A new staff advisory committee will launch this week, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz announced during Monday’s Community Conversation, sponsored by the Employee Forum.
The 17-member committee was created in response to a recent Employee Forum survey, Guskiewicz said, adding that he needs more opportunities to connect with staff and those on the front lines. The committee will serve as an additional advisory group to the chancellor, similar to ones in place for students and faculty. Invitations to join the committee were sent Friday and Monday, and the first meeting is set for after Thanksgiving.
The committee was just one of several topics brought up at the virtual conversation, which also covered a Forum survey, along with Spring planning, testing and mental health in a panel discussion moderated by University Ombuds Dawn Osborne-Adams. The panel included Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin, Vice Chancellor for Human Resources and Equal Opportunity and Compliance Becci Menghini, Employee Forum delegate Jaci Field and Forum Chair Shayna Hill.
The Employee Forum surveyed employees from Aug. 25 to Sept. 9, receiving 330 responses. The three key takeaways from the report were that employees wanted to advocate for more solutions in finding resources for staff, more transparency in communications from the administration and more messages targeted directly to staff and to abandon “toxic positivity” in communications.
“I am powered by optimism, but I’m not blinded by it,” Guskiewicz said. “I’m not the type of leader who stands still in trying times. We must move forward with cautious optimism while navigating through these difficult circumstances.”
Beginning the discussion, Guskiewicz responded to a question about rebuilding trust between the staff and administration. “I believe communication is key and I’ve tried to emphasize community throughout all of this. We talk about community standards that were set to help us have a safe working, living and learning environment,” he said.
While the University has tried to offer flexibility for employees, there is also a need to balance the needs of employees with the needs of units and departments, Guskiewicz said. Flexibility for employees and the University’s shared leave bank were two examples of how the administration has been able to respond to staff concerns, he said.
Blouin added that University leaders will try to do a better job encouraging deans to share messages and ensure they are passed down to employees. While he meets regularly with deans, it’s important to ensure those messages “trickle down” to employees, he said.
Menghini added that employees say they get the best information from their local unit, but leaders need to think about communicating across many different employee types to ensure messages reach everyone.
Increased testing will be the main difference between the spring and fall semesters, Blouin said.
“The lesson learned is that testing has to be at the center of our strategy moving forward,” he said.
Twice-weekly testing will be mandatory for undergraduate students when they return to campus in January in an effort to reduce COVID-19 cases and clusters. Once-weekly testing will be available and optional for faculty and staff.
The University will also have its own testing infrastructure with the capacity to test as many individuals as needed. The Carolina Together Testing Centers are set to be open the second week of January. Until then, the University will continue to use an outside vendor to process the tests that Campus Health conducts, Blouin said.
About 3,500 students will be invited to live on campus for the spring semester, with one student per dorm room. Most students returning to campus are studying the arts or STEM fields — areas of study that are hard to replicate in a remote learning environment.
The campus has the capacity to have 8,500 students living on campus; about 1,500 students lived on campus this fall.
Blouin added that the administration is working closely with Greek life and UNC Police is partnering with the Chapel Hill police to check hot spots on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to be sure students are abiding by community standards.
Concerns about furloughs
Employees continue to express concerns about furloughs and layoffs, Osborne-Adams said of questions submitted for the panel.
The University does not have the authority to put furloughs in place, Guskiewicz said. While every revenue source is threatened by the pandemic, the University is doing everything possible to mitigate shortfalls.
Menghini added that the University is working to manage the budget and its impact on employees. She added that the chancellor and provost expressed concerns about impacts to faculty, staff and students in conversations about plans for the spring.
“I can tell you we are thinking about how we are meeting the University’s mission and caring for our people,” she said.
An optional early retirement program is a legislative priority for the UNC System when the General Assembly convenes in January. Menghini noted that the University has also asked to extend the shared leave bank, set to expire at the end of December, into next year.
A recording of the meeting is available on YouTube.