Like other North Carolina State University faculty members, I was happy to answer a survey early in the summer about how I’d prefer to teach my fall classes. I appreciated being asked.
Apparently, the university didn’t appreciate the answers. Chancellor Randy Woodson’s next memo to faculty said “the amount of face-to-face instruction … is insufficient” and stressed the need to move in the “right direction.”
This new email showed a noticeable change in tone from administrators’ earlier Covid-related ones. Previous communications had mostly struck themes of getting through the pandemic together, safely. High in this new memo, however, the chancellor emphasized the need to ensure “our financial viability.”
As a faculty member with a son who will transfer to N.C. State this fall, I could see a direct connection between my son’s growing inclination to live at home and pressure on me (and my colleagues) to hold live, in-person classes.
Not long after the university asked faculty what kinds of classes we wanted to teach – online, in person or a combination of both – my son received his class schedule. His enthusiasm for living on campus waned when he saw three of his four classes were scheduled to be taught online. The single in-person class met only once per week.
As important as I think it is for students to live and be on campus whenever possible, I couldn’t blame my son for his change of heart. He didn’t see the point of sitting in a dorm taking classes he could just as easily, and more cheaply, sit and take at home.
No doubt, so did hundreds of other N.C. State students. And without those students paying for on-campus housing, the university could see “financial viability” flying out the window, as the chancellor’s memo said.
Since then, I’ve had conversations with colleagues about whether or not I feel pressure to teach in person – with the added complication of making me more vulnerable to the new coronavirus. My answer is yes.
Yet, I don’t fault my supervisors or administrators because I think the pressure comes from another source: a state that won’t plug the funding gaps even during a national health crisis.
Of this year’s education budget, outgoing UNC System interim President Bill Roper said, “No one at this point is talking about an actual cut,” as if that was some sort of victory for a system that lost 25 percent of its per-student state funding from 2008-2015.
And while this year’s budget remains about the same as the last few years, the system lost an estimated $120 million in housing and dining service revenues due to the pandemic last semester alone after giving prorated refunds to students who had to move back home to avoid spreading COVID-19 on their campuses, my son included. The system schools had to cover that on their own with no help from the state.
While administrators may be pressuring me to teach in person, they’re being pressured to keep the university afloat financially, putting them in the same boat as the bar and bowling alley managers who are desperate to reopen, no matter the cost to public health.
There’s a better approach. Instead of pressuring faculty to teach in person so students like my son will choose to live in dorms, the General Assembly needs to cover the lost revenue from food and housing until the pandemic is over. It would take the pressure off those of us in the university’s trenches who risk spreading or contracting COVID-19.
Neither I nor department chairs nor administrators should be in the position to risk student and staff health to keep the university afloat.
Paul Isom teaches journalism at N.C. State University.