UNC’s top-down, one-size-fits-all reopening plan isn’t working

UNC’s top-down, one-size-fits-all reopening plan isn’t working

- in COVID-19, Weekly Briefing

For many years prior to their ascent to power a decade ago, North Carolina Republican legislative leaders loved to lecture anyone within earshot about the need for “local control.” On subject after subject, it became almost a conservative mantra in the Legislative Building that state government should devolve as much autonomy as possible to local officials who, as the logic went, were closest to the people and knew best of their needs and desires.

Of course, as has been well documented, all of this went out the window once the political pendulum took a sharp swing to the right in Raleigh. Instead of sharing power, legislative leaders like Senate president Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker  Tim Moore and former House Speaker  Thom Tillis, now a U.S. Senator, seized and consolidated it.

This hypocrisy reached its apogee with the infamous House Bill 2, a measure designed primarily to overrule the city of Charlotte’s decision to ban discrimination against LGBTQ residents. But it has been on display in numerous other areas, from gun control and billboard regulation to Confederate monuments and local minimum-wage ordinances.

And now, quite clearly, it is on display again with respect to the University of North Carolina System and its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian has documented in several stories in recent weeks, the university system is teetering on the edge of a dire public health crisis. Just days after the reopening of the system’s campuses, multiple reports of irresponsible behavior and new COVID-19 outbreaks have been arriving at an alarming rate.

At the system’s flagship campus, UNC-Chapel Hill, at least four “clusters” of COVID-19 infections have already been reported. At other campuses, reports of large parties, lack of mask wearing and social distancing, and of 18- and 19-year-olds acting like, well, 18- and 19-year-olds, have been widespread. Similar outbreaks will be certain in the near future, if they haven’t already occurred.

It’s a situation that cries out for local campus leaders to be vested with all necessary powers to assure the health and safety of the young people in their charge, not to mention the thousands of faculty members and staff employed to serve them and the residents of the cities and towns in which the campuses are located.

Unfortunately, no such general delegation of local control has occurred. Instead, and in line with the trend of recent years, the Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors (which continues to hold its own meetings online due to concerns about the virus) has made it clear that individual campus chancellors and boards of trustees have no real authority to act.

The Chapel Hill campus will take an “off-ramp” back to online instruction for the time being.

In keeping with the commands of the GOP legislative leaders who installed them and, in turn, the edicts from the Trump administration to push for a rapid societal reopening at all costs, the board has consistently pushed a “full speed ahead” reopening. Indeed, the board even went so far as to send a not-so-thinly-veiled warning as to the kinds of devastating financial results that campus leaders could expect if they failed to reopen by demanding that each chancellor produce a plan to reduce their budget by between 25% and 50%, to account for the reduced revenue resulting from reduced enrollment under various degrees of closure.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the approach pursued by Gov. Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education with respect to K-12 schools, where the delegation of control to local school districts has been the name of the game. Not only did Cooper empower local systems to decide for themselves whether to reopen for in-person classes, the Board of Education went so far as to ask the General Assembly to hold local districts harmless when it comes to state funding during a year in which enrollment numbers (and thus, per pupil allotments) would be expected to decline significantly.

Not so in the UNC system, where the harsh reality of the top-down situation and the impotence of local leaders was obvious this weekend as the chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill resorted to, in effect, begging the Board of Governors to empower local campus leaders to reconsider the resumption of in-person, residential campus life.

And while system president Peter Hans finally relented Monday afternoon and allowed the Chapel Hill campus to take an “off-ramp” back to online instruction for the time being, it appears that convincing him and the board to take such action on a system-wide basis will remain a heavy lift. As was made clear via the establishment of “quarantine” and “isolation” dorms even before students returned to their campuses (facilities that according to some reports, may already be nearing capacity at Chapel Hill), the current situation was “the plan.”

The seminal question at this point is how much longer the system leaders and their backers at the General Assembly can continue to impose such a plan before people on the ground at all 17 campuses start to vote with their feet.