A Reminder of Why We Are Here

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

It’s been a tough few weeks here in Chapel Hill.

The decision to cancel on-campus classes barely a week into the semester sparked waves of criticism from all directions—faculty who predicted the effort as doomed from the beginning, lawmakers who wanted to see the campus work harder to maintain in-person instruction, and parents and students who alleged the whole reopening plan was driven by economics instead of epidemiology. Being a chancellor of a research university is an objectively impossible job even in normal times, and the intense criticism Chancellor Guskiewicz received goes with the territory. Leading in the time of COVID-19 is not for the faint of heart.

But for the hundreds of people who have been working since March to safely open the campus, the reality that the plan simply didn’t work has been a gut punch. With no clear timetable for a vaccine and the prospect of another surge in cases late this fall and winter, there is a lot of outright despair about the prospect of returning to any kind of “normal” on campus. Whatever your feelings about the reopening decision and the subsequent reversal, it can be disheartening to see a partially open campus when we remember the alternative so well. In all honesty, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the way the school year is unfolding.  

Unacceptable levels of COVID-19 among the student body forced UNC to make a sudden shift to online learning for the fall. As a result, we rescheduled week three of my class for doctoral candidates, The American Professoriate, co-taught by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and School of Education Professor Matt Springer. Our students needed time to shift to online learning, not just for the classes they’re taking but also for the classes they’re teaching as part of their graduate studies. Even with a pause for adjustment, we lost students. We learned that their stress levels are off the charts as they worry about job security for themselves and, in some cases, their spouses. Talk of drastic budget cuts has been in the air since this summer when state leaders demanded detailed contingency plans for huge cutbacks in the face of cratering state revenue. That weighs on everyone, especially these students who are thinking about the next steps in their academic careers.
Childcare is also an issue for our class.  One student had to delay finishing her dissertation for a year to supervise online learning for her two young boys. And even those without family obligations are figuring out how to learn, teach, and research without access to many of the usual campus resources, from libraries to offices to labs. Dropping an optional class like ours was a rational response to an overloaded, highly stressed life. And it illustrates that high-value “extras”—a class of deep thinking on higher ed. issues, with lots of networking baked into the curriculum—suddenly feel like a burden during the pandemic crunch. Our students are scrambling just to cover the basics.

Fortunately, after spending a few hours preparing for our class with the renowned Georgetown sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s true that our grand plan for opening up the campus proved untenable, and that the Carolina community has been rocked back on its heels by the twin pressures of the pandemic and the economic crunch it’s creating. But it’s also true that we live and work in a community determined to pull every last usable insight out of these experiences and make them valuable to others. The chair of the faculty has been speaking out about lessons learned, and the need for a stronger national response; professors at other institutions used our experience to inform their own attempts at reopening. Lastly, scholars in disciplines from public health to economics to journalism are conducting real-time research on Carolina’s efforts to salvage the fall.

In the coming weeks, our own class will hear from Professor Dyson, from Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, from the brilliant economist Susan Dynarski, and our own former Chancellor Holden Thorp, now the editor of Science magazine and one of the country’s sharpest advocates for de-politicizing the pandemic response. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve never seen a richer, more timely collection of voices contributing to a graduate seminar, and I know our students will rise to the occasion with fantastic questions and insights of their own.

This is simply to say that for all the anxiety and understandable angst about what lies ahead, the University is still delivering on its core mission. We haven’t retreated from what we do best: teaching, public service, and the search for new knowledge that will immediately impact our current epidemic and far beyond.

For me, the disappointment of August has given way to a reimagined fall where students and faculty can construct a radically different but nevertheless meaningful semester. The process of recovering from adversity and creating a way forward makes me more confident than ever that the American university will continue to be a defining institution in this country, the restless and aspiring heart of the American experiment.


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