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Student leaders: Systemic racism remains a pervasive problem across the UNC system

[1]Report, statistics document a significant diversity problem, but questions persist as to whether there is a genuine commitment to address it

A report on racial equity in the UNC System exposes the depth of the diversity problem in leadership at most of the state’s universities. For many Black students, faculty and staff the problem is not news. But it is, they say, at the heart of many of the system’s problems.

Correcting it may be difficult, they say, but essential.

Last week’s headlines brought the problem into focus. A court settlement revealed [2] UNC-Chapel Hill administration was directly involved in the secret and controversial deal that gave the Sons of Confederate Veterans not only the Silent Sam Confederate monument, but more than $2.5 million.

The revelation contradicted previous statements by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, who had said the deal didn’t involve school administration. The campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors called for Guskiewicz’s resignation Thursday [3], citing “serial dishonestly.”

Black students were not surprised.

“It’s disappointing to me, but it’s not surprising,” said Greear Webb, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore and founder of the NC Town Hall and Young Americans Protest nonprofit organizations. “I think that decision would have gone down differently if there were more communities represented in decision making, in the administration and on the board of governors.”

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Greear Webb is a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore and founder of the NC Town Hall and Young Americans Protest.

The four men who directly negotiated the deal – three lawyers and UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Clayton Somers – were all white. The five-member board task force appointed to find options for the Silent Sam monument had just one Black member – Darrell Allison, who resigned from the board last September.

“There is a lack of trust between students and the UNC System,” Webb said. “And I believe that among students of color, that is directly related to the lack of representation.”

The 24-member UNC Board of Governors now has just two Black voting members.

A predominantly white perspective in the upper echelons of the UNC System leads to many racially tone-deaf decisions on key issues, from university policing to the handling of the Silent Sam settlement, many students and faculty say.

It’s a problem the Board of Governors’ own Racial Equity Task Force recently addressed. “The Board of Governors should be representative of the diversity of the students in the UNC System,” the task force wrote in its final report and recommendations [5], delivered to the board last month.

The acknowledgement came after the task force’s formal recommendations, in a section titled “Other Things We Have Heard.” But as quickly as it raised the issue, the report made clear there is little that can or will be done about it from within the system itself.

“The members of the Board of Governors are elected by the Senate and House of Representatives of the North Carolina General Assembly,” the task force wrote. “While this process is not in control of the UNC System, faculty, staff, and students repeatedly stated that the current Board of Governors does not reflect the diversity of our state, student body, and institutions.”

Instead, the board looks a lot like the General Assembly’s Republican majority and the GOP lobbyists, former lawmakers and party leaders often elected to board seats.

And the problem doesn’t stop with the board.

Discouraging numbers

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The Racial Equity Task Force report notes that three-fourths of survey respondents believe UNC System leadership (Board of Governors, boards of trustees, and system office leadership) is not diverse. It’s more than a perception.

While the membership of the board of governors may be out of the hands of the UNC System, the board itself wields a lot of power, particularly in choosing trustees and top leaders at each of the 16 individual college campuses.

As the report notes, state law dictates that most of the 16 four year institutions within the UNC System have a 13-member board of trustees that includes eight people appointed by the board of governors, four by the General Assembly, as well as the president of each student body.

State law provides for up to a 30-member board for the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and 15 board members for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

An analysis of the current trustees appointed by the Board of Governors reveals a notable diversity problem.

Further analysis shows that the system’s historically minority-serving institutions are doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of non-white representation on boards of trustees. The system has five Historically Black Colleges and Universities: (HBCUs) — Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina Central University, and Winston-Salem State University. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is a historically American Indian serving institution.

Compared to the makeup of the student population, white appointees are dramatically overrepresented across the system. System-wide enrollment data for 2019 finds that 56 percent of students at both the undergraduate and graduate level are white.

Factoring in gender, representation looks even more grim.

Those numbers are discouraging, said Isaiah Green, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and president of the Association of Student Governments. Green is a non-voting member of the

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Senior Isaiah Green is a non-voting member of the Board of Governors who served on the Racial Equity Task Force.

Board of Governors who served on the Racial Equity Task Force.

“When you look at the student body presidents in the system, a lot of the time they’re a more diverse group than the Board of Governors or any of our boards of trustees,” Green said.

That lack of diversity – of race, gender, political perspective and even geography – has serious consequences, Green said.

“If there was a diversity of thought, a bigger diversity of thought across the spectrum, that would allow for different decisions to be made as a whole,” Green said. “I think race plays a part. I think a lot more can also play a part.”

Leadership from the UNC System office to the UNC Board of Governors is heavy with graduates of the system’s largest schools, Green said – especially UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. The system’s smaller schools, and even its large HBCUs, are vastly underrepresented.

That can change, Green said. But it will take more than task forces and reports.

“I think it will take a commitment from both the General Assembly and the Board of Governors as a whole,” Green said.  “You need to have a commitment to have a diversity of thought in political affiliation, race and gender.” 

Beneath the surface issues

Developing such a commitment may be difficult to accomplish, student leaders said, in a political environment in which Republicans at the state, national and local level are rejecting the idea that systemic racism exists, that race equity work is valuable and that representation is an essential part of correcting systems that favor white people.

Lamar Richards, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore and member of the Campus and Community Advisory

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UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Lamar Richards is a member of the Campus and Community Advisory Committee

Committee, said the report gives an interesting by-the-numbers look at how bad the diversity problem is in the UNC System. But that was never a question for Black students within the system. The question, Richards said, is whether UNC’s leaders will acknowledge the root causes of inequality in the system and take the necessary steps to improve things.

As an example, Richards offers the fact – highlighted in the task force report – that minority students don’t seek essential counseling services for mental health at the level of white students. Understanding the root cause of that is essential to fixing it, he said.

“That’s been the status quo, especially at Carolina, for years,” Richards said. “So much so that there’s plenty of research showing that marginalized people and people of color are less likely to seek these kinds of services. This issue, I believe, is worse with Black people. But we don’t have counselors who look like us and understand the issues we are facing. We’re just now hiring or talking about hiring underrepresented service providers.”

The report nods to that reality in a quote from an unnamed participant in the campus engagement process.

“Part of the deficiency in counseling services is that many counselors have no frame of reference for some of the trauma and issues that minorities faced in the past and continue to face in the present,” the report quotes the person as saying. “Many minorities are left feeling undervalued and overwhelmed, and don’t know what to do or how to deal with those kinds of ongoing psychological trauma.”

Richards, who is now running for student body president, said he has for years heard from other Black students who don’t see themselves reflected in faculty, staff, or leadership positions at Chapel Hill and throughout the system.

Representation is more than a surface issue, Richards said. A commitment to diversity in hiring – from leadership roles and academic positions to mental health counselors – is also an expression of the values of a campus and a university system, he said.

That commitment is being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial hit for which the system is preparing.

Last month, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin told the school’s faculty executive committee that the school has halted its minority hiring program VITAE (Valuing Inclusion to Attain Excellence) due to budget concerns. [9]

The program, part of the university’s commitment to building a diverse faculty, seeks to “attract accomplished and talented new faculty members from underrepresented and other groups for tenure track or tenured appointments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” according to a university description of its work.

Hires “may include individuals who grew up in economically disadvantaged circumstances, individuals with substantial professional experience working with minority and economically disadvantaged populations; individuals doing significant research on issues that disproportionately affect minority and disadvantaged populations; and individuals whose teaching or research specialty is in a field that is currently underrepresented in the University faculty.”

The program provides “up to full-salary for a period of up to 4 years at the discretion of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost,” but only $100,000 per year is available through the program. The university expects the unit into which the employee is hired to assume the full cost after an initial four year period.

The names of those hired through the program are kept confidential “so as to create a climate of equity among the faculty.”

Blouin said the decision to pause the program isn’t ideological or a reflection of the university’s commitment to diversity. It’s the result of the university’s planning for the economic impact of COVID-19, he said.

“I need to be sure we have the resources to support those hires,” Blouin said.

“This is a temporary issue,” Blouin said. “I want to be very clear — this is not an attempt on the part of South Building walking away from our VITAE hiring program.”

“It’s been a critical program for us as a university, to contribute toward the diversification of this university,” Blouin said. “It’s just for a few months. We have to take a break and not make any additional financial commitments out of the provost’s office until we have a much clearer view of where we stand. Then it is my hope that we will start that up sooner than later.”

As the system’s flagship campus continues to struggle to diversify its faculty and staff, it is also fighting a lawsuit from a conservative group challenging its limited consideration of race in admissions to promote diversity. [10] That suit, originally filed in 2014, could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

All of these battles come back to a root problem, Richards said.

The reality of systemic racism as a pervasive problem is a roadblock and a danger to Black people across the UNC system, he said, and must be addressed as a systemic problem.

Within the Republican party, from the national to the state level, leaders have rejected acknowledging systemic racism in history and in current debates about race in society.

In August, then-President Donald Trump threatened to cut federal funding to schools that teach the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project. [11] He also had the federal Office of Management and Budget prohibit departments from using federal funds for executive branch staff training that includes critical race theory [12] and the concept of white privilege [13] as a component of systemic racism in the history of the United States and in contemporary life. That ban was later expanded to include federal contractors.

“Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors,” an executive order on the matter read. “Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country, and if you don’t there’s nothing in it for you!” Trump tweeted on the decision [14].

State leaders have followed Trump’s lead in rejecting discussions of systemic racism.

Earlier this month Republican officials in North Carolina decried new social studies standards [15] that would more explicitly address it in history, including North Carolina’s history of slavery and voter suppression.

“I truly believe that you do not need to include this type of language in the standards in order to be able to teach history,” said Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the first Black person to hold that position. “I think we need to be teaching students about their common experiences as Americans, and in order to do that, I don’t think we need to separate into groups.”

With Republican leaders appointing the members of the UNC Board of Governors and that board and the General Assembly sharing appointment of trustees, Richards said the system’s actual commitment to addressing its diversity problems is an open question.

“Right now the issue is trust,” Richards said. “Trust is the issue with students of color, marginalized students on campus. There is none.”

“Until we see any plan that comes out of [UNC System President] Peter Hans’ mouth and office and what he’s actually going after as a result of this task force, that task force should be considered purely performative,” Richards said.