The coronavirus pandemic has injected uncertainty into nearly every aspect of society—and higher education is no exception. As North Carolina’s leaders grapple with the challenges posed by curbing the virus’ spread, dramatic policy decisions are being made on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.
The following is a summary of what higher education leaders in North Carolina are doing and discussing in the face of national and state declarations of emergency.
Special Meeting of the UNC Board of Governors
On Friday, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors met in special session by conference call. After UNC system president William Roper gave his report, board member Marty Kotis asked him three questions about the virus’ impact on the campuses.
One of Kotis’ questions concerned how students’ lives were being “upended” by having to swiftly move off-campus. Students were notified on Tuesday that they had to move out by Saturday—with only some students being granted exemptions to remain in campus housing. It is estimated that only about 10 percent of students remain on each UNC campus.
“Have we addressed the residential tenants’ legal rights?” Kotis asked. He inquired whether students would get a refund for their meal and housing expenses. He noted that many students will need a refund because many depend on the jobs they have on campus and may have to pay additional housing and food expenses elsewhere.
Additionally, with all of the changes, Kotis wondered if it was realistic to expect students to be ready to start online classes by Monday, March 23.
“It’s surely understandable that people want their money refunded,” Roper responded. “We will quickly get to the point [of] how much is the refund, [and] how we are going to get it to them.”
On the note of residential students’ legal rights, UNC system legal counsel Tom Shanahan commented: “Among the things we will work through in the coming weeks and months is not just the refund process, but how particular housing contracts work…Housing contracts generally address instances in which the university can suspend and ask residents to move out.”
Kotis also worried about the system’s finances. He noted that university foundations, the fundraising arm of the institutions, will likely take a hit. He also pointed to a law that bars the system from borrowing for operating purposes. “Do we have any indication of the magnitude and the impact?” Kotis asked. “We are in the process of looking at our cash balances and this new operating environment that we’re in,” Roper said. He added that the system should have an answer in a few days.
“We are not out of cash, but we are carefully looking at this and we’re going to be giving instructions to the institutions on their operations probably next week,” Roper said. The legislature is not in session, but the system is making a priority list of policy recommendations to make to the legislature during its next session.
Finally, Kotis recommended that the system pause its capital spending projects and divert the money for more immediate needs such as hospital beds. He also pointed to how other colleges are repurposing dorm rooms as treatment centers, suggesting that UNC adopt similar measures.
Kotis’ suggestion to delay asking the legislature for operations and capital improvement funding was adopted by the board. During his report, Temple Sloan, chairman of the Committee on Budget and Finance, proposed that capital improvement plans be tabled:
In light of where we are in the current health crisis, I would like to make a special motion: A motion to table all items voted by the budget and finance committee yesterday. I believe the more prudent action is to reconvene the budget and finance committee within the next two weeks to review the items discussed yesterday and to put together a coronavirus relief package—a request for the legislature.
UNC President Answers Questions During Media Availability
After the board’s meeting, Roper and board chairman Randy Ramsey conducted a conference call with the media. Roper said that he was “delighted” that the board decided to table capital projects, as it gives the system time to determine what the immediate financial and resource needs will be in the coming weeks.
Other items discussed:
Will UNC schools switch to pass/fail grades?
Roper told the Martin Center that the system has not yet decided whether to go to a pass/fail grading system or whether it would be an option. He said that academic affairs staff, as well as provosts and deans, are discussing the possibility. “We should have that [decision] shortly,” he said.
UNC System will cancel graduation ceremonies, but students will still graduate
Roper announced during the board meeting that “spring graduation ceremonies will be disrupted, and it’s time to make alternative plans.” Each university will make “individualized” plans to find a way to celebrate.
Despite the lack of traditional ceremonies, Roper said students will still be able to graduate on time. “The canceling of commencements will not interfere in any way with the actual awarding of degrees,” he told the Martin Center.“Honestly, we are dealing still with the spring semester and beginning to work on what it means for the summer. We’ll get to the fall in due course.”
Not all classes will take place online
The UNC system estimates that more than 95 percent of classes will be online. Roper wasn’t sure which ones will not be online.
Possible disruptions to the fall semester
When asked whether the health crisis would affect normal operations for the fall semester, Roper responded: “We had those thoughts about the fall. Honestly, we are dealing still with the spring semester and beginning to work on what it means for the summer. We’ll get to the fall in due course.”
Other North Carolina Coronavirus Higher Education News
North Carolina’s community colleges have canceled classes or moved them online. Carolina Journal associate editor Julie Havlak reports:
N.C. Community College System president Peter Hans has advised colleges to make plans to keep classes online for at least eight weeks, or until the end of the semester. Colleges say they might extend the spring term into the summer, giving students a chance to complete labs and workforce training that can’t be done online.
Students could get some financial relief with tuition. The State Board of Community Colleges is likely to consider letting students extend tuition payments towards future course enrollments, according to the press release.
While it’s not yet clear what grading system the UNC system will choose, other colleges in the state are going to a pass/fail grading system. Last Wednesday, Duke University instituted a default satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading scheme. At Davidson College, students have the option to choose a pass/fail grading system for their classes.
The UNC system launched a digital resource to help instructors transition to online teaching. It outlines best practices for teaching with technology. The system also partnered with LinkedIn Learning to help instructors learn more about virtual communication software like Microsoft Teams. “LinkedIn is now offering these courses for free to all members, as a resource for educators of all levels as they transition courses online.”
UNC-Chapel Hill students experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus can apply for assistance through the Carolina Student Impact Fund.
The Martin Center will continue to provide updates as North Carolina colleges and universities respond and adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.
Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.