The Sylva Herald, By Beth Lawrence

As students migrated out of other towns and states into Western Carolina University residence halls and student housing, WCU’s Faculty Senate debated a resolution to oppose in-person learning.

Upwards of 400 people from staff, faculty and WCU leadership joined a zoom meeting Monday to discuss the resolution and its cause.

The measure passed by a vote of 15-13 with one abstention. The vote is symbolic and may not have an influence on UNC school system decisions.

Yancey Gulley, associate professor of the College of Education and Allied Professions Human Services, sponsored the resolution.

The faculty is obligated to “speak out to our institution, our system leadership and those in our overall community when we see injustice, changes in educational direction or pedagogical practice that is counter to our educational mission or impedes our commitments to it,” he said.

Gulley summed up the resolution’s message saying “it is a dangerous thing to open WCU… amid the pandemic as there is currently no vaccine, and positive cases continue to appear.”

Gulley remarked that the UNC system had thoroughly discussed the issue; but faculty, staff and student questions had not been answered in a satisfactory manner. Faculty input had been limited to how they would provide in-class services, and opinions on whether face-to-face sessions should occur had been ignored or not allowed to be expressed, he said.

“Yes, there are students who desire an experience of living with friends and making new ones while earning a college degree,” Gulley said. “Yes, the institution needs to survive financially. However, the balance of lives in danger for these things to happen is not actually balanced at all, especially when the UNC system has not answered repeated questions of how many students and employees or acceptable positive cases, or worse deaths, before a last minute pivot to online instruction similar to what we saw in spring.”

Gulley noted other schools which had recently seen students not adhering to safety guidelines as they returned and college sports programs canceled after COVID-19 began spreading among athletes.

Chancellor Kelli Brown and interim Provost Richard Starnes addressed the group, saying they appreciated the Faculty Senate voicing its concerns.

“From the very beginning of this, there has not been a day or minute or week that hasn’t gone by where I or any others on the campus have not thought strategically about how to make opening this fall in a safe manner,” Brown said. “I speak regularly with our community members of our local health department, head of our hospital, school district superintendent… all of them have said they feel that we have a plan in place to be able to move forward.”

Ben Pendry, chair of the Staff Senate, said staff did not support the resolution because it does not reflect the “entire will” of staff who are ready to return to work.

“One of the things that is under consideration is the employment and the economic impact of what a residential opening or not opening means to those staff members,” he said. “We believe that the precautions and the standards…put into place…are what it’s going to take to bring us back.”

The Senate also asked Student Government President Dawson Spencer to speak.

He pointed to a recent survey showing respondents split equally between students who would like face-to-face classes and those who do not. Some who wanted in-person classes still had reservations, he said.

Several faculty members expressed concern over a lack of access to cleaning supplies and other safety measures or a clear plan to move instruction completely online should an outbreak occur at Western.

WCU issued the following response to the vote:

“The vote today during a special called Faculty Senate meeting to discuss a resolution related to the residential opening of the fall semester reflects the complexity of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education.”

Classes begin Aug. 17 with a mix of traditional in-person classes, online and hybrid courses.