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UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty To Students: We Can't Safely Return To Campus


As colleges prepare to reopen, many are leaving the decision to students - that is, whether they feel safe enough to return to campus despite the pandemic.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of those institutions, and some faculty are objecting. On Friday, dozens of tenured professors published a letter in the Charlotte Observer advising students to stay away if they can. They wrote, quote, "we want to be in the classroom teaching you. However, we cannot in good conscience perform that role on campus this semester." Michael Palm is a professor of communications at UNC who signed the letter.

Professor Palm, welcome.

MICHAEL PALM: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: So, professor Palm, why can't you in good conscience perform that role?

PALM: It seems at this point to be common sense that it is unsafe to bring thousands of people from across a state that's been declared a hotspot as well as across the country to convene on a college campus. And we felt desperate and appealed to students directly to try to mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic.

FOLKENFLIK: So what are you hearing from students in response, either individually or, you know, online?

PALM: Nearly everyone that I've been in contact with is frightened, dumbfounded, frankly, and increasingly angry at the way that the UNC, Chapel Hill administration has gone about reopening. And I think the - much of the frustration has come from a lack of transparency and a lack of involvement of the various constituencies who are going to be directly affected by the return of thousands of students to campus starting tomorrow.

FOLKENFLIK: What does the university's leadership say in response to such objections?

PALM: Well, nothing publicly. There's been no direct acknowledgement of any of these attempts to dialogue with them or to get them to acknowledge this broad consensus among the various constituencies on campus - faculty, graduate student staff and campus workers. And the open letter from faculty to students is the culmination of a summer's worth of attempts to appeal to administrators in Chapel Hill and administrators of the statewide system.

And the appeal to students was in large part seen as not necessarily wanting to convey the will of the faculty overall but to make sure that they're getting this message from faculty because they don't seem to be getting a full or complete account of the situation in the messaging from the administration, which seems to be overly rosy, overly optimistic on the one hand while at the same time essentially setting the students up for blame when an outbreak happens.

FOLKENFLIK: And for those of you who view this as a matter of public health and as matter of conscience, what's next?

PALM: Everything is on the table in terms of strategies and tactics to try to do the only humane and ethical thing in this situation, which is to go to a default remote course of instruction for the fall. We understand that some students are going to find themselves in situations where being on campus is the less dangerous alternative. And part of what we want to do is make the campus as safe as possible for those students who don't have somewhere else to shelter as safely as most of the students and faculty do.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Michael Palm, communications professor at UNC, Chapel Hill. We asked the UNC Board of Governors for comment. In a statement, a spokesperson writes, quote, "the UNC system is prioritizing the health and safety of all of our students, faculty and staff. We have consulted with the foremost medical professionals and disease researchers and are taking the necessary precautions to ensure our campuses are safe places to teach, study, live and work." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.