On July 7, 34 faculty and staff members from 10 UNC System universities signed a letter, which later turned into a petition, addressed to system leaders. This letter called for online-only classes for the fall 2020 semester, as well as increased transparency and safety measures, to protect against the on-campus spread of COVID-19.
The petition comes amid talks of possible budget cuts of up to 50% in the event of campuses shutting again due to the pandemic.
As of July 21, the petition has gained over 3,100 signatures. UNC System faculty and staff have three main requests: online-only education for the fall semester; increased communication between the university administration and faculty, staff and students; and promotion of the general well-being of the campus communities.
David Ambaras, one of the petition’s creators and a history professor at NC State, said he observed shared unrest among UNC System faculty and staff members in regards to the upcoming semester.
“There had been petitions already circulated inside the University to the chancellor expressing our concerns about the need for masks, for safety measures and so forth,” Ambaras said. “And then, we realized that people across the different campuses were having the same concerns.”
NC State emeritus* assistant professor of philosophy David Auerbach, who appears as a signatory in the separate letter to the Board of Governors (BOG), expressed concern over the University’s ability to meet CDC social distancing guidelines, including wearing a mask and maintaining six feet of space between individuals.
“The seating plans, they don’t convey those restrictions,” Auerbach said. “The seating plans have students sitting within three feet of each other, not six. And then, of course, the pretense is, they’re going to sit there with their neck fixed facing forward and never move, which is unreal.”
Ambaras said he is also unsure how CDC measures can be implemented in a classroom setting. Although NC State implemented a face mask requirement on campus, the University is still allowing 10 or more people to be in classrooms, according to Ambaras. This contrasts with Gov. Cooper’s current phase 2 reopening plan, which limits indoor, in-person gatherings to 10 people or less.
According to Ambaras, the University has a good infrastructure for online learning. Faculty and staff do not have to start from zero and can continually build on it.
The petition also requests that administration be transparent with decision-making and improve communication with faculty, staff and students.
Frederick Cubbage, an NC State forestry and environmental resources graduate research professor and another signatory on the petition, saidthe Faculty Senate lacks power in major university decisions such as reopening.
“I feel that faculty governance is being overrun in the U.S., really, but NC State is certainly a microcosm of that, I think,” Cubbage said. “The senate has little substantive input; in fact, the senate has authority only to give an opinion, it has no authority to actually decide on any policies.”
Cubbage saidinvolving people outside the administration with university decisions is important, but not currently a reality. Auerbach is alsofrustrated over the faculty structure of NC State.
“[NC State] has very poor faculty governance structure in the best of times because, starting from the bottom, there’s a head system rather than a department chair system,” he said. “So, department heads serve at the pleasure of the dean, not at the pleasure of their faculty.”
Nontenured professors are in a particularly difficult position due to the pandemic, according to Auerbach. Nontenured faculty have the least amount of power and are paid the least, but have the heaviest teaching loads and face immense pressure to teach face to face in the fall, Auerbach said.
“If your department head says ‘I need volunteers to teach face to face,’ and says ‘Hey, how about you,’ to a nontenured track, contingent faculty, that person’s going to feel pressured. There’s just no way around it,” Auerbach said. “And I know that’s happened and it’s disgusting.”
Currently, move-in at NC State is set for July 31-Aug. 9 by appointment. Classes, either in person or online, are slated to begin on Aug.10.
“At this point, unless they’re really insane, they’re not going to open on Aug. 10,” Auerbach said. “There’s just too many cases in North Carolina. They’re just going to have to, as the chancellor said, ‘pivot.’”
Regardless of whether in-person classes will be held for the fall semester, the petition calls for safety measures, including routine testing, contact tracing and the provision of protective equipment for all those who are on campus.
“I think we really need to be very careful because we’re dealing with people’s lives,” Ambaras said.
*Editor's Note: Auerbach's position has been updated for accuracy.