As COVID-19 runs rampant at Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has a simple message for the students who will soon live and learn in the school’s human petri dishes: “We care.”
That’s been the thrust of UNCC’s public relations efforts in the lead-up to thousands of students returning to campus next month. The school’s even launched a virus-related website on the theme: ninernationcares.uncc.edu.
Concern for student wellbeing seems to be everywhere at the university.
The school’s current online guidance for returning students states, “We take COVID-19 very seriously and your health is our highest priority.”
The university has said its return to on-campus instruction, housing, and dining is guided by six principles: “care for community”; “informed decision making”; “agility in response”; “student success”; “collaboration and inclusion”; and “timely and accurate information.” As for that first principle, the school has explained, “The health and safety of the UNC Charlotte community are our top priorities, especially those members of Niner Nation who may be most vulnerable to COVID-19. We place these things above all else.”
You can find similar messaging as far back as the letter that former Chancellor Phil Dubois wrote on May 4 regarding the intention to return to in-person instruction for the fall 2020 semester. “The health of our students and employees, especially those who may be at higher risk, is our top priority in making this decision,” he wrote.
Nowhere in UNCC’s public relations campaign can you find the real reason the school is bringing thousands of students back to campus amidst a pandemic whose nationwide death toll tops 170,000: money.
In July, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey sent an email to chancellors in the UNC system directing them to submit financial projections outlining the expected effect of curtailed operations that could result from the virus.
On July 24, Chancellor Sharon L. Gaber submitted UNCC’s projections.
To be sure, there was a qualified nod to student safety: “Our top priority is the safety of our students, faculty, and staff,” she wrote, before adding, “but within the boundaries of safety there will likely be varying alternatives for levels of operations in student housing.”
After paying lip service to student safety, Gaber made clear that this consideration is not, in fact, the unalloyed “top priority” the school has described it as being. Instead, as the report clarifies, money tops the university’s concerns.
Gaber’s report includes seven potential scenarios and their expected financial impacts. The scenarios range from the “new normal” — that is, changing nothing and carrying on as though the pandemic isn’t happening — to having exclusively online operations with a projected 50% reduction in enrollment.
To understand that money has been the main driver of UNCC’s decision to bring students back to campus, we need only consider the three least-drastic scenarios outlined in Gaber’s report.
So-called Scenario A, the “new normal,” is a change-nothing scenario, with no financial impact. Of course, no one is actually considering such a scenario, so we can put it aside.
You can spot the real motive in UNCC’s decision-making by comparing the next two scenarios Gaber laid out.
Scenario B would implement various forms of social distancing while conducting on-campus instruction, housing, and dining. This is essentially the plan UNCC has adopted.
Projected revenue losses under this scenario total $8,750,000, or about 1.2% of the school’s expected revenue. That would come from $1,875,000 in athletics, $5,750,000 in dining, and $1,125,000 in “sales, services, and other aux.” The university would absorb these losses by moving some money around and holding off on a few projects, according to the report.
Scenario C1 contemplates an online-only fall semester and assumes a small 2% reduction in enrollment. This scenario would result in the loss of $46,100,000, or about 6.3% of expected revenue. These losses would come from a number of sources, including athletics, tuition, student fees, and financial aid. The biggest hits, though, would come from those services that would shut down if students weren’t on campus: expected losses of $18,080,000 in housing and $10,396,000 in dining, along with $5,424,000 in lost parking fees.
Losing that money would be potentially catastrophic for the school, according to the report.
Gaber wrote, “[R]eductions in housing and dining reserves would eventually result in an inability to pay our debt services.” Lost revenue under all of the remote-learning scenarios would “also provide insufficient cash flow to service the debt.” In other words, without housing and dining revenue, the university couldn’t pay its bills.
She also explained that the school’s bond covenants — basically, the terms under which the school generated money in the past by selling bonds — would likely be violated as a result of lost revenue from housing and dining services. That would mean the school’s bond rating could take a hit or, in a worst-case scenario, the school could be deemed to be in default of its financial obligations.
The import of Gaber’s report is clear: It was always a financial impossibility for UNCC to consider anything other than a return to on-campus instruction, housing, and dining in fall 2020. Other options couldn’t be seriously considered, no matter the public heath concerns, because of fiscal restraints. (Part of the “tell” is that Dubois announced a return to on-campus instruction, housing, and dining all the way back in May, well before current, relevant pandemic data was available for use in crafting plans for the semester. Public health data was always going to be irrelevant.)
The financial tail is wagging the public-health dog at UNCC, and any message to the contrary is nothing but an after-the-fact rationalization for a decision already made.
So, looking at Scenario C1 — and considering the school’s rejection of it — tells us what’s really going on: The university made a calculated decision to risk student health and life because that is the price it is prepared to pay in exchange for looking after its financial wellbeing. Or, to use the recent characterization of Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris, the return to campus is a financially justified, if otherwise unpredictable, “experiment” — the subjects of which are the thousands of students, faculty, and staff who may bear the experiment’s lethal brunt. (As an aside, it’s difficult to imagine a more grotesque statement from a public health director. Harris’s counterpart in Chapel Hill has certainly been saying something very different, and her concerns have been vindicated almost daily since students returned there.)
Some may think it unremarkable that UNCC decided to open its classrooms, dorms, dining halls, and parking lots so it can collect revenue, seeing the decision as necessary to preserve the institution and ensure the university is not yet another one of COVID’s casualties.
Two observations are in order.
First, UNCC has engaged in profound dishonesty by concealing its financial motive for bringing students back to campus, nowhere mentioning in its public statements and town halls and marketing materials that money has been a driving force in its decision-making.
In addition to that omission being some evidence that those running the university know this motive is somehow low and base — and would be seen as such — that the PR campaign has been so deceitful strikes at the heart of what we tell ourselves institutions of higher learning are about: seeking the truth. We should expect more from a university than that it will, out of its own institutional self-interest, spin the facts like some sort of pyramid-scheme huckster.
Second, to say that UNCC has a duty to look after its financial obligations and make decisions accordingly is not an answer to the charge that the school is placing dollars ahead of students. It’s merely restating the problem.
The current financial structures of higher education were not inevitable. They are the result of choices voluntarily made. We decided to treat education as a market commodity, subject to the same market pressures as any other business. That we built a system of education in which public health must give way to financial considerations is a damning indictment of our choices, and we ought to remember that we could have made different choices, better choices, but didn’t.
Now, as the disease spreads at other North Carolina universities, UNCC officials are betting that whatever COVID outbreaks occur here — and they acknowledge there will be such outbreaks — can be contained and controlled.
They may be right. The problems is that they’re willing to make that wager in the first place.
Update, August 20, 2020, 9:45 a.m.:
The Mecklenburg County Health Department is now all but saying that UNCC should not reopen.
In an email today to Charlotte Citizen, Rebecca Carter, a public information specialist for the county, wrote:
With our metrics trending in the right direction, Public Health would like to see County numbers continue to improve over a longer period of time before inserting new risk into the community. At this time, there is no reason to believe that our experience will be any different than that of other Universities in the country. Mecklenburg County has higher numbers than other NC counties and continued community spread. We will have additional cases as students come back to campus.
The final decision belongs to the UNC Board of Governors, so Public Health will continue to work with UNCC to assure that plans are solid and that the University will be able to manage and mitigate new cases and additional risk that bringing students back will present.
Here’s the email, which was sent as part of a response to a public records request asking for any and all documents from the health department to UNCC containing any warnings against reopening.
Update, August 23, 202, 10:30 a.m.
UNCC has now announced it will temporarily offer exclusively online classes through October 1. Full announcement here.