Tuesday, June 28, 2022

UNCW built a massive task force to fight the pandemic, then operated it secretly

The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has held private meetings since the beginning of the pandemic that should have been held open to the public, per state law. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has held private meetings since the beginning of the pandemic that should have been held open to the public, per state law. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — When the pandemic first began to turn heads at university campuses nationwide, select University of North Carolina at Wilmington administrators would meet to assess the situation and brainstorm the university’s path forward. As the toll on higher education became clearer, the university added more and more officials to the meetings. 

The Covid-19 Task Force met officially for the first time on March 2, 2020. Its original members came from a pre-existing workgroup “designed to prepare for, monitor, and respond to contagious diseases,” according to a university spokesperson. Since the spring, the university has run the meetings without the inclusion of the public and press, in a move that appears to have subverted N.C. Open Meetings Law.

A spokesperson for the university said, “the university has complied, and will comply, with N.C. Open Meetings law.”

What started as a small group of administrators now includes at least 41 members — various vice chancellors, deans and other education officials; Chancellor Jose Sartarelli; most of UNCW’s upper administrative echelon; its general counsel, the athletics director and the police chief.

The task force meets privately on Friday mornings via Zoom, and is joined by the bulk of UNCW’s top decision makers. Recent agendas show the group hears updates from up to 16 departments – including public health, athletics, construction, communication, finance and admissions, among others. 

“The group’s primary purpose has been to provide updates from various constituencies on efforts to respond to various COVID questions and issues,” a UNCW spokesperson wrote in an email. “In a sense, it is an overall update meeting.”

State law requires N.C. government and its subdivision meetings be held openly. The university has not advertised task force meetings to the public.

Up to this point, official minutes have not been kept; when Port City Daily previously asked to be included on the Zoom call, the university said it would assess the situation, but did not make the Zoom link available. Rather than mentioning specific topics and action items, the agendas only list the university departments that could potentially offer the group a pandemic-related update.

Under state Open Meetings law, UNCW is bound to transparency when conducting meetings of its leadership that “administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions.”

After being asked why the public and press were not invited to these meetings, a UNCW spokesperson said that, after review, the university determined the Covid-19 Task Force “meets the criteria set forth in the Open Meetings Law,” and that future meetings would not be held behind closed doors. 

The spokesperson said though the university does not have formal minutes of past meetings at this time, “we can produce them as soon as we can gather them.”

In an interview last month, UNCW professor and Faculty Senate President Nathan Grove, a task force member, said the meetings were being held weekly. In the university’s response to Port City Daily, the spokesperson said the task force is now discontinuing its weekly meetings.

“Now that we are well into the semester, we no longer have a need to hold that meeting weekly,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We are shifting to a biweekly schedule, beginning Oct. 23.” 

Recent agendas show a task force meeting was scheduled for Friday, Oct. 9. A university spokesperson said this meeting was cancelled.

The Steering Committee 

At UNCW, faculty take part in a shared governance model. A collection of professors serve in the Faculty Senate, which advocates for faculty and assists in some administrative decision-making.

The Faculty Senate internally elects a smaller group, known as the Steering Committee, which advises the chancellor and helps manage the senate itself.

UNCW has historically maintained the Steering Committee is not subject to open meetings law; its meetings have never been open to the public.

When asked to provide a justification for the university’s interpretation of open meetings law, UNCW Assistant General Counsel Steven Miller wrote in an email,  “We are always looking at reviewing how we do things at the university and are working through the matter.” 

More than a week after Miller’s message, a UNCW spokesperson added that the general counsel’s office is having ongoing discussions about the Steering Committee and open meetings law criteria. 

Update: After publication, a university spokesperson asked that it be clarified Port City Daily is the only media outlet that has previously requested access to these meetings. Following its decision to not invite PCD to the meetings, the university reviewed the Open Meetings Law, and then agreed that the meeting qualified as an open meeting.


Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at preston@localdailymedia.com or (910) 478-6511

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