Podcast Transcript: “An unfortunate trendsetter” in COVID Management – Interview with Jay Smith

UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Jay Smith talks to host Daniel Barwick about how the university mismanaged its original COVID planning, and then mismanaged its responses to the resulting outbreaks. This interview transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

Dan: My guest today is University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Jay Smith, whose recent article in Academy, “A Telling Blame Game at UNC” drew our attention immediately. Professor Smith is a specialist of early modern France, especially in the later 17th and 18th centuries. The author of five books, Smith has written about the development of royal absolutism, the emergence of patriotic habits of thought under the old regime, the French Revolution, the history of the nobility, and the UNC athletic academic scandal. He is now working on a comparative study of the emergent concept of political accountability in the 18th century North Atlantic. His article in Academy traces UNC-Chapel Hill’s response to the COVID crisis and offers suggestions and solutions for the future. I should probably add here that in the interest of balance we did invite UNC to appear on the program as well, and they declined. Professor Smith, welcome to the podcast.

Jay: Good to be here.

Dan: You wrote in your article that last summer, UNC-Chapel Hill became “ground zero for COVID-19.” Most people think of the fall semester when they think of how colleges began to successfully or unsuccessfully address the pandemic. What specifically happened in the summer that you think is relative to the story of how it unfolded at UNC-Chapel Hill?

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Jay: Right, this is just at least in part an accident of timing, because the chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill decided back in May that our fall semester would begin early. It actually began, the first day of classes was August 10th. And so when I referred to the summer in that blog post I was referring specifically to what happened in August. And I don’t know if you remember any of the details, but UNC-Chapel Hill was blown off track very quickly. By August 17th, we had so many clusters in our residence halls, clusters of infections that is, that the chancellor announced just one week into the semester that we were pivoting to mostly online teaching. And most of the students in our dorms were going to be sent home. So it was a very fast train wreck that happened in August, but it was technically this summer.

Dan: Then, as those clusters emerged, how did the fall semester unfold? And can you speak specifically to the “blame shifting” that you say occurred?

Jay: Our administrators had tried to prep for the worst by setting aside a couple of residence halls for quarantining purposes. Students who had tested positive for COVID were put in one hall. Others who had been exposed to them and who would have to be tested were put in another hall. And once the announcement was made that we were going to be shifting to online instruction, those poor students had to stay in those residence halls until they were clear. One of the real unfortunate consequences of our failure to plot out every contingency in the course of spring and summer was that according to the reports of many undergraduates, many students in those residence halls that had been set aside for quarantining were not even fed properly. They were placed in some rooms that hadn’t been cleaned properly. Many students had fairly miserable experiences in those residence halls. So that’s how the semester unfolded initially. The Daily Tar Heel – that is our student newspaper – received a lot of national attention for announcing that UNC had given itself a “cluster F.” (laughs)

Dan: Yes, I remember covering that article on both an earlier podcast and in a YouTube video, it certainly received national attention.

Jay: Right, right. Luckily after those first few weeks, there were, as far as I know there were no serious spikes and infections after, say, mid-August. As far as I know, there were no, for example, no athletic clusters of infections after July. There was a cluster among the athletics teams in July when they first got back to campus, but they seem to have kept things under control there. So after that first couple of weeks, the semester unfolded more or less uneventfully and we made it to the finish line without any disasters. Throughout the term, and particularly as the chancellor and his planning team began to make plans for the spring semester, they let it be known that they regarded the primary culprits, or those who bore most of the responsibility for the failed rollout of the fall semester, to be students. That is, students who had gone to parties, students who had congregated in larger numbers than they were supposed to, according to Orange County health department guidelines. That rubbed a lot of us the wrong way. I mean, both the chancellor and the provost and our UNC system president, all three laid the primary blame for what had happened in August at the feet of students. And that just seemed mighty convenient for one thing, because our administrators had been warned all summer long. From the end of May to the very first week of August, just before classes resumed, they had been warmed by many people, including the Orange County health department that residential living with the density that was anticipated by our leaders was likely to be very dangerous, very risky. Many people had predicted that college students would behave like college students and socialize and get together. After all, they hadn’t seen their friends since the first week of March; they had been disconnected from their universities for six months. Of course they were going to get together, and there was likely going to be some viral spread from as a result of that. And so all of that was easy to predict, easy to anticipate. And it just seemed to us – to many of us, I should say – that blaming the students for what had happened in August was an attempt to shift blame away from the administrators who had plotted out this disastrous course.

Dan: If the students were seen as the primary culprits, apparently some attention was also paid to faculty. You’re a faculty member, and your article focuses on the faculty experience and the stance you contend the administration took with regard to faculty. You wrote, “Now left unsaid was the likely financial fallout for the faculty themselves: furloughs, pay cuts, reduced benefits. If the cowardly faculty failed to face the virus, the university has signaled our jobs and the long-term viability of the institution will be on the line.” Can you flesh out a little for us that way in which the university doesn’t see the faculty as facing the virus?

Jay: Yes. The wording there arises from an emergency meeting convened by the Provost about a month ago now, including all of the department chairs within the college of arts and sciences. At that meeting, the Dean of the College conveying the sentiments of the Provost, let it be known that the administrators were disappointed in the faculty, and the specifically, they were disappointed because so many faculty, after having been given the option to decide how they would deliver their course content in the spring, had opted for remote instruction; that is, had opted to teach mainly online in the spring semester. Something like, I think 90% of the College of Arts and Sciences courses are currently scheduled to be online in the spring. And it was made clear at this emergency meeting, I’ve heard from a number of chairs who attended, that the chairs were encouraged to urge more of their faculty to teach in person, so that something like 20 or 30% of our courses would be in-person courses, or at least a combination of in-person and online. I say that it was “left unsaid,” that there would be financial consequences that the faculty themselves would have to pay, because there had been earlier meetings in the course of the late summer and fall at which both the Chancellor and the Provost made clear that one of their primary concerns was the fall-off – likely fall off – in tuition money that would happen if we remained online in the spring. The provost made clear at an earlier meeting of the Faculty Council in probably September, I can’t remember the exact date, but made clear that tuition money is used largely for salaries of faculty and staff. That’s how tuition money is used. And he said, and I’m paraphrasing, I can’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “so you do the math.” If our tuition dollars fall off, especially if they fall off precipitously, this means that salaries and personnel will almost certainly have to be cut. So he had us do the math in our own heads. He didn’t say that quite out loud, but he made clear that that was the likely outcome if tuition dollars fail to keep pace with what happened in the fall. And so when he convened this emergency meeting, letting all college chairs know that we need more face-to-face teaching, what he was implicitly saying was that we need to do a better job to ensure that our finances are in decent order for the spring term, because if not we’re all gonna pay for it.

Dan: Well, your description of the planning for the spring allows me an easy segue into my next question. You wrote that, and now here I’ll offer a pretty substantial quote from your article, “to welcome students back to campus in January to their dorms, to classrooms and to the social interactions that college life naturally and inevitably encourages is to invite more death and disease into every community. A vaccine will not be widely available before May. Canceling face-to-face instruction for spring 2021 is the only sane, moral, and epidemiological choice available given these conditions.” So how many faculty at UNC share your view that face-to-face classes should be canceled entirely? I’m just trying to get a sense of how widely this view is held.

Jay: Well, just to be as precise as possible even I do not foresee and don’t call for every single class to be online in the spring. We understand – my allies and I understand – that there are kinds of instruction that can only be delivered in-person, that require face-to-face interaction, clinical instruction, for example, the nursing school and so on. What we’re calling for, what I’m calling for in this blog post is simply default remote instruction. That is, it’s going to be understood that in most cases, the course will be online, unless there’s a really good reason for it to be taught in-person. How many of us in the college or across the university think this way? That’s a great question. I wish I could answer it with some specificity. I don’t know that I can. I mean, I will tell you that soon after that blog post came out, a number of us wrote an open letter to the UNC community that was published in the Daily Tar Heel calling for similar sorts of things; default or remote instruction for the spring, much lower residential density than the administrators are planning on, and so on. And we collected over 160 signatures for that, for that letter. Is that significant? I’m not sure. I mean, there are probably between eight hundred and a thousand faculty within the college of arts and sciences and, and most of the signatories were from the college, but there’s more like 3,500 or so faculty all across the university. So it’s a relatively small percentage that we have signatures that we collected, but…

Dan: And I suspect perhaps in some cases, untenured faculty might not be comfortable committing to that sort of thing?

Jay: Sure. Of course. Untenured faculty, people who are on short-term contracts and so on generally would shy away from making public their views on this matter. You know, we nevertheless think that that’s a fairly significant showing. The people we all contacted to ask for their support, the number of people was limited to our own personal networks and there are large swaths of the faculty and the med school and the business school and the journalism school and so on that we didn’t even try to reach, because we don’t know these people personally.

Dan: You mentioned that 90% of the arts and sciences courses may be online in the spring. I’m actually wondering if the university allows faculty to decide for themselves whether their courses will be online or not, is it possible that as a natural consequence of that option most of the classes will end up online anyway, just as the administration apparently feared?

Jay: I think that’s true. Almost certainly they were threading a needle there, by allowing faculty to make their own decisions about how they want to deliver their course content while also hoping for a significant percentage of classes that would be taught in person. But I do think it’s likely that unless they issue a mandate to every unit in the university, that X number of faculty have to be teaching in person, the great majority of our classes in the spring are going to be online because conditions are deteriorating, and they’re deteriorating very quickly. I mean, that was the main thing that prompted my blog post, in fact. I mean, the university has laid out its roadmap to the spring semester based on assumptions that were, you know, more or less operative in September or October, but they’re no longer operative because things have fallen apart so quickly across the country. And everyone, everyone is predicting that January and February are going to be awfully difficult months.

Dan: Speaking of the plan for the future, can you tell us about the survival plan that’s been developed by faculty, staff and students as an alternative to what the university wants to do?

Jay: Sure. Yeah. Thanks for asking. A bunch of us who’ve been working on this plan since June, I suppose, that’s when we really cranked up our operations. I mean, we understand that the university has to sustain itself, obviously. Finances are critically important to the management of the university and its survival. And so our position is that remote instruction, which is what we’re very strenuously advocating for the spring semester, should be regarded as one part of a multi-pronged effort or plan to sustain the university through this public health crisis. And among the other prongs in this effort of this strategy, we are suggesting that the University at Chapel Hill, and perhaps also at NC State, both of which have sizable endowments, actually tap into those endowments in ways that just usually are not done, because we all know that endowments are regarded as you know, sacred cows, not to be touched. But, you know, we are living through a once-in-a-century crisis, a public health emergency like we’ve never seen before, that no living person has ever seen before. And which thankfully however, is likely to be a short-term temporary crisis that might end as soon as July or August given the distribution of the vaccines that began, I think just today, today or yesterday. So what we need to do is tide the university over until August, hope for the best, and then hope that we can resume normal activity by September. So let’s tap into the endowment and if there’s something like a $300 million deficit that UNC-Chapel Hill is contemplating for this academic year, we have a $3.6 billion endowment, a significant portion of that endowment is unrestricted, and we have done the math and shown that we could easily extract $300 to $500 million out of that endowment. And assuming that historical rates of return hold steady over the next several years, recoup that loss within three years. So it would not be an existential blow to the university to dip into the endowment. There’s also a rainy-day fund that the state legislature has been setting aside over the past decade that has $1.25 billion in it. And according to state law the legislature can dip into that rainy day fund and take up to, I think, seven and a half percent of the scheduled state appropriations in any given year from that fund, which would be again a couple of hundred million dollars that is money that can be used to tide over the UNC system, not just Chapel Hill, but the entire system until there’s some return to normalcy by early fall of 2021. We’re also very much urging the university to divest from its fossil fuel holdings and either cash in that money for immediate use or redirect those investments into green energy so that we can have a more environmentally sound and geographically and racially equitable financial plan going forward.

Dan: I didn’t know about the rainy-day fund. I suppose if anything counts as a rainy day, this would be it. That’s an interesting piece of information. I’m curious, I’d like to end by asking you a question about a dynamic that you might be actually – maybe you’re too close to it to answer this question: UNC-Chapel Hill, perhaps as an automatic result of the national attention it received because of the student newspaper article, it has become in some ways, sort of the poster child for campus COVID management controversy. And I’m wondering what you think if that’s the case – and I think that it would be fairly easy to demonstrate that’s the case simply by sort of counting up the number of hits you would see if you were searching for the subject of people discussing Chapel Hill’s management – if that’s the case what do you think has contributed to that?

Jay: Well I do think that’s the case. I think we’re under a microscope now, Chapel Hill is, and I think it is largely because the chancellor and provost have made that decision way back in May to begin our semester early. They were hoping to head off the predicted fall spike in infections. They were hoping that if they started early and did everything by Thanksgiving you know, we’d be, we’d be able to avoid the worst at least and make it through this semester. But that also meant, of course, that Chapel Hill was opening up its doors earlier than just about anyone and given the unfortunate way in which that first week of classes played out, we got an awful lot of national attention. The chancellor and the provost and various public health experts who work at Chapel Hill were also on 60 Minutes in July, touting their plan for the fall and insisting that everything was going to go well. And so they sort of set themselves up for backlash when the bad news arrived. You know, that’s why Chapel Hill is yes, it’s a trendsetter. It was an unfortunate trendsetter in the fall, but it has the opportunity, I mean, our leaders have the opportunity here, to exercise real attention-getting leadership by setting an example, setting the moral example, I would say by making a preemptive announcement now this month, not next month, but now, that they’re going to do what public health demands and that is go to default online teaching, and they would get a different kind of attention, I think a good, positive attention if they did that.

Dan: My guest has been UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Jay M. Smith, a specialist in early modern France, especially the later 17th and 18th centuries. He’s the author of five books and has also written extensively about the history and specific events at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Smith, thanks so much for joining me today.

Jay: Good to be with you.