The news has been coming fast and furiously from the UNC System in recent days and little of it has been good. To the surprise of just about no one, except, evidently, the leaders of the UNC System, the plan to reopen the state’s 17 campuses for in-person instruction has been quickly unraveling.
East Carolina and UNC Charlotte have joined UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State in moving to online-only instruction to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus. This means the state’s four largest schools, which in 2019 enrolled 52% of the students in the entire UNC system, have already bailed out of the planned reopening scheme before it really got underway. It’s hard to imagine that these schools will be the last to choose such a path.
As best as can be divined from the opaque reporting systems employed by various campuses, hundreds of people have been sickened, though thus far at least, the public has not been made aware of any deaths or hospitalizations. Of course, given our incomplete understanding of the virus and its long-term effects, and the nation’s inability to perform effective contact tracing, there is no way to say at this point that this will remain the case.
So, how did this happen? How could a multi-billion-dollar system that serves and employs hundreds of thousands of people and directly impacts millions so badly miscalculate such a fundamental decision?
To hear UNC System leaders and some individual campuses talk, the fault lies with irresponsible students who flouted public safety rules. After describing the efforts that went into planning for reopening, new UNC System President Peter Hans said, “(T)his hard work is being undermined by a very small number of students behaving irresponsibly off campus, which unfairly punishes the vast majority of their classmates who are following the rules.”
Similarly, after describing reports of large parties in Raleigh — particularly in fraternities and sororities — N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson echoed those sentiments, saying, “Unfortunately, the actions of a few are jeopardizing the health and safety of the larger community.”
ECU interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson used similar language in an Aug. 18 letter to faculty and staff.
Unfortunately, there are several problems with the “student irresponsibility” explanation.
First and foremost, such behavior was and is utterly predictable; system leaders had to have foreseen it. All the members of the UNC Board of Governors and the individual campus leaders were once 18- and 19-year-old college students with illusions of immortality. No doubt, many of them were members of fraternities and sororities who sought to mimic the antics celebrated in films like "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds." It strains credulity to imagine that many of them didn’t engage in similarly “irresponsible” behavior that flaunted the rules of administrators 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
And even if one sets aside the obvious foreseeability of large student parties and kids acting like kids, the simple fact is that rapid virus spread is almost always what occurs when you gather hundreds of individuals to live together in close quarters. As NC Policy Watch's Killian reported, “(T)he full-capacity dorm plans embraced by most UNC system schools … are considered highest risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for colleges and universities.”
The failed reopening was also something that scores of system faculty and staff members — the people closest to the students — had forecast and pleaded with system leaders to avoid.
Now add to all this the fact that many students hail from families and communities in which straight-out virus denialism continues to hold sway and the notion that disciplined behavior could somehow win the day is rendered even more of a “Hail Mary” long shot.
The driving factor in this whole mess — as it has been in so many other parts of the nation’s disastrous pandemic response — lies in the failure of conservative elected leaders to lead. From President Trump down through Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to the conservative budget makers at the North Carolina General Assembly and, ultimately, to their handpicked UNC Board of Governors, the message has been as loud and clear as it has been disastrous: a) Reopen as quickly as possible, and b) don’t count on the kind of financial aid that would allow you to avoid doing so.