Campus News

‘Living in a different world’

Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz reflects on the pandemic year at Carolina and how it has changed the University and its students, faculty and staff.

Man in mask looks in mirror and adjusts tie.
Kevin M. Guskiewicz prepares for his one-of-a-kind installation as the 12th Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during a ceremony held at Memorial Hall on Oct. 11, 2020. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Carolina’s Pandemic Year: This week last March, the University shifted to remote instruction. The Well is marking the occasion with a week of special stories, including ways the University has addressed the crisis, predictions from Carolina’s faculty on lasting changes to post-pandemic life and, below, reflections from Chancellor Guskiewicz.

Even for a leader who often speaks of solving the “grand challenges of our time,” a deadly pandemic that put much of the world on lockdown proved a daunting prospect during his first year as Carolina’s chancellor. In an interview with The Well, Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz shares his fears, his hopes and his reflections on this historic time and what impact it has had on him and on the campus community.

When you became chancellor, you talked about solving the grand challenges of our time. Did you ever think a global pandemic would be one of them?

No. While I knew there would be challenges in my role as chancellor, I did not think that a global pandemic would be one of them. I also never imagined that it would have such an impact on our campus or on society in general for over a year. But at Carolina, we take on the grand challenges of our time. We are fortunate to have several of the best researchers and scholars in the country addressing COVID-related infectious disease, public health and economic issues. Researchers on our campus studying pandemics have been warning us about this for years. Their work is one of the reasons why we were able to get a vaccine out so quickly.

Carolina’s culture of collaboration means that when we take on these grand challenges, we don’t just rely on one narrow group of scientists working in a silo. This is a place where we bring together our humanities scholars, our social scientists and our biomedical and public health researchers. In this case, they’ve all helped us to attack the problem.

Part of the role of a great research university like ours is to help society adapt to the changing environment, in this case a global pandemic. And we’ve seen how our faculty and staff, and our research teams, have helped society adapt. We’re preparing now for the next pandemic through READDI [Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative], a program for rapidly developing new broad-spectrum antiviral drug solutions for the future.

When did news about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China flip from something that you were monitoring globally to something that would have real impacts on campus?

I can tell you the exact moment. I was out to dinner with my wife, Amy; Dean Gary Bowen and his wife, Donna; and some Carolina alumni on a Friday evening — the first Friday in March — in Hillsborough, and I kept getting text messages. Finally, I got a text from [Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost] Bob Blouin that said, “I think we need to talk.” And what he wanted to talk about was a plan to get our students who were studying abroad out of South Korea. We had already begun working on a plan of getting students out of China. Within a few days it was, how do we get them out of Italy?

And then, before you know it, we were updating our travel restrictions and beginning to have serious conversations about the possibility of needing to go remote. On March 11, we made the decision to expand spring break until March 22 and announced that remote instruction would begin on March 23. And then, we were canceling all on-campus events. That was tough because the second half of the spring semester is a lot of fun on our campus. We just realized we were going to be living in a different world over the next several months. I didn’t realize at that time that we’d still be here in March 2021, a year later, with many of the same restrictions in place.

A year ago, going remote was such a new concept.

At that point, probably 85% of our faculty had never taught an online class. That caused anxiety for a lot of people, which is why we extended spring break a week. Our faculty and staff were incredible. They made it all happen in about 10 days. It was a pretty quick turnaround, but it was the safest thing to do. I think our students understood they were going to need to be resilient and so did our faculty. We had no choice. Everybody was doing the best they could. And we delivered.

It must have made you proud of Carolina’s faculty, staff and students.

Very proud. It wasn’t just about how to deliver quality remote instruction to our students or about developing the best COVID test, treatment or vaccine, which we did. But we also had faculty and researchers working to help secondary schools around the state of North Carolina. The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute worked with Carolina’s School of Education to help families think about remote teaching and learning for children who were suddenly forced to be home. A leading global public research university must step up to help society. It’s what we do.

Several months later, faculty from the UNC School of Government, the Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Gillings School of Global Public Health were helping businesses around the state of North Carolina that had been forced to shut down think about how they could reopen.

What has been your biggest fear?

It was clearly around the safety of our students, faculty and staff. The unknown. Early in the pandemic, it was, “What happens when that first member of our campus community is infected, and it’s serious and they are hospitalized? What could we put in place to help mitigate that?”

Uncertainty breeds fear. It’s difficult to make decisions when the information is changing every day or every week. My fear was that we would potentially make the wrong decision based on the information we had this week when things were changing rapidly. Making certain that we could keep everybody safe was our primary goal throughout all this.

Do you feel you have kept campus safe?

I really do. We are fortunate here to have some of the best public health and infectious disease experts in the country. We are still convening every Tuesday morning for updates from Student Affairs and Environment, Health and Safety and other units, and our infectious disease and public health experts join the call to provide the latest information to help guide our decision-making. Having that group by our side has given me confidence over the past year that we are going to make the best, most informed decisions based on the latest information available.

Was there one decision that you made that you wish you could have done differently?

The decision to ramp up our on-campus operations for the fall and to be out early with a plan was difficult. We were making the decision in late May, early June, when there was still so much uncertainty. Universities across the country were taking different approaches, and everyone had an untested playbook at that point. I’ve seen how difficult it can be for an institution as big as ours to move quickly and be nimble. With COVID-19, that flexibility has been critical. We’ve learned a lot, and, despite the issues we experienced early in the fall semester, I’m very proud of where we are right now.

We’ve looked back on that decision and wondered what we might have done differently. Perhaps a slower ramp up to the start of that semester might have allowed us to maintain in-person instruction for a longer period of time. We don’t know. But that’s the one decision that we look back on and might have changed.

That experience informed our decision-making for the spring semester. The COVID testing program wasn’t possible in the fall. But for the spring, we realized that we needed to have a robust testing program in place, not just for those students who were symptomatic or who were identified through contact tracing as possibly being infected, but we needed an asymptomatic testing program. I’m very pleased with how our students have stepped up and accepted the responsibility of adhering to our COVID-19 Community Standards and mandatory testing this semester. They deserve a lot of credit for what has been a very successful spring semester.

What’s the best advice someone gave you during the pandemic?

The best advice I think I got was not to be afraid to overcommunicate. I used to worry that if we sent three messages out in a week that eventually people may stop reading. But my faculty advisory committee’s advice was to communicate more and communicate often.

I think what I found in this pandemic is that people were eager to read any update that you send out. I’m going to continue to communicate often about next steps for our campus.

What did you do differently that set the University up for success?

My leadership style is informed by my background as a researcher. I gather information, bring as many voices to the table as possible and then develop a hypothesis and test the hypothesis. For the spring, we had more information, and the benefit of learning from the fall, which made this style of leadership more effective.

We brought more voices to the table. I created the Campus and Community Advisory Committee back in September, and that group met weekly for about 10 weeks, providing feedback from their various constituencies — students, faculty, staff, members of the local community. They brought their voices in as we were thinking about what the spring semester would look like.

We pushed back the start of the spring semester a couple of weeks. We heard loud and clear about the best type of testing program. We had done some pilot testing in the fall. We began looking at different locations on campus for where the testing might take place, the different testing methods, whether we should contract with an outside laboratory to help us with the analysis. We made the decision to do it in-house, and we purchased the PCR processing equipment from Thermo Fisher Scientific. Through the work of many University researchers and volunteers, we came to the right decision on that, and we have an amazing Carolina Together Testing Program team, led by Dr. Amir Barzin, who works closely with our dedicated Campus Health team, led by Ken Pittman.

I asked many people back in October and November what success would look like for this spring semester. And I will tell you that I feel like we’re hitting the mark at the midway point of the spring semester.

How do you think the pandemic year is going to impact the students who experienced it?

I think they’re going to realize that we had to be resilient, and we were. We found ways to overcome this and to still have a successful year. There certainly are mental health challenges that we’re hearing about. And, so, this spring semester we built in some wellness days, and the faculty recognized the importance of allowing the students to unplug for a few days. We don’t know the long-term effects of the wellness days, but in the short term we’ve seen a positive effect on students. We’ve also brought in additional counselors at Campus Health, who have done an incredible job helping to manage this. I think we’ve all learned not to take things for granted and to be grateful for the privileges and experiences that we’re able to have on a regular basis. And I’m looking forward to getting back to that.

Now that it feels like we’re in the home stretch, what would you say to current students?

First, I want to say “Thank you.” I’ve said repeatedly, “We hear you. None of this has been easy, and it’s difficult to miss the things that you expected and counted on. But please take advantage of the opportunities and resources that are here and that are available.”

To students who are living and studying remotely, I say, “If you can, try to get back to campus to visit because as we’re seeing the case counts continue to go down, we think it’s a safer environment, and you can begin to experience more of the Carolina you love and expect.”

To those 10,000 students living off campus within a half-mile to a mile radius, I’d say, “Try to get to campus to the libraries, to the Student Union and to an athletic event, if you can, now that we’re opening that up for more fans to have that opportunity.”

So that’s what I am trying to ask students to think about. I think the more they do that, the more they’re going to get out from behind the Zoom screen, which we all need to do more often.

I want the students to know that we’re going to get through this together. And they’re going to have the opportunity to spend more time with their friends soon and continue to grow and to move forward.

In 20 or 30 years, our students are going to look back and see how this experience helped to shape them. They’re learning from this. They’ve had to adapt. There’s going to be something else down the road. It may not be a pandemic but a situation that they’re going to encounter where they have to adapt. They’re going to become leaders, and the challenges that many of them witnessed and the sacrifices that they had to make during this pandemic will have an impact on them in a positive way. And I think that they’re going to be stronger because of this experience.

How do you think having to face the pandemic will change the University moving forward?

Resilience and flexibility. I think that we’ve learned the meaning of these words over these past 12 months. We have tried to provide as much flexibility for our students, our faculty and our staff, so that everybody can get through this. That our faculty has continued teaching and researching has been critical. The fact that Carolina has continued to lead in COVID-19 research is just one of the reasons why Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett agreed to be our commencement speakers for the Class of 2021.

We have found new ways to teach and to be effective in the classroom. And the Carolina Away program is probably here to stay. I think those are some of the things we’re going to pull out of this experience and that will help us be a reimagined university.

This pandemic and other events, including the killing of George Floyd, have exposed a lot of racial inequities. Is the University making progress on racial issues?

Yes. Build Our Community Together is the first initiative in our Carolina Next strategic plan. That was put in place before the pandemic. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep momentum on this initiative. That was the right decision to have that as the first strategic initiative in our plan. We have to make sure that everyone on our campus not only feels like they belong, but that they KNOW they belong here. I think the protests across the country this summer showed how urgent that work is. We have our own challenges on our campus. Being the oldest public university in the nation, we have a complex history. But even right in the middle of a pandemic back in July, we still focused on this goal of making certain that we have a campus climate, an environment, where everybody knows they belong.

For the Board of Trustees to lift that 16-year moratorium on removing names on campus buildings and to remove those four names I think was important. We know we can’t delay in addressing those issues on our campus. And I’m committed to this as a priority, pandemic or no pandemic. We are charging ahead with this.

What have you personally missed the most during this time of disruption?

I miss seeing the students on our campus. There’s no question. The students are why we’re here. I remind people every day that our faculty and our staff are here for these students and to be sure that we provide every opportunity for them to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Seeing students out and about, walking in between classes, experiencing the magic of this incredible place: That’s what I miss the most. But we are seeing sort of a reawakening of the campus with the weather changing. We’re seeing students out on Polk Place, playing Frisbee, gathering in small groups, studying, eating lunch under the tent. You can see we’re getting back to that magical place we all love.

My office looks out at the Old Well. I missed that long line down Cameron Avenue on the first day of classes, where students take their first sip from the Old Well. People still went there for pictures, but the fountain was turned off, and they had to space out. It was nothing like what we would see in a typical year. That’s a pretty special scene that I’m looking forward to getting back to. We are going to turn that fountain back on soon, and it will be momentous for all Tar Heels.

See all the stories from Carolina’s Pandemic Year.