The Human, Financial and

Environmental Crises of

The University of North Carolina

The state and the university system have access to the resources needed to respond to the current crisis and to lay the groundwork for a more just and dynamic university system.


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The plan to reopen UNC campuses during the pandemic was fundamentally flawed and doomed to fail. Grave mistakes led to serious illness and even death, while the hasty closures sent infected and possibly infected students across the state and country.


After the disasters of Fall 2020, most spectacularly in Chapel Hill, UNC must be held accountable for a safe Spring 2021 semester. Below are six principles for reopening that will help ensure the health and well-being of UNC’s students, employees, and neighbors. 

1. Prioritize Testing & Tracing. Spring testing programs at UNC-CH and NCSU will include entry testing – a needed improvement over Fall – but unless we have ongoing, regular testing coupled with isolation and contact tracing, it will still be unsafe for anybody to return to on-campus activities this Spring.


Regularly scheduled testing should be required for anyone working or living on campus this Spring, and a Covid-19 “exit” test should be available for all students during final exams. Robust and transparent contact tracing programs must also include the surrounding communities.


Testing needs to be freely available and equitably administered across all of the UNC campuses and surrounding communities. UNC campuses must require regular, ongoing testing and contact tracing while respecting the privacy of students, staff, and faculty.

2. Communicate Publicly & Transparently. Administrators and supervisors must help students, faculty, staff, and campus workers make vital health and safety decisions, by providing full and up-to-date information, including where and when Covid-19 outbreaks occur on campus.


UNC administrators should publicize the metrics being used for campus-level decision-making during the pandemic. All Covid-19 dashboards should be updated daily and made fully public.

UNC-Chapel Hill should make public all communications from the Orange County Health Department, and other UNC campuses and the UNC System should do the same with their public health communications.


The pandemic has laid bare a longstanding need for more democratic governance of UNC. The ad hoc Campus and Community Advisory Committee, appointed this Fall at UNC-Chapel Hill, is welcome but should be able to hold leaders publicly accountable to the committee’s recommendations.

3. Protect & Respect Every UNC Worker. No one should be pressured to work on campus this Spring. Changes in working conditions should not be unilaterally imposed, and every UNC employee needs to be free to decide whether to work remotely this Spring without disclosing personal health information.


Essential workers who cannot perform their work remotely must have access to ample PPE. Hazard pay should be provided to frontline employees performing work that places them at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19. Fair leave policies are required for workers at high risk for severe illness or with increased caregiving responsibilities due to the pandemic.


UNC campuses and offices should pursue all avenues – including reducing the salaries of top administrators – to avoid any (additional) furloughs and firings.

4. Acknowledge & Address Systemic Racism. The lack of diversity among UNC leadership has exacerbated its pandemic response, and UNC students, faculty, employees, and families of color have been disproportionately affected. We must acknowledge the legacy of racism and honor anti-racist activism at UNC – such as the historic struggle against Silent Sam and the renaming of buildings on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus – by listening to and prioritizing the safety of students and employees who have historically borne the brunt of institutionalized racism on UNC campuses, in North Carolina, and in the U.S.


Managing a pandemic is a public health concern and not a criminal issue. Because of the role that the police have played historically on UNC campuses, in the state, and nationally, neither campus nor town police should enforce campus or community policies regarding testing, mask-wearing, or physical distancing. 



5. Accept Responsibility. Just as we all bear individual responsibility for protecting one another from the coronavirus, by wearing masks and practicing social distancing, we must hold UNC campus leaders accountable for their mishandling of the pandemic to date. As the Daily Tar Heel put it: step up or step down.


Leaders of UNC campuses and the UNC System need to take responsibility for their mistakes. Instead, top UNC administrators have blamed students for Covid outbreaks on campus, despite the fact that housing policies for UNC’s reopening were deemed highest risk by the CDC.


A full public accounting of the UNC campus closures and reopenings should be conducted, in order to identify and assess the successes, challenges, and failures, and to learn what can be improved moving forward.


6. Cut Carefully & Invest Ethically. UNC’s financial crisis did not begin with Covid-19, but the pandemic has wrought a severe intensification of the financial crises already facing public universities. Clearly, campuses across the UNC system are facing weighty decisions about budget cuts.


The state’s “rainy day fund” could be tapped, to support public K-12 education as well as the UNC System, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s $6.5 billion endowment should no longer be considered an “untouchable” resource. A small part of that endowment could help tide the entire UNC System over for the 2021-2022 academic year. For instance, divesting from UNC’s $239million of fossil fuel investments could not only provide a great help during the pandemic, but it would also be a welcome re-investment in the planet and all of its inhabitants.

A safe spring semester at UNC is still possible, and Another UNC is Possible!