At UNC, the Damage Is Done

This week, Erika K. Wilson will officially become a full professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — one of the few Black women to hold that title. But Wilson, who teaches law and public policy, has found it hard to celebrate.

She’s spent the last few weeks fuming that the university has failed to award tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who was supposed to join UNC’s faculty on Thursday. Wilson can’t go anywhere — not even for a run in her neighborhood — without being asked about Hannah-Jones.

One recent afternoon, as she cooked lasagna for her family, she spent half an hour on the phone with a reporter talking about the potential exodus of faculty and staff members of color from Chapel Hill.

In the midst of Wilson’s most significant academic achievement, nobody is asking about her scholarship. She just published an article on school systems segregated by districting in the prestigious Harvard Law Review. “It diminishes the accomplishments and worth of individual faculty members if, instead of talking about their work, they’re having to explain and engage in dialogue about what’s going on with the broader university,” she said.

Wilson isn’t planning to leave UNC yet. She had another job offer a year ago and decided to stay in Chapel Hill. But at a recent meeting of the Carolina Black Caucus, a campus group that advocates for Black faculty and staff members, most of the 30 attendees said they were looking for jobs elsewhere — and caucus leaders say that sentiment is reflected broadly across their membership.

Wilson understands why. For many Black people and other people of color, UNC has become a distracting, exhausting, unsupportive place to be.

The university has been engulfed in a firestorm of outrage for nearly six weeks, ever since NC Policy Watch reported that the Board of Trustees had decided not to consider Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure, despite its approval by several faculty committees and the provost.

The Chapel Hill trustees were reportedly under pressure from conservative members of the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors, appointed by the Republican-led state legislature, who objected to Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” and its telling of U.S. history through the lens of slavery. The lead donor and eponym of UNC’s journalism school also wasn’t pleased about her hire,
saying her reporting style — in which she advocates against racial injustice — didn’t conform with his principles of journalistic objectivity. To work around the trustees, UNC-Chapel Hill leaders tried to offer Hannah-Jones a five-year contract, even though the position she’d been recruited for is traditionally tenured.

Critics like Wilson saw a blatant assault on academic freedom and the tenure process, which is supposed to be faculty-led and insulated from political forces that seek to dictate what scholars can and cannot teach. They saw the clear targeting of a Black woman for speaking out about systemic racism.

Even if Hannah-Jones’s tenure is approved on Wednesday, it’s not clear whether she will join the faculty at all.

“What’s happening here is dangerous,” Wilson said.

The Hannah-Jones saga is hurtling toward an uncertain finale. On Wednesday, the Chapel Hill trustees are poised to take a much-anticipated vote on her tenure. Students, faculty, and staff have mounted a fierce campaign in support of Hannah-Jones, who has said through her lawyer that she will not join the faculty without tenure, and that she’s considering suing UNC.

But no matter what happens, many faculty and staff members of color say the damage has already been done. They can envision the doomsday scenario: People will leave Chapel Hill. Others won’t come at all. And those who remain will be afraid of speaking up.

Hannah-Jones’s case has brought into sharp focus years of frustration for people of color at the University of North Carolina. Some point to a long arc of problems: Lack of support. Seemingly few pathways to promotion or leadership roles. Institutional complacency on racism. A decision-making culture at the top that they say doesn’t focus on the interests of marginalized communities.

Many professors, administrators, and staff members are also tired of living and working in what feels like a sea of constant crises. They’re tired of having to draft yet another statement or give yet another interview condemning university decisions on campus building names, a Confederate statue, or a botched reopening during the pandemic. Still fresh on people’s minds is the $2.5 million that UNC leaders agreed in 2019 to pay a neo-Confederate group to make Silent Sam, the controversial Confederate monument that stood on campus for a century, go away. (A court voided the settlement last year.)

“It’s the most politically and racially charged environment I’ve ever had to work in,” said Patricia (Trish) Harris, director of recruitment for the School of Education and vice chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, who has worked in higher ed for nearly 16 years.

Faculty and staff members of color want to be on a campus where they can do their best work. And some aren’t sure that’s possible at Chapel Hill anymore.

In the past three weeks, several prominent professors and administrators of color have announced their departures. While summertime turnover at universities is normal, some at Chapel Hill say the magnitude of recent losses feels significant. The university is losing Malinda Maynor Lowery, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special adviser to the provost and chancellor for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer. Gloria Thomas, director of the Carolina Women’s Center. Kia Caldwell, a professor of African, African American, and diaspora studies. In a tweet on Friday, Caldwell said “at least” six women of color were headed out the door this summer.

Lamar Richards, the student-body president, has advised Black students, faculty members, and staff members to consider not enrolling or accepting jobs at Chapel Hill.

UNC doesn’t track the number of professors who have left the university by race or ethnicity. Robert A. (Bob) Blouin, the provost, said the institution had put “tremendous financial resources” into recruiting and retaining faculty members of color. “While we believe those efforts have been successful, we know that our work is not done,” Blouin said in a statement provided by a spokeswoman. According to the university, the overall retention of tenured and tenure-track faculty members is faring much better than it was a decade ago, thanks to more funding and quicker action from senior administrators.

But when there are only nine Indigenous tenured or tenure-track professors on campus, losing one feels like a blow. Lowery, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, was just lured away by Emory University.

Lowery came to Chapel Hill from Harvard University in 2009 to teach in the American Indian and Indigenous studies program. “It felt like we were building something that would have a national reputation,” she said. “UNC was becoming known as a place for Native students to go.” But then came signs of trouble. Senior Native American professors left. One, a Native-literature expert, wasn’t replaced. Over time, Indigenous studies seemed to be “gradually, slowly, quietly disinvested in,” Lowery said.

For Lowery, the last straw was the university’s pandemic-era reopening fiasco. The college’s leaders sent students home and moved classes online within a couple of weeks last fall, after Covid-19 spread rapidly and on-campus places to quarantine ran out.

Once Lowery had an outside job offer in hand, she laid out conditions that might keep her in Chapel Hill. She asked that campus’s leaders to commit to more support for Indigenous studies. “There was no response to that,” she said. The university declined to comment to The Chronicle, saying Lowery’s case was a confidential personnel matter.

Wilson, the law professor, is frustrated that faculty members of color are largely bearing the professional and personal costs of leaving and starting over at another institution. “It can’t just be faculty of color falling on the sword and leaving to protect their own mental health, or leaving to send a message, or not coming,” she said. “I’m waiting for white faculty to say, ‘This isn’t the place for me.’”

Particularly for Black faculty and staff of color who remain in Chapel Hill, the toll of recent events has been exhausting. “We’re still expected to do our jobs, show up, smile, and thrive in this environment,” Harris said.

Sharon P. Holland, chair of the American-studies department, has struggled to hold it together. As she’s been meeting with students and professors, some have broken down in tears.

Last summer, Holland helped write a “Roadmap for Racial Equity,” which she and others presented at a faculty meeting and eventually sent to the chancellor and the provost. The document outlined detailed recommendations for change, including 30 new tenure-track faculty positions focusing on racial equity and social justice, and term limits for department chairs, which would open the door for more scholars of color to hold such roles. Holland doesn’t think university leaders have done much with it.

What’s happening here is dangerous.

In a statement, a UNC spokeswoman said the university is about to welcome a new vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer who will lead that work. (Anderson-Thompkins, the interim chief diversity officer who is leaving, had sought the permanent role but was not selected.) The spokeswoman also pointed to several faculty-diversity efforts, including a longstanding postdoc program and an initiative to recruit junior faculty members of color. The last effort was paused during the pandemic, but UNC plans to restart it “as soon as financially feasible.”

Holland worked on the racial-equity roadmap with Lowery and Caldwell, two of her closest friends and allies. Now they are both leaving Chapel Hill.

Seeing senior faculty members depart is especially troubling to Ariana E. Vigil, chair of the department of women’s and gender studies. Caldwell sat on the advisory board of Vigil’s department. Seasoned professors like her should be in line for leadership roles. “It was clear that there was no space for them to grow their career,” said Vigil, who is Latina.

Vigil stressed that she doesn’t want to draw battle lines of the faculty versus the administration. “We want to be part of these processes, and we want to be building things together,” she said. But given the circumstances, it’s hard to find the energy to contribute to the university’s diversity efforts, she said. It’s hard to feel like any of it is making a difference.

Vigil said she has identified two-dozen departures of Black, Latina/o, Asian, and Indigenous professors and administrators since 2018 within the College of Arts and Sciences. That’s out of roughly 500 employees of color, since the college has about 1,600 employees, and the university’s work force is 68 percent white over all.

Still, several professors don’t want departures to be the focus of the story. “I don’t think that faculty of color should be held responsible for the downfall of UNC-Chapel Hill’s scholarly reputation,” Lowery said. The focus, those professors said, should be the attacks on tenure and academic freedom.

Classes and research that focus on racism have become clear targets of conservatives. Some Republican lawmakers are trying to ban the teaching of certain race-related topics in public schools and universities. Many professors of color teach about and study race, as Hannah-Jones does.

Some are wondering when political interference might come for them.

This month, the UNC system’s Board of Governors decided not to reappoint Eric L. Muller, a professor of law, to a third term on the board of the University of North Carolina Press. Muller, who is white, had previously been appointed to two five-year terms without issue. But he had criticized the university’s decision to pay $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans over Silent Sam, and several Board of Governors members didn’t like that, according to NC Policy Watch.

In an interview, Muller said he was speaking out based on his expertise; he studies the legal mistreatment of racial minorities and has written about the history of slavery in North Carolina. As he sees it, his critical comments were exactly the kind of thing that tenure and academic freedom should protect.

It wasn’t Muller’s first experience with what he felt was a politically motivated Board of Governors action. When he was director of UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence, the board conducted a review of the 237 centers and institutes across the university system, saying they were looking for cost savings. Many, including a former Board of Governors chair, saw the review as an inappropriate intrusion into campus-based matters. One of the most-scrutinized centers was led by Gene Nichol, a Chapel Hill law professor and civil-rights scholar who’d been critical of Republican state lawmakers.

Nine Chapel Hill centers, including Nichol’s and Muller’s, were advanced to a round of further scrutiny and had to give presentations in front of the Board of Governors. Muller and his staff spent hours preparing. It was “a huge waste of resources,” he said. Muller’s center was spared, but Nichol’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity was shuttered.

Many people at UNC, Muller said, “are tired of being in a place that is so riven by discord.”

uch of that discord is coming from decisions that aren’t entirely up to university leaders.

Vigil, the women’s and gender studies chair, is trying to retain some optimism. She wants UNC to break out of this cycle. She sees opportunities for the university to become more anti-racist. “I don’t want anyone to think this is a fait accompli,” she said.

When it comes to supporting people of color, there are steps that UNC officials can take, faculty and staff members said. The university can make sure people of color are represented in leadership, and invest in their centers and programs. They can become more transparent.

Holland, the chair of American studies, had an offer to leave last year. She decided to stay largely because the university’s community of Bipoc scholars — Black, Indigenous, and other people of color — is unique in higher ed, she said. They are tight-knit and collaborate on research and events.

But campus crises are eroding that community. Now Holland isn’t so sure what the path forward will be. “I’ve always thought there was a way out, a way through this difficult terrain,” she said, “and I just can’t find that right now at UNC.”

Even if Hannah-Jones’s tenure is approved on Wednesday, it’s not clear whether she will join the faculty at all. And over the next year, some of the feared departures might come to fruition.

Sherick Hughes, a professor of education, said he’s heard from colleagues — some of whom he’s worked with for years — who are planning to leave. “So many emotions come when you get that phone call,” Hughes said.

Hughes earned his master’s and Ph.D. at UNC, and was hired as a professor in 2012. He had always planned to come back to Chapel Hill and work his way through to leadership. This month, though, his wife said to him: “Maybe you should think about looking somewhere else.”

“I’m still processing that,” Hughes said.

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