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Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

From: Sarah Brown

Subject: Race on Campus: The Racial Climate at UNC

Welcome to Race on Campus. Last week our Sarah Brown interviewed nine faculty and staff members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — most of them Black, Indigenous, or Latino/a. She wanted to understand how they were experiencing the fallout from Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure case. In this week’s newsletter, she shares some details that didn’t make it into that story.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

On UNC and race, there’s more to the story.

As UNC was reeling from controversy, I’d heard that a lot of Black faculty and staff members were considering leaving Chapel Hill. I wanted to know whether that feared exodus was a real possibility.

Those fears arose after political opposition reportedly prevented Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist at The New York Times, from receiving tenure for months — even though the professors who’d previously held her position had all been tenured when hired.

Last week Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees voted 9 to 4 to grant Hannah-Jones tenure after initially refusing to consider her application, even though faculty committees and university leaders had already endorsed it.

But Hannah-Jones will not be joining the Chapel Hill faculty after all. On Tuesday, she said on CBS This Morning that she had accepted an offer from Howard University to become the historically Black institution’s first Knight chair in race and journalism, with tenure. Howard announced that Hannah-Jones, along with the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, would join the university’s faculty thanks to nearly $20 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

At UNC, people told me that no matter what happened with Hannah-Jones, the damage had been done, particularly for Black faculty and staff members.

In an article last week I explored the long arc of frustration for people of color at the university. But there’s more to the story. Here are three other things to know about the racial climate at Chapel Hill:

1. The interim chief diversity officer gave this reason for her exit: ‘I did not feel comfortable continuing to recruit for UNC.’

Right before the vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure, I spoke with Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, who has served as Chapel Hill’s interim chief diversity officer for the past year and a half. Anderson-Thompkins previously served as special assistant to the vice chancellor for research and director of postdoctoral affairs, and led the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. She is among several prominent administrators and professors of color who are leaving Chapel Hill; in August, she’ll move to Tennessee and become the first chief diversity officer at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Anderson-Thompkins said she had talked in recent weeks with many young scholars who were in UNC’s postdoc program or were considering coming to Chapel Hill — people whom the university hopes to recruit for permanent faculty positions. They all wanted to know what the treatment of Hannah-Jones could mean for their own academic prospects and chances of earning tenure.

“I could no longer speak with confidence in terms of where we’re headed, where we’re going, and how state politics could impact a potential scholar’s career,” Anderson-Thompkins said. Since she couldn’t give the young scholars much reassurance, she said, “I did not feel comfortable continuing to recruit for UNC.”

She called attention to “inconsistencies” in how university leaders make decisions and how they communicate those decisions to the public. In a previous scandal, UNC-system leaders initially announced that the system would pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a Confederate group over the removal of the Silent Sam monument from the Chapel Hill campus. Court documents later showed that university officials had secretly collaborated with the Confederate group on the deal.

In the current controversy, Chapel Hill leaders said nothing about Hannah-Jones’s initial tenure denial until news reporting revealed it. That has hurt people’s trust in the university.

“I really spent a lot of time building relationships and working across silos on campus,” Anderson-Thompkins said. “All of that good work then gets undone because of the inconsistencies.”

2. Black faculty and staff members don’t see themselves in UNC’s senior leadership. And many don’t see a pathway to get there, either.

As William Sturkey sees it, part of what produces bad decisions is the lack of Black representation at the highest levels of the university. But Sturkey, an associate professor of history, doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

Sturkey is an expert on race and Southern history, and has been vocal about how the university dealt with Silent Sam, among other issues. Because of that, he believes there’s a ceiling on how far he can advance at Chapel Hill. “I have seen so many faculty of color who are outspoken get passed up,” he said.

Tenure and promotion are two of the most significant structural barriers to diversity in higher education, Anderson-Thompkins said. Even Black faculty members with tenure have sometimes had very different experiences in the tenure process than have their white colleagues, she said. She’s also heard some professors of color say that they were never told about certain opportunities for promotion.

“There wasn’t a search, there wasn’t a posting, they didn’t know about potential academic-leadership positions,” she said. “That’s a problem.”

Sewanee appealed to Anderson-Thompkins because she felt inspired by the leadership there. The private university last year tapped its first Black leader, Reuben E. Brigety II, has been openly reckoning with its historical ties to slavery and racism, and is trying to increase enrollment of students of color.

She decided to go on the job market, she said, “because I did ultimately want to be in a place where I felt there was a strong commitment to advancing this work, a willingness to invest in this work, and to be able to work with leadership that is fully committed to this work.” She believes Sewanee checks all of those boxes.

“I think it’s offering me,” she said, “what I don’t feel I’ve gotten at UNC.”

3. Despite the recent cloud over UNC, it has been considered a national model for faculty diversity.

Chapel Hill has one of the most successful diversity-focused postdoc programs in the country, Anderson-Thompkins said.

Since its founding, in the 1980s, the program has produced more than 100 faculty members for institutions nationwide and converted 70 junior scholars from diverse backgrounds into tenure-track hires at UNC. Nearly half of those faculty members have joined Chapel Hill in just the past seven years, Anderson-Thompkins said. Other colleges have modeled their postdoc programs after Chapel Hill’s, which emphasizes mentoring, support, and ensuring that young scholars have the best possible chance of earning tenure, she said.

For years, UNC was known for its Indigenous-studies program, although faculty members told me it had faced disinvestment in recent years. The university also founded the first Latina/o-studies program in the Southeast, said Ariana E. Vigil, chair of the department of women’s and gender studies.

UNC’s community of scholars of color is unique in higher ed, said Sharon P. Holland, chair of the American-studies department. That’s why she stayed even after receiving an outside job offer two years ago.

And that’s why people of color are so disappointed about what’s been happening at Chapel Hill.

Now what?

In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Chapel Hill’s chancellor, said he’s “deeply concerned that some members of the Carolina Black community do not feel they can thrive in this environment.” Robert A. (Bob) Blouin, the provost, said the university had made substantial investments in recruiting and retaining professors of color, but added that “our work is not done.”

In a message to the campus community last month, Guskiewicz and Blouin praised Anderson-Thompkins’s work, saying they were “grateful for Sibby’s strategic vision and leadership.”

Anderson-Thompkins said she’s proud of what she did as interim chief diversity officer in a short time. “You do see the progress across campus and within individual schools and divisions, speaking out very forcibly around these issues,” she said, pointing to the chorus of statements across the university that unanimously expressed support for Hannah-Jones. But Chapel Hill must make sure that decisions all the way up the chain reflect that same commitment to equity, she said.

Anderson-Thompkins said she hoped to see the university rely more on its faculty members, “who are doing outstanding research” on diversity and equity, to inform decision making.

“That’s why you see this exodus of our Bipoc faculty,” she said, referring to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. “There’s a sense that things are not just — that actions are not just. There’s not a genuine respect or value for the individuals who have contributed so much to trying to make UNC a more equitable place.”

After Hannah-Jones announced she had declined Chapel Hill’s job offer, the faculty of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media said that the school would conduct “a full and transparent accounting of what transpired” with Hannah-Jones. The university’s treatment of her, the statement said, “was racist.”

Hannah-Jones said in a statement released by her lawyers that UNC’s Board of Trustees had done “the absolute minimum” by approving her tenure. “In a split vote, it did what it was supposed to have done 7 months ago and, in doing so, many believe the university has resolved the issue. It has not.”

Read up.

  • Last week a Latina medical-school student tweeted that an evaluator had called her hoop earrings unprofessional. Soon thousands of doctors were posting pictures of themselves wearing hoops, a style long associated with Black and Latina culture. (The Lily)
  • Data show that boys and young men — particularly those of color — are more likely to struggle academically. That phenomenon, playing out at both the high-school and college levels, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. (USA Today/Chalkbeat, The Chronicle)
  • Two of the most integrated cities in the United States are Colorado Springs and Port St. Lucie, Fla., according to a new report. What do they have in common? A large military presence. (The Atlantic)

—Fernanda

Update: This newsletter has been updated to provide more information about UNC’s diversity-focused postdoc program.

Sarah Brown covers campus culture, including Title IX, race and diversity, and student mental health. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.