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‘Walking on eggshells’: Two years later, UNC publishes data from diversity survey

A coalition of students protest and interrupt Carol Folt at a meeting at town hall on Nov. 19, 2015. They read a list of demands that call for change at universities worldwide.

A coalition of students protest and interrupt Carol Folt at a meeting at town hall on Nov. 19, 2015. They read a list of demands that call for change at universities worldwide.

This month, after years of pressure from the student body, the University published data from a 2016 survey that measured the racial climate on UNC's campus.

Amid an emphasis on campus diversity in recent years, the newly-released data tables from 2016 provide information on the extent to which the 11,658 undergraduate student, graduate student and staff respondents — of different races, ethnicities, genders and other classifications — felt isolated on campus, were satisfied with campus diversity and more. 

The survey data were released this month, less than 15 days before Chancellor Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees' deadline to present a plan to the UNC Board of Governors for Silent Sam. The data comes at a time when conversations on race are at the forefront of University discussions.

When broken down by race, among undergraduates, 63.1 percent of people identifying as Black or African American, 30.2 percent of people identifying as Latino or Hispanic and 8.5 percent of people identifying as white strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “I feel isolated in class because of the absence or low representation of people like me.”

Folt promised the data would be released in fall 2016 in a campuswide email. But the University released the data last week, after The Daily Tar Heel asked why the survey results hadn’t been released yet.

Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at UNC, said he's perceived that the University has been playing catch-up for the past six years.

“I think this catch-up is partially tied to a risk-averse administration and a political environment in which the chancellor and others must be very concerned that the University will be punished by the state legislature,” Brundage said. “I assume that’s the case. My impression is that they’re always walking on eggshells.”

In a statement given to The Daily Tar Heel along with a link to the data, Felicia Washington, UNC’s vice chancellor for Workforce Strategy, Equity and Engagement, said data limitations, such as a large number of incomplete responses, prevented the University from reaching comprehensive conclusions from the survey. 

Jerry Wilson, a graduate student in UNC’s School of Education, said he has advocated for the release of the survey’s results for the past two years. He said that while he’s happy that they’re public now, the University still didn’t do as much as it could to make campus welcoming to everyone.

“In one sense, it’s gratifying and vindicating,” Wilson said. “But in another sense, it’s infuriating … We got bandages for wounds that really require surgery. And that’s unfortunate.”

Timing of the survey

The spring of 2016, when the survey was administered, was a time when conversations about diversity, race and inclusion were taking place not only in Chapel Hill, but around the country.

In 2015, the Missouri football team said it would boycott its season until the University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe resigned or was fired due to his perceived inaction in response to racism on campus. In the same year, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C.

At UNC, by 2015, the athletic-academic scandal had put the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies in the spotlight. The debate over Silent Sam had intensified. In November 2015, Folt welcomed Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to mediate a town hall on race and inclusion, and students protested.

With knowledge of this, the University set in motion several programs to improve the culture and climate of UNC’s campus, according to a campuswide email from Folt. These programs included opening the newly renovated Upendo Lounge — a dedicated space for Black students to meet in SASB North — and implementing a retention study as part of Thrive@Carolina. At the same time, the Chancellor's Task Force was working on developing an exhibit to tell the story of how Carolina Hall was named and renamed. 

The UNC Inclusion and Diversity Climate Survey was a component of this effort.

It was first introduced in an email sent by former executive vice chancellor and provost James Dean Jr. in April 2016.

In the few weeks that the survey was open, more than 24 percent of undergraduate students, 37 percent of graduate students and 35 percent of staff members participated, according to UNC’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.

Wilson said he took the time to share his personal experiences with the racial climate on campus in the survey. But the University did not release the short answer responses with the data. 

Brundage said that around this time, the University and the UNC system devoted financial and human resources to strategic planning. 

He acknowledged that while the University generates data and metrics all the time, he said that conducting a survey of this size must have been expensive.

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“You would think that a major survey like this, with 11,000 respondents, would have been incorporated into that strategic plan at some time,” Brundage said. “I wasn’t intensively involved in the strategic planning, but I was at the college level, and at the department level, and I never once heard that diversity survey mentioned.”

Senior Gaby Alemán, a member of Mi Pueblo, an organization centered on sponsoring awareness on Latinx issues, said she thinks while the University has made some efforts to promote diversity, specifically for the Latinx community, in many ways it has fallen short.

“For example, two years ago, in the fall of 2016 actually, we had a student protest called ‘Estamos Aquí UNC,’ which means ‘We’re Here UNC’ in front of South Building,” Alemán said. 

At the protest, Folt and Dean addressed the crowd, and Dean said the administration would add two staff members to the Carolina Latinx Collaborative. In 2017, the Carolina Latinx Collaborative was staffed by one full-time director, Josmell Pérez, and three students. 

Wilson said that publishing the data tables now, instead of when the University first said it would, does not properly reflect the campus’ composition today.

“We live in a different world in the fall of 2018 than we did in the fall of 2016 — especially in the beginning of the fall of 2016,” he said. “It’s not just what we’ve seen with Silent Sam, but what we’ve seen nationally in the country since then. It’s entirely possible, were we to re-administer the survey, students of color and other marginalized students would feel even more unwelcome on campus than they did.”