Covid-19 cases — sometimes in big numbers — are being reported at colleges and universities that have already reopened campuses for the 202-21 school year, forcing some to send students home or rethink their approach for instruction. There are already more than 500 cases at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

School officials blame students who gather in big numbers without wearing masks, while students and faculty say school leaders did not think through their reopening plans carefully enough.

In this post, two faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — where rising covid-19 rates forced officials on Aug. 17 to pivot to remote learning a week after students returned to campus — discuss how the university ignored pleas from faculty and students of color to revise reopening plans to provide more protection. They also discuss how the lack of diverse leadership at the school and in higher education across the country is exacerbating the pandemic.

The authors are Kia Caldwell, professor of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at UNC and Miguel La Serna, professor of history at UNC.

By Kia Caldwell and Miguel La Serna

On Monday, Aug. 17, just one week after the first day of classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced it would be moving to remote instruction for all undergraduate classes. The move came after a series of coronavirus clusters erupted in university residence halls, with more than 135 reported new cases during the first week of classes. Within three days, North Carolina State had followed suit.

So ended the dangerous experiment with face-to-face instruction at North Carolina’s two leading public universities, which form part of a 16-campus statewide system. When UNC-Chapel Hill abruptly announced in-person classes would end, campus and system officials scrambled to explain this was all according to plan. They argued they had always prepared to take an “off-ramp” if and when covid-19 cases spiked; the UNC System president went as far as to blame students for the outbreaks. As of Tuesday afternoon, UNC-Chapel Hill has 566 confirmed cases of covid-19 among students and a 13.6 percent positivity rate for the most recent tests.

The fast-developing public health crisis in the UNC system made national news, and the editorial board of the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper, headlined with an expletive to describe the debacle. This whole crisis could have been avoided, however, had university officials paid more attention to the concerns of students, faculty, and staff of color and their allies.

Throughout the summer, students, faculty, and staff shared their concerns about UNC-Chapel Hill’s reopening and also proposed alternatives to the university’s “Roadmap to Fall 2020.” In early August, a group of 30 tenured UNC-Chapel Hill faculty wrote an open letter to students telling them to stay home.

On Aug. 10, faculty and staff throughout the system filed a class-action lawsuit against the UNC system and UNC Board of Governors. The lawsuit charged that campus reopening plans were creating an unsafe workplace. Local public health officials also urged university leaders to delay the reopening of campus and only provide remote instruction for the first five weeks.

Low-wage service workers were one of the major, and often overlooked groups, in the university’s reopening plans. The UNC-Chapel Hill administrations’ inability — or unwillingness — to respond to the needs of staff of color exposed an equally pressing crisis of racial inequity in higher education.

While the top leadership at universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill is overwhelmingly White, a high percentage of housekeeping, grounds-keeping and other service staff are people of color. Nationwide, people of color comprise 42 percent of service and maintenance staff, but only 10 percent of the provosts or chief academic officers at colleges and universities.

Our essential workers’ likely exposure to the virus through their daily work routines, as well as inadequate safety measures, drove their deep concerns and anxieties about North Carolina campuses reopening. As members of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities that have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, our essential workers had every reason to question the UNC system’s reopening mandate.

During many of the virtual meetings held throughout the summer about UNC-Chapel Hill’s reopening plans, it was clear students, faculty, and administrators of color had also been left out of the decision-making process and did not have a seat at the table.

Throughout the summer, student leaders from the UNC Commission for Campus Equality and Student Equity, which is mainly composed of students of color, called on the university to adopt a plan to “de-densify” residence halls and have 100 percent online classes. At the time, no one appeared to heed their recommendations. Now, the university has no choice but to adopt this plan.

UNC’s reopening plan cannot be divorced from ongoing challenges related to race and racism at the university. These include the UNC Board of Governors’ legal agreement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in November 2019, which granted them ownership of a Confederate monument that student and community activists toppled in August 2019.

The Board of Governors also signed a $2.5 million settlement with this Confederate group, leading to a huge outcry from the campus community, as well as many alumni. This agreement was voided several months later by the same judge who authorized it. The agreement also caused UNC-Chapel Hill to lose out on a $1.5 million award from the Mellon Foundation, which would have advanced work toward racial justice on campus.

The increasingly hostile and toxic racial climate at UNC-Chapel Hill is an important part of the backdrop for the crisis the university is facing. This summer, UNC Black, Indigenous, and faculty of color developed and launched the Roadmap for Racial Equity.” Our road map calls for substantive structural and policy changes, as well as increased diversity among the university’s faculty and leadership. While more than 1,200 UNC faculty, students, and alumni, as well as community members, have endorsed this road map, whether our university leaders will implement these changes remains to be seen.

The lack of racial and ethnic diversity among UNC’s leadership, including chancellors, provosts, deans, and department chairs, is unacceptable and must be addressed. The absence of diverse perspectives has created tunnel vision and groupthink and has also led to repeated leadership failures. During this time of national reckoning about racial injustice, it is imperative higher education institutions dismantle systemic racism and create more diverse and inclusive leadership teams. These demands are being made by Black faculty and other faculty of color across the country.

North Carolina’s changing demographics call for more representative leadership at our public universities, which have a mandate to serve the state’s citizens. Statewide, 70.6 percent of North Carolinians are White, 22 percent are African American, 9.8 percent are Latinx, 3 percent are Asian American, and 1.6 percent are Native American.

This ethnic and cultural diversity is not reflected among key leaders and decision-makers at UNC-Chapel Hill or within the governing bodies for the University and UNC system. One African American currently serves on the 13-member UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees (8 percent) and there are three African Americans on the 24-member UNC System Board of Governors (12 percent).

Having diverse teams and decision-makers drives innovation and encourages “out of the box” thinking. Had a diverse group of UNC-Chapel Hill community members been involved in developing the university’s reopening plan, they would have been able to construct a road map and off-ramp that centered the needs of marginalized students, faculty, and staff.

UNC students of all backgrounds are in deep distress because they are being forced to spend time and money to leave the campus and quickly reconfigure their lives, while also taking classes.

Black, immigrant, low-income, and first-generation students are facing compounded pressures and Black students have launched a mutual aid fund to support fellow students. But providing for their peers is not their responsibility. The university must support students with demonstrated financial need during this crisis; any funding that is provided must also be distributed equitably.

Higher education leaders can use this as a teachable moment. Diversity in leadership and decision-making is not optional; it is essential. Including a wide range of voices and perspectives is a hallmark not only of good, but also inclusive, leadership. During the current pandemic, who makes decisions and how may also mean the difference between life and death.