Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A View From Chapel Hill

Given all of the attention that UNC-Chapel Hill has received recently, it was suggested to me that readers might be interested in a view from the ground (not sure whether or not to thank Rick Bales for suggesting that I rehash this). I don't think UNC's experience is necessarily unique, but being a high-profile state flagship school with a recent eye-catching student paper editorial has kept us in the news.

While I was involved with plans at the law school level, I'll note that I was very much out-of-the loop at the campus level. There were some interesting dynamics going on, including the university system Board of Governors (whose members are 100% from one political party) asserting that they alone had the power make the final call on closing UNC campuses. At Chapel Hill, it seemed early in the process that there was going to be a push to have in-person classes, including--most crucially to my mind--on-campus housing. As a former Associate Dean, I'm quite sympathetic to the position that administrators were in. Quite literally a no-win situation. However, from what I'd been hearing, there wasn't enough attention to dealing with the inevitabilities involved with bringing a bunch of undergrads onto campus. As a result, the disappointing but expected reports of unsafe parties quickly came. And soon after that, COVID clusters in four dorms in less than a week. Then closure for all undergrad classes. I don't pretend to know what the best path would've been, but the school's refusal to test returning students and constantly using FERPA to restrict info about COVID outbreaks were a couple of swing-and-misses that came to my mind (e.g., they said FERPA prevented them from saying how many students tested positive in these clusters, which doesn't make any sense to me). One of my colleagues who serves on the Faculty Executive Council had also, among other things, unsuccessfully agitated for an ethicist to join the reopening discussions with all the medical researchers and scientists, which in retrospect might've saved a lot of turmoil.

At the law school, things were somewhat different, especially given that we don't have university housing and are much smaller than the undergrad schools. I was part of a group that worked throughout the summer to prepare for fall classes, although I'm compelled to recognize that a lot of our staff and our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs did a tremendous amount of work that got us off to as good a start of the semester as one could have expected. And the administration overall was quite good at listening to and accommodating faculty and staff wishes and concerns. In the end, most of our classes were all-remote, but we did have some in-person. For example, some upper-level courses met, especially those where in-person was especially important. Moreover, we surveyed all incoming 1Ls, 25% of whom chose all-remote; 75% wanted in-person. Because their schedules were easier to control, we put those 75% in what were essentially pods. Some, but not all, of their classes were in-person (including my Contracts class). I won't go into all of the details, but I felt quite comfortable with the safety measures. Masks were required of everyone all the time, and not a single student came to school without wearing one. The students stayed in a single classroom way below its capacity and their professors simply changed between class (I think, at most, there were two in-person classes a day for any given student). To keep the classroom numbers low, a third of students were remote every day, which was a bit awkward, but was working out fine. And, to my knowledge, no law student had tested positive for COVID since the semester started.

Despite the law school being in good shape and the university allowing us to stay open, our Dean decided to go all remote yesterday. While I was personally bummed about this--I really liked being able to see my students in person--I think it was the right call. Of interest to readers of this blog, once of the Dean's primary motivations was the health of our staff. To quote part of his announcement:

Given the developments of recent days in the Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County communities ... the risks of continuing this valiant effort are simply too great. We cannot justify risking the health of any of our students, faculty or staff unnecessarily when we know that we are capable of providing legal education of outstanding quality via remote technology. I feel this is best decision for our community under all the circumstances.

In an emergency meeting yesterday in which the Dean told us this was coming, it was clear that the impact on staff weighed particularly heavy on him, as he was well aware that having any in-person classes required several people to regularly come into the building to help make that happen. And given what was going on elsewhere on campus, it was a risk he didn't want to force them to take. A concern that you like to see from the head of an organization and, from what I can tell, most everyone at the law school understands and supports. 

Everyone teaching in-person, of course, had prepared for this possibility, so the transition to all-remote for the law school will go smoothly. The undergrads, I'm less sure about. Many students are quite angry, for understandable reasons. And they now have to figure out their living arrangements at the last minute while classes are still happening. So we shall see. In the meantime, as a resident of Chapel Hill, I'm not sorry to see fewer students and their families in town. While many were wearing masks and acting safe, many were not. It has been disturbing to see the shocking number of parents and students who were out with no masks or social distancing. There's plenty of blame to go around here, but many of the undergrad students and parents who are upset now share some of it. The folks I feel sorry for are those who did what they were supposed to, but had the rug pulled from under them by others who did not.

Jeff Hirsch


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My daughter just started the MBA program at Notre Dame. She reports that Notre Dame stopped reporting positive tests as of yesterday morning. She also reports that though the B-school is requiring precautions on campus, B-students are taking zero precautions off campus, and in fact are congregating in large (even school-sanctioned) parties with no distancing and no masks. And these are the B-students -- who we might expect to be more prudent and self-disciplined than the undergrads. She knows what's coming, and is p-ssed, for exactly the reasons Jeff describes.

Posted by: Richard Bales | Aug 18, 2020 9:22:13 AM

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