Body bags and a coffin lined the grass in front of NC State’s Talley Student Center on Thursday afternoon. No one had actually passed away, but the university’s Graduate Worker Union held a “preemptive funeral” to protest the reopening of their campus and demand accountability from university administration.

The attendees wore all black as speakers emphasized the union’s four key demands, which they say administrators ignored over the summer as they prioritized revenue over safety. The demands include online classes, no furloughs for graduate or hourly workers, hazard pay, and a minimal on-campus student population.

Grad Worker Union president Grace Ullman said that while the protest’s funeral theme may have been unconventional, it was the only way to accurately capture the impact of the administration’s decisions.

“We need to send a clear picture to the NC State administration of what exactly the consequences of their actions are,” she said. 

Fred Cubbage, a professor in the department of forestry and environmental resources, drew attention to the irony of the school’s “Think and Do” motto, given administrators’ careless planning.

“What were we thinking?” he questioned. “We are supposedly world-class, leading researchers. What did we think would occur?”

Union vice president Brent Boland highlighted the issues housing and dining staff are currently facing, including the threat of furloughs. Boland also drew attention to the racial divides between hourly and salaried campus workers, urging solidarity.

“These workers risked their lives and were needlessly exposed to the virus,” he said. “Hourly workers, many of whom are Black, do not have the same health care or health outcomes as salaried workers. Furloughing these workers will only widen that gap.”

Protesters also criticized the administration’s plans to reduce the number of students on campus. On Wednesday, Chancellor Randy Woodson announced that campus housing would close by September 6 after more than 21 clusters emerged since classes began. The school had hoped to keep students on campus after moving classes online beginning Aug. 24, but Woodson wrote in an email to students that “the rapid spread and increasing rate of positive cases have made our current situation untenable.”

“It’s a half-assed clearing out of campus,” Ullman said. “Some graduate classes will still be in person, some with more than ten people. University buildings are still open, research labs are still running. The campus is not closed.”

Ullman and other protesters called for administrators to resign over what they see as a massive failure, which now endangers the lives of individuals across the state and around the country as undergraduates return home. Instead of rushing to open this fall, Ullman says administrators could have used the time to prepare a safer plan for a return to campus in 2021.

“They have no plan for the spring semester. They don’t even have a start date,” she said. “They could have used the whole summer and this semester to prepare for a safe entry in the spring, but they still don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Several protesters criticized the university’s leadership for blaming students for the spread of the virus on campus. “Even if [students] stay in, dorms have communal bathrooms,” Ullman said. “There was really no way to make this safe.”

“Students’ profligate behavior was blamed by the chancellors and the UNC system for this whole debacle,” Cubbage said. “It’s a diversion, a ruse, pure and simple.”

As speakers took turns demanding accountability from administrators, campus life continued largely uninterrupted. Students, mostly masked, sat at patio tables and jogged on sidewalks, occasionally stopping to snap a photo of the mourners. Parking spaces were already reserved for move out, and a few students could be seen carrying furniture and suitcases out of dorm buildings.

Five additional clusters were linked to campus Thursday, with two new clusters in residence halls and three additional clusters in Greek-affiliated housing. NC State now has 29 confirmed clusters and at least 704 confirmed student cases, with an additional 1,500 students in quarantine or isolation off campus.