Andrew Koricich received an email last week that caught him off guard.
A student at the university where he teaches, Appalachian State, in North Carolina, had died from coronavirus-related complications, the message read.
Scanning the statement, however, the words from Sheri Everts, the institution’s chancellor, made him angry. It urged the campus to honor the life of Chad Dorrill, a sophomore. But it also broached early, in the third paragraph, that Dorrill lived off-campus and took only online classes, an inclusion Koricich viewed as administrators deflecting responsibility for the death.
The missive came off as tone deaf in some circles, but it was hardly the first sign of decay in the relationship between faculty members and the university’s executives. It has been deteriorating for years, a product of what faculty characterize as administrative disinterest in their concerns.
Frustrations came to a head in August, when the Faculty Senate passed a no-confidence vote in Everts’ leadership. The panel also approved a motion to hold Everts and the campus governing board responsible for illness and deaths related to COVID-19 that arose from reopening the campus.
The turbulence at Appalachian State predated Dorrill’s death. But officials’ perceived missteps offer other institutions clues about how to avoid the same pitfalls in messaging about campus coronavirus fatalities — a morbid but not entirely unlikely prospect as the public health crisis wears on.
“You can’t control everything in a pandemic, but you can control … how you treat your community,” Koricich said.
What’s going on at Appalachian State?
Troubles at Appalachian State, a school tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, extend years back.
And they say their concerns have been swept aside as the institution pursued an aggressive enrollment target of 20,000 students by 2020, which they achieved this fall with a roughly 4% hike in students from a year ago. Administrators maintained that new tuition dollars would enhance classroom resources and enable pay increases. Higher enrollment would also bring in more state money.
But faculty feared the boom would swell class sizes and stress the university’s town-gown relationship with an infusion of students to a rural area whose infrastructure couldn’t accommodate them.
Then came the coronavirus.
Faculty were nervous to teach face-to-face this fall, according to the handful of professors Education Dive interviewed. But they said instructors reluctantly accepted the university’s mix of online, in-person and hybrid classes, one enforced by the politically entrenched University of North Carolina (UNC) System board of governors.
Like at some other UNC campuses, Appalachian State’s coronavirus case counts started climbing upon the semester’s start, which also brought social gatherings that violated coronavirus safety protocols. But unlike the UNC System’s larger institutions — UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University — Appalachian State did not flip entirely to virtual classes as those increases became acute.
Instructors there were left to wonder why. To date, the administration has not publicly released the threshold of positive cases or other triggers that would shut down the campus, an omission that has spurred apprehension.
“Somehow a student dying didn’t pivot us online,” Koricich said.
An Appalachian State spokesperson did not respond to Education Dive‘s multiple requests for comment by publication time Monday.
At the university’s trustee meeting on Sept. 25, three days before Dorrill’s death, Chancellor Everts delivered remarks about the state of campus that the three Appalachian State instructors interviewed for this story felt were too rosy and didn’t reflect or acknowledge instructors’ anxieties. One of them, the chair of the university’s Faculty Senate, Michael Behrent, described them in an interview as “Pollyannaish.”
“This is a different kind of death. It could be any student, any faculty member who is facing the possibility and the anxiety that they could be next. We’re all tied into that death … the university didn’t understand or have a way to acknowledge that.”
Director, Appalachian State University’s doctoral program in educational leadership
Everts, who has been in the job since 2014, talked up the university’s coronavirus prevention methods during that meeting. But a day or so later, its updated virus dashboard showed the campus’ positivity rate had shot up to 9% that week from 3.5% the previous week.
The institution has since tracked 805 cases as of Monday afternoon, which is about 60% of the confirmed cases in Watauga County, where it’s located. Most recently, the university said it found seven new case clusters in residence halls and among student groups and sports teams.
“There’s been a triumphalist sort of character, without much recognition that there are real problems,” Behrent said.
Everts didn’t attempt to assuage faculty concerns after their no-confidence vote. Rather, she sent them an email the same day reminding them that the trustees voted in May to support her and other top administrators, which the academics interviewed for this story took as antagonistic.
Faculty didn’t feel much better about the statement announcing Dorrill’s death. Behrent said many of them felt officials should have split it into two communiques: one acknowledging the campus’ suffering and another reminding students and employees to abide by virus mitigation efforts. Blending those messages felt inauthentic, despite the wishes of Dorrill‘s family to call attention to safety protocols, said Vachel Miller, director of the university’s doctoral program in educational leadership.
“This is a different kind of death,” Miller said. “It could be any student, any faculty member who is facing the possibility and the anxiety that they could be next. We’re all tied into that death … the university didn’t understand or have a way to acknowledge that.”
Lessons and advice for other campuses
Establishing trust with students and employees earlier during the pandemic would have eased many of Appalachian State‘s problems, health and communications experts say. Even Behrent, who was unbothered by Everts’ approach to Dorrill’s death, said he understood the faculty reaction; they have come to meet her words, especially about the coronavirus, with inherent skepticism.
“The core problem is the decision to bring all the students back in the first place, and not come up with any sort of real plan for what they’re doing for the next few weeks,” he said.
Everts’ dispatch on Dorrill seemed to default to the postsecondary “script” on student death, said Ralph Gigliotti, director of Rutgers University’s Center for Organizational Leadership and an expert in crisis management. Institutions generally prepare a template to share information about student deaths, which sums up the facts of an episode quickly and accurately, he said. In cases involving the coronavirus, however, institutions need to take special care that an element of humanity shines through because “top-down” directives can be misinterpreted, Gigliotti said.
“As the loss of life becomes normalized, as it becomes pervasive right now in the midst of a pandemic, how can you ensure that the emotions of the response come through in ways that are authentic and not taken for granted?,” Gigliotti said, noting that the most effective messages tie back to institutional values.
Dorrill wasn’t the first student to die from coronavirus-related complications. Among those recorded were Juan Garcia, a Pennsylvania State University student, and Jamain Stephens, a football player at the California University of Pennsylvania. Several professors and a college president have also died.
The American College Health Association’s (ACHA) advice on coronavirus communications plans suggests messages reflect colleges’ brands and missions. The guidelines also state that mixing too many points will muddy the message.
In addressing a death, administrators should remind campus constituents where they can seek help, said Debbie Beck, a member of ACHA’s coronavirus task force and assistant vice president of health and wellness at the University of South Carolina. A message should outline counseling resources, and in the age of coronavirus, where to learn more about an institution’s pandemic response.
Everts’ announcement included this information.
Institutions sometimes weave in more, such as medical guidance or statistics, Beck said. But in the case of a death on campus, she said, “there’s no room … for that kind of information.”
“The focus should be on the family, the tragic loss of the student, and how it would impact the community,” she added.
Appalachian State is one of many schools to publicize coronavirus case numbers through an online dashboard, though they do not need to provide them on an ongoing basis to meet federal disclosure laws, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
A separate federal privacy law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) permits colleges to share case counts as long as students and employees aren’t identified, said Derek Teeter, a partner at law firm Husch Blackwell. They can also disclose the names of those who have died, especially if a death is already well-known, he said.
College officials may be unable to share all the information people want, and so they should think ahead about what they can release.
But at Appalachian State, the campus didn’t hunger for the medical nitty-gritty of Dorrill’s case. They just wanted space to grieve, Appalachian State’s Miller said. And they wanted their leaders to offer them that.
“This was the moment where we needed to reassess as a community what we’re doing, and there’s no willingness or interest to do that,” he said. “It’s disconcerting.”