and medical experts.

Last week, after Policy Watch published its story on disturbing projections of the number of infections on campus in as students returned to campus, the school disabled its COVID-19 dashboard, which reports numbers of infections reported on campus. The school initially gave no explanation for doing so, then posted a statement saying that the dashboard would be updated again beginning Monday. The school has since said they are reevaluating what information is relevant to report given the Omicron variant’s difference from previous variants of the disease and will make that decision in consultation with the UNC System office and the state Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS has not disabled or altered its own dashboard and other UNC System schools have so far continued updating their own without unexplained pauses or alterations to how the information is reported to the public.

The move led some faculty members and students frustrated with the level of transparency on decisions about monitoring and reporting to begin crowdsourcing the archives of the dashboards at each school so that they can document how reporting changes.

At North Carolina State University, the system’s largest campus by enrollment,  students and faculty members are pushing the school’s administration for as much flexibility as faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. In an e-mail last week, representatives from the campus’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors urged university leaders to allow faculty to decide their mode of instruction during the current spike in infections.

That email, in full:

Chancellor Woodson and Provost Arden,

We understand the pandemic and recent COVID variants have created continued challenges, particularly as we begin to prepare for the start of the new semester. While we believe a delayed start would have been the best approach for handling the latest COVID surges, we now understand that it is unlikely we will change course a few days before classes begin. However, the NC State AAUP Chapter leadership and members want to make you aware of some troubling communications from our colleagues, and to make what we view as a reasonable  request.

Several faculty colleagues have expressed grave concerns about teaching in-person classes. They cite concerns about teaching to a full room of undergraduates and returning home to elderly parents, small children who are not able to get vaccinated, pregnant spouses, and immunocompromised family members.

Almost equally as troubling is the message these faculty members receive when they express these concerns to their department heads and/or deans. These leaders have told them there is a process to request a change in class delivery but also discouraged them from applying or told them not to apply at all. At the same time, department chairs told many of these faculty members there is no chance their request will be approved. Telling faculty members not to apply for change of delivery mode or telling them there is no chance of getting approved if they apply, in effect, makes the request process a complete farce.

We would also like to note that several faculty members were despondent and expressed that they felt as though University leaders did not care for their health and well-being. Others were dismayed that colleagues across the UNC System had campus openings delayed or were given flexibility to move their courses online, while NC State faculty were shown no such consideration.

Given these concerns and the recent spikes in COVID infections, we strongly urge you to allow faculty members to decide their mode of course delivery, instead of going through an approval process that requires the Provost to ultimately approve their request. Faculty should only have to provide their department head with a good faith explanation as to why they are changing their delivery method. In other words, our request is simple: treat faculty like the professionals they are and give them the authority to choose their course delivery method.

We have included all faculty senators, along with our chapter members and other interested faculty on this email to make them aware of their colleagues’ concerns.

Thank you for your attention. We look forward to your response.

Regards,

Paul Umbach
Professor and NC State AAUP chapter president

David Ambaras
Professor and NC State AAUP chapter vice president

Stephen Porter
Professor and NC State AAUP chapter treasurer-secretary

 

How to track what’s happening at other campuses:
Last week Luke Carman, a PhD student at N.C. State and co-chair of the UE 150 UNC System Council, created an online tracker to document and publicize how each of the 16 UNC System campuses is responding to the Omicron variant through policies, health initiatives and decisions about modes of instruction. Carman said he began the work as a reaction to the lack of easily accessible public information about the steps being taken at and the shifts at each school.

Rev. Barber tests positive for COVID-19, encourages vaccines and boosters

Rev. William Barber

Rev. William Barber has tested positive for COVID-19.

Barber, the former president of the North Carolina NAACP and current president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, announced his diagnosis in a statement early Thursday in which he praised vaccines and boosters and encouraged people to get them to protect their own health and that of those around them.

“My symptoms so far are very mild, and I am following CDC guidelines to notify close contacts and enter isolation for five days,” Barber wrote in the statement. “I want to express my gratitude for the vaccines and booster shots that prepared my body to fight the virus, and I encourage anyone who has not received a vaccine or booster, if they are eligible, to do so as soon as possible.”

“Even as we take every possible precaution to prevent the spread of this virus, new and extremely contagious variants emerge,” Barber wrote. “Throughout this pandemic I have noted that poor and marginalized people are hurt first and worst by a public health crisis. As we continue to organize and build power for a Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington, DC, and to the Polls, June 18, 2022, we must do all we can to care for one another by preventing the spread of Covid. Recent estimates by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggest it would only take $50 billion to fully vaccinate the whole world. Let’s choose life over profit, and do it now.”

UNC Law School students push for remote instruction as state faces COVID numbers

Undergraduates return to classes at UNC-Chapel Hill Monday in the face of record COVID-19 numbers and disturbing projections for what the Omicron variant could mean for on-campus infections this semester.

Students at UNC’s law school return to classes on campus today.

As Policy Watch has reported, the university has given the deans of individual schools the authority to temporarily modify instruction in reaction to the current record surge.

In a letter sent last weekend, five law student groups asked their dean to do just that.

From the letter, dated Jan.1:

In the wake of the recent surge in cases of the Omicron variant, we are writing to demand that at least two weeks of classes for the Spring 2022 semester be conducted virtually across the entire law school. Case numbers in North Carolina and Orange County are at a record high and are not expected to peak until later in the month, with community spread reported even among vaccinated, boosted, and masked community members.

Postponing the start of in-person classes by only a few weeks could make a dramatic difference in preventing transmission both in the law school and in the community at large. Statistically speaking, many law school students will be returning to campus having been exposed to COVID-19 and, with no testing requirement in place for most of us, may not know they carry the virus. Especially given UNC’s decision to limit asymptomatic testing, it is incredibly irresponsible to allow in-person classes at this time.

Other schools both in the area and across the country are starting the semester remotely. Duke, our neighbor of just a few miles, recently announced that all classes will be remote until January 18. In its email to students, Duke cited that “[o]n Thursday, the state of North Carolina reported the highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, representing a 60% increase over the previous one-day record.” Therefore, “in order to protect the health of [its] campus and community and to ensure the continuity of campus operations,” Duke decided to extend its remote period.

Meanwhile, Harvard, UCLA, and at least 24 other private and public law schools will hold the first few weeks of classes remotely. We should follow the leadership of our peer law schools to reduce risk of transmission for our communities, not only in Chapel Hill, but across the Triangle.

An email from University administration Friday morning gave individual deans the discretion to “temporarily modify modes of instruction.” We are asking for the law school deans to use this discretion to make a more protective choice than main campus by starting the semester remotely as we did last spring when case numbers were lower than they are now. The decision to do otherwise, and to shift the responsibility for risk mitigation to individual professors, is unacceptable and will create piece-meal policies that endanger our entire community.

 

The letter was signed by the UNC National Lawyers Guild (NLG), UNC Black Law Students Association (BLSA), UNC Lambda Law Students Association. UNC Hispanic/Latino Law Students’ Association (HLLSA) and the UNC Asian American Law Students Association (AALSA).

Read the entire letter here.

UNC School of Law Dean Martin Brinkley responded in a letter dated Jan. 2, thanking students for their letter and saying he wished to be transparent about his decision making.

From that letter:

“I and other members of our administration team share your concerns about the Omicron COVID variant. Like you, we are people with families and complicated lives, affected by the pandemic as you are. None of us knows what will happen in the next several weeks. None of us is a public health expert or physician. None of us in a position to substitute our judgment for that of public health experts and physicians., tempting as that might be in light of the news reports that are available to us all. We must depend on the administration of the University, which has access to qualified experts, to assess the risks Omicron poses to the health of our community.

Last Thursday I attended a meeting with the Provost, the other deans and the medical experts who are leading the University’s pandemic response. The outcome of that meeting was the delegation of discretion to the deans to temporarily modify modes of instruction. Had the Chancellor and Provost believed that in person classes could not be held with reasonable assurances of safety, I have no doubt that they would have done all in their power to safeguard our community with a different strategy.

I have found the approach being taken by other graduate and professional schools that are starting classes next week instructive. From conversation I had yesterday with Dean Burks at the medical school and Dean Koshuba at the pharmacy school, it is my understanding that both of those schools will be holding classes in person starting this week. Our approach makes that possible, but adds flexibility and relies on the faculty to determine when that flexibility should be applied to the circumstances of a particular course.”

Brinkley went on to say the public health situation is fluid and there is no firm idea when the public health situation may be clearer. Given the uncertainty, he said, he believes the decision on modes of instruction is best left to professors.

Read the entire letter here.

 

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees defend secretive vote on provost, take a new one in emergency meeting

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees again approved a new provost in an emergency meeting Tuesday, though its chairman insisted a secretive vote last week on the same issue was legal and appropriate.

“While I am confident that we took the action appropriately last week, it is important to me that we end any speculation as to validity of this appointment and the salary votes,” said board Chairman David Boliek. “The integrity of the university, the integrity of the board, is important to me.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair Dave Boliek

Boliek said the state open meetings law and the Human Resources Act have “competing strands” that sometimes make it complicated to decide what information should be disclosed to the public at what time. While everyone may have their own opinions as to when that information should be disclosed, Boliek said, it is up to the board to make that decision.

“I will tell the the board and the public that I don’t intend to call an emergency meeting, a special meeting, every time social media or the student newspaper decides to question something the board does,” Bokiek said.

Having a “do over” whenever decisions are questioned isn’t fair to the board or the university, Boliek said.

In the aftermath of last week’s vote, legal experts from across the state questioned the legality of the vote and some of the largest professional media outlets in the state, including WRAL and the News & Observer, produced stories examining the issue.

Tuesday’s vote went just as last week’s did, with the board voting to approve Chris Clemens, a physicist and associate dean at the university, as its new chief academic and chief operating officer. Lamar Richards, student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill, was the only member to vote no or to abstain.

After the vote, Richards took to Twitter to voice his concern about the process.

“I voted no on Chris’ appointment simply because I don’t believe he’s the right person or the job,” Richards said. “Simple. After interviewing every candidate and reviewing every CV, Chris came nowhere close to being a top-contender (IMO). This is not about him as much as it is those in the pool.”

Last week multiple members of the UNC Board of Trustees told Policy Watch Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz faced pressure to forward Clemens’s name to the board and that his credentials as one of the most conservative members of the faculty made him the favorite choice of conservative members of the board, the UNC Board of Governors and Republican dominated North Carolina General Assembly.

During Tuesday’s meeting board member Marty Kotis asked UNC-Chapel Hill General Counsel Charles Marshall to confirm that the emergency meeting was in compliance with the open meetings law. Marshall initially said he would prefer not to give any legal advice to the board in open session. The chairman said he saw no need to move into closed session to discuss the issue. When pressed, Marshall said that the chairman was entitled to call an emergency meeting and that he saw no legal impediment to it. He did not publicly address the legality of last week’s meeting.

Among the expert voices questioning last week’s board vote was Gerry Cohen, who helped write the open meetings law in question. Cohen, who served as a staff attorney and special counsel to the General Assembly for 40 years, said last week’s board vote seemed an almost perfect example of how to violate the statute on open meetings.

The statute at issue is 143-318.13, particularly the sub-section on “Acting by Reference.”

“The members of a public body shall not deliberate, vote, or otherwise take action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation, or other secret device or method, with the intention of making it impossible for persons attending a meeting of the public body to understand what is being deliberated, voted, or acted upon,” that part of the statute states. “However, this subsection does not prohibit a public body from deliberating, voting, or otherwise taking action by reference to an agenda, if copies of the agenda, sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated, voted, or acted upon, are available for public inspection at the meeting.”

Neither board’s agenda for last week’s meeting nor any public comments by the board members would have let the public know that the board was voting on a new provost or any details of the hire. Board and local government frequently release information about what position is being filled without running afoul of the state Human Resources Act.

The board instead voted on several numbered “action items” that gave the public no insight into what the board was actually approving, which Cohen said is almost exactly what is specifically prohibited by the open meetings law.

“This is what they call ‘black letter law,‘” Cohen said. “It’s pretty specific. I don’t understand how anyone could think that wasn’t a violation. It’s crystal clear”

Gerry Cohen

If the board frequently votes in this manner, as Boliek has said in defense of last week’s vote, Cohen said it may be worth asking what other votes have been violations of the law and whether the board may need to reconsider those votes as well.

Cohen also questioned whether Tuesday’s meeting, which the board publicly announced less than three hours before it met, meets the standard for an “emergency meeting.” The statute defines an emergency meeting as “one called because of generally unexpected circumstances that require immediate consideration by the public body.”

“Is it an unexpected circumstance that they decided not to follow the law?” Cohen said. “I think you’re expected to follow the law.”

It is also unclear whether the matter needed “immediate consideration,” Cohen said.

The board did not make that clear Tuesday, with Boliek simply saying he called the meeting to put the matter behind the board and move forward.

“The board has been unfairly accused of violating the law by not revealing all details about the personnel action at the time of the votes,” Boliek said. “Some have gone so far as to challenge or question the validity of our votes. Those accusations have unfairly stained this board process and this board and has created unwarranted speculation about the validity of the appointment.”

But Cohen said the board didn’t need to reveal all the details of the personnel action to stay on the right side of the open meetings law. It simply needed to give the public enough information to determine what was being voted on, not information about the specific candidates, proposed salaries or any terms fo employment. Giving such information when voting on hires or appointments is commonplace, Cohen said, and has been since the law was passed in 1979.

After secret proceedings, UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to meet, vote again on provost

Chris Clemens (Photo: UNC)

[Update: The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees gave public notice of their intention to hold an emergency meeting shortly before 11 a.m. Tuesday, after this story was originally published. The meeting will be held remotely at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.]

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees is expected to hold a special meeting to vote again on the university’s new provost, three members of the board told Policy Watch Tuesday.

As Policy Watch reported last week, the board approved a controversial candidate in a meeting wherein they did not publicly disclose the position for which they were hiring or the candidate they ultimately approved. After fielding questions from reporters last Thursday, the university released a statement announcing the hire shortly after 6 p.m.

The majority of the meeting was held in closed session, which is allowed under state law when dealing with personnel matters. But there was no public discussion and the public vote on the candidate didn’t disclose enough information for the public to determine what was being approved by the board. Instead, the board voted on “action items” that were not made clear to the public.

State statute 143-318.13 explicitly prohibits “acting by reference.”

“The members of a public body shall not deliberate, vote, or otherwise take action upon any matter by reference to a letter, number or other designation, or other secret device or method, with the intention of making it impossible for persons attending a meeting of the public body to understand what is being deliberated, voted, or acted upon,” the statute reads. “However, this subsection does not prohibit a public body from deliberating, voting, or otherwise taking action by reference to an agenda, if copies of the agenda, sufficiently worded to enable the public to understand what is being deliberated, voted, or acted upon, are available for public inspection at the meeting.”

The agenda also did not state which position was being filled, by whom or under what circumstances.

Shortly after the meeting, multiple high profile legal voices questioned the legality of the vote.  Though the board chairman defended the vote, this week board members were told to expect another meeting to more openly and explicitly vote to hire physics professor and associate dean Chris Clemens as the university’s new chief academic and chief operating officer.

Clemens, who has described himself as “among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years,” was a controversial choice. Multiple sources close to the process told Policy Watch Clemens’s conservative credentials made him the clear choice of the board and that UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz faced pressure to put Clemens forward as his choice for the role or have another candidate rejected.

Guskiewicz has not publicly made any such claim himself.

Members of the university’s board of trustees asked not to be identified when talking about the process with Policy Watch this week so that they could discuss an ongoing personnel matter.

“It shouldn’t have been done the way it was done, with the board not letting the public know what was being voted on and who was being voted on,” one board member said. “We were told that it could be done that way and that we had to protect the confidentiality of the candidate, that the chancellor wanted to make the announcement later. But that’s not how public business should be conducted at the university and we’re going to do it over because they know it’s going to lead to legal challenges if we don’t.”

Another board member said there is division on the board as to whether there was a misstep in the process, but they have been told to expect an
“emergency meeting” as soon as Tuesday.

Under state statute, public bodies must give public notice of an intention to meet 48 hours before any meeting. The statute provides for an “emergency meeting” to handle “generally unexpected circumstances” but does not state that the body may give less notice. The law says notice shall be given to the public “immediately after notice has been given to those members.”

As of early Tuesday, three members of the board said they had not yet been given a time or virtual meeting link for the proposed meeting.