In a split vote, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors decided Thursday night to not decrease, refund or pro-rate tuition or fees if universities in the system shift to online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic this fall.

 “We believe we have to support the services associated with campuses and all the different aspects that continue to support the students while they are getting their education at one of our campuses,” said Chairman Randy Ramsey.

With COVID-19 case totals and related metrics still reaching new record highs for North Carolina, some are predicting that the 17 universities may have to shift entirely from on campus to online learning as they did last semester.

Board member Jim Holmes said the campuses will still have salary and operational costs to bear if that happens. “They’re not going to shut down,” Holmes said. “Students may choose to go take their classes at an apartment, but …there will still be people on and around campus.”

Holmes added, “We’re not just going to go lock the doors and shut the schools down. These expenses will continue.”

Board members Marty Kotis, Thom Goolsby and student member Isaiah Green voted against leaving tuition and fees unchanged if the universities go entirely to remote learning.

“I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to pass these costs along to the students. The students and their families are struggling. If they have to go back to online and they’re taking Zoom classes, they’re getting an inferior experience, in my opinion,” said Kotis.

 “We’re almost overcharging them with tuition” until the university system improves its online educational offerings, Kotis said. “And fees on top of that is adding insult to injury. I understand the rationale. I just disagree with it.”

Green agreed, saying students at many UNC schools are already worried about their universities not refunding what they pay in housing even if they have to move off campus — a question many schools have not definitively resolved. Deciding not to decrease or pro-rate tuition and fees adds to that burden, he said.

“It’s not fair to them or their families for the unequal quality of education that they didn’t sign on for in the beginning,” Green said.

Goolsby said charging the same price for hastily assembled online courses, in addition to fees for things like athletics and student activities that won’t happen, puts the UNC schools at a competitive disadvantage.

Schools like Western Governors University and even North Carolina’s community college system offer online education at a lower price point, Goolsby said. “I think we may be digging our own graves,” he said.

Kotis and Goolsby both emphasized that the system should have been improving online courses and offering them more widely years before the current crisis.

“We’ve seen this train coming down the track for years and it’s time to deal with it,” Goolsby said.

The N.C. Constitution says that the UNC system has a duty to offer education to the public in a way that is as free as is practical, Kotis said.

The current crisis just underlines that instead of doing that, the system and its campuses have for years spent millions building “Taj Mahal spaces,” Kotis said, adding that it should have been investing in robust online programs and other, more modern approaches to education. “This is self-inflicted,” Kotis said.

 

SAT/ACT requirements temporarily waived

In another divided vote, the board decided to temporarily waive SAT and ACT test score requirements for admission to UNC schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students will still be able to submit the scores if they like and schools will be free to consider them. But they will not be a requirement.

N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson applauded the move. He called standardized testing “an incredibly valuable tool” but said under the current conditions, it doesn’t make sense to require it. “Right now, our families are under tremendous stress,” Woodson said.

Woodson told the story of a North Carolina family that went to South Carolina to take an ACT test when it couldn’t be accessed in North Carolina. They were turned away when they arrived at the testing site because the test was cancelled at the last minute due to the pandemic.

That’s not an uncommon experience right now, Woodson said.

It’s also worth considering that many other states have already waived the testing requirement, Woodson said. That puts UNC schools at a disadvantage in competing for students.

“We understand the value [of standardized testing] and we look forward to getting back to it when it’s reasonable to do so,” Woodson said.

Changes to chancellor search processes

On Wednesday, a UNC Board of Governors committee approved changes to the chancellor search process that would let the UNC system president insert final candidates into searches that traditionally happen at the board of trustees level at each school.

The full board didn’t take up the issue Thursday, but will vote on it at its next meeting in September.

At issue is a fundamental change in the way UNC schools’ top leaders are chosen. Under the current system, an individual school’s board of trustees conducts an independent search and forwards at least two finalists to the UNC System President. The president then chooses one candidate to submit to a final vote by the UNC Board of Governors.

Incoming UNC System President Peter Hans’ proposed change would allow the system president to add up to two candidates to search processes. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward as part of a slate of finalists for the position. In effect, the president would have the power to both insert candidates into the search process without approval from the board of trustees, those candidates would become finalists for the positions whether or not the board of trustees approves and the president would then choose a final candidate from those finalists.

The move would mean the president could choose candidates who would not be acceptable to a university board of trustees. Those candidates could then become finalists for the position, even over the objection of the trustees.

That’s the scenario feared by members of the East Carolina University Board of Trustees, currently engaged in a chancellor search. In February, two trustees told Policy Watch that N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) was aggressively seeking the chancellor’s position. The ECU trustees, whose board been divided on a number of contentious issues, has seen tensions over whether Moore’s candidacy would be a flagrant conflict of interests.

Current and former members of the board of governors and a number of trustees at different schools have expressed concern about the change.

Ramsey defended the proposal in a remote press conference Wednesday.

The president and the board already have the ability to reject candidates that come to them from campus-level search committees and school trustees, Ramsey said. This change would allow the board and president to groom people — inside or outside of the university system — for leadership and insert one of these “potential superstars” into a search process.

“In no way are we trying to usurp the trustees,” Ramsey said.

Candidates inserted by the president would still have to go through the same process as candidates identified by the campus-level search committees, Ramsey said. But the inserted candidates would automatically be considered finalists even if the search committee or a school’s board of trustees does not approve of them.

Ramsey dismissed worries that the change could lead to a further politicization of the selection process.

“That is simply not going to happen at the UNC system,” Ramsey said.

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