After spending nearly a full year at UNC, she has come to realize that, as a Muslim student, academics were not the most strenuous part about the University — it was finding a place on campus where she felt safe.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I thought it was going to be harder.’ My only false expectation was that I thought this school was going to be a lot more accepting of and more tolerant of minorities,” said the freshman, who is member of UNC’s Muslim Students Association.
Faisal, who said she was close with the three Muslim victims in the off-campus shooting in February, remembers feeling appalled by the hate speech on Yik Yak just hours after the shooting.
“We live in a world where Islamophobia is the modern day McCarthyism. It’s kind of popular to point out people and be like, ‘You’re a terrorist, you’re a terrorist, you’re a terrorist,” she said.
“I’m walking through the Pit and I hear people talking to each other like ‘Oh my God, is that a Muslim? Are we safe? Can they be here?’”
Faisal was pessimistic about whether UNC’s administration would do more to make the University more inclusive — about both the political climate and the chancellor’s willingness to offer support for marginalized students.
“It’s not like (Chancellor Carol Folt) can make a stance without offending people,” she said. “But I feel the administration is more cautious about who they offend and who they don’t offend.”
‘The largest voice in the room’
In an interview last week, Folt said she considers her leadership style to be “consensus-building.”
“I like to work with people, and I think there is always a problem when you start off with the largest voice in the room stating their opinion,” Folt said.
“You create what is a polarizing conversation — it’s either, ‘you’re with me or against me,’ and I’m never going to lead with a ‘with me or against me’ posture.”
This academic year, dozens of students have protested for the University to rename Saunders Hall, which was named for a confederate colonel who led the Ku Klux Klan.
In this academic year’s student body president elections, minority student leaders were vocal about their dislike of the candidates. More than 400 students wrote in writer Zora Neale Hurston, whose name activists want to use as the replacement on Saunders Hall.
Alston Gardner, a member of the Board of Trustees, was tasked with researching Saunders Hall.
“(Folt) has not been actively engaged with it,” he said.
He said the rise in attention to race on campus has been notable.
“If someone had asked me objectively if this was even in the top 25 of the issues we were facing a year ago, I would have said no.”
Folt refused to give an opinion on the ongoing discussion about renaming Saunders Hall.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I were always stating my opinion.”
Faisal said with Folt’s position — and the clout that comes with it — Folt should use her voice to lead the University to a more accepting place.
“I feel like there should be a bigger push (from the administration) to make all students feel inclusive,” she said.
Marybeth Gasman, a higher education specialist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, questioned why someone would be a leader if he or she did not want to use their voice to implement change.
“Why be a leader if you don’t have values and integrity,” Gasman said in an email. “He or she needs to be the voice of the institution and must stand for justice. He or she must take care of the victims and the perpetrators in racial incidents. He or she is the leader of all students. Higher education should be a force of justice in the nation rather than reactionary.”
But Folt doesn’t believe her opinions on matters like the renaming of Saunders Hall need to be known by the student body.
“I think students want to know my opinion about every single thing, and I don’t think that’s always going to be what I am going to do, despite the fact students may want to know it,” she said.
Former Student Body Vice President Kyle Villemainalso refutes the notion that the chancellor needs to be more public.
“My personal opinion is that she’s striking a tough balance, but the answer is not for her to throw a public opinion out more,” Villemain said.
Villemain — who helped put together Carolina Conversations, an initiative to create dialogue about issues on campus — said especially when it comes to issues of race, the chancellor knows her opinion is not always the one that students and community members need to know.
“I don’t think her opinion is the most important, and I think she understands that ... She doesn’t have personal feel of what it means to walk by Saunders Hall (as a student of color).”
A conversation too late
While Villemain does not think Folt needs to proclaim her opinion about sensitive topics, he was critical of how slowly UNC moved to create space for safe conversations.
“I think it should have happened in the fall, and if it wasn’t going to happen in the fall, then I think it should have happened in January.”
Attendance at Carolina Conversations’ events dwindled as the semester progressed.
Faisal said she felt there was a lack of student awareness and administrative backing of the events.
“Honestly, I hadn’t heard about Carolina Conversations. I don’t think it was advertised that well,” she said.
“Like Holi Moli, you heard about it everywhere, like the administration loved to advertise that.”
Jeremy Mckellar, who will serve as the Black Student Movement’s president in the 2015-16 school year, said he believes the administration has done its part by creating the space for Carolina Conversations.
He said the main issue is the people who need to be at the conversations are not there.
“It has to be seen as something valuable,” Mckellar said of the conversations.
He said it is up to student groups, not the chancellor, to bring these students to the discussions.
“We aren’t trying to put out a fire, we are just kind of sitting back and watching it,” he said.
Gasman, the expert in higher education, disagrees, saying the administration’s lack of a position does not inspire students to participate in these conversations.
“You can state an opinion that puts forward a sense of justice while also being open to listening to others. You have to stand for something or you stand for nothing,” she said.
‘The top issue at UNC’
Villemain said even when looking at the plethora of other problems UNC is facing, he viewed race and diversity as issues that need to be prioritized.
“I think it is one of — if not the — top issue at UNC,” the outgoing student body vice president said.
Gardner believes Folt’s administration has taken student voices into consideration more than any of her predecessors, a sentiment echoed by McKellar.
While Mckellar believes the onus now falls on student groups to continue these discussions on campus, Safiyyah Nawaz, a member of MSA, said the administration could play a hand in educating its students about simple differences.
She used the “Tie-a-Turban” event held on Thursday in the Pit as an example.
“A lot of people that aren’t informed of certain things ... don’t know that is about Sikhism, and that it is different than Islam,” she said.
“They’re not even aware of the fact that they’re not correct. They’re not aware that they are ignorant about something, and I think there needs to be some way to change how people just don’t know in the first place.”
Gasman believes colleges like UNC are not treating racial issues as seriously as others because, like Villemain mentioned, Folt and the administration do not have a personal connection to it.
“(Chancellors and college presidents) are not in touch with what is happening on the ground. Many of them are white and often see the world from their perspective only,” she said. “If you are a white president or any president, you have to surround yourself with people — many people — of color that will tell you the truth.”