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Friday December 2nd

Mixed signals lead to late planning for UNC's Black History Month lecture

UNC sophomores Jasmine Marshall and Faith Jeffers help the Black Student Movement kickoff Black History Month in the Carolina Union on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.
Buy Photos UNC sophomores Jasmine Marshall and Faith Jeffers help the Black Student Movement kickoff Black History Month in the Carolina Union on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.

Every February for the past 15 years, UNC's African American History Month Lecture has showcased a Black scholar to discuss their research. As of a couple weeks ago, however, none of the University bodies traditionally involved in planning the event could speak to concrete plans for its 2020 iteration.

A University spokesperson told The Daily Tar Heel last month that the history department was planning the next lecture. But history department sources have indicated differently, saying they thought UNC’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion had begun running it themselves.

Now, a UNC spokesperson says a faculty advisory committee is leading the efforts.

William Sturkey, assistant professor of history, said the lecture's planning normally commences at the beginning of the fall semester. Sturkey has served for several years on the lecture's planning committee, which includes 8 to 10 people from various departments, campus units and student organizations, including the Sonja Haynes Stone Center.

“Certainly, those who were active in this department for years in organizing and hosting the event are no longer involved at all,” said Fitzhugh Brundage, former chairperson of the history department who still teaches at the University. “So it seems, to me, to have been sequestered away from the department and departments, or presumably they have different ideas about what they want to do with it when they choose to hold it.” 

In an email last month, a UNC spokesperson said "the lecture is the University’s marquee event, and the History Department is planning it this year. The Office for Diversity & Inclusion planned it last year.”

At the same time, Sturkey and Brundage said they had not formed a committee within the History Department, nor had they been consulted by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion about the event.

Following The Daily Tar Heel’s inquiries last month, a UNC spokesperson said in a follow-up email last Friday that a “faculty advisory committee is selecting the speaker and planning the logistics of the lecture. The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion will support and promote the event.”

Sturkey and Brundage said the mixed signals could be due to UNC’s administrative turnover. 

Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center, said in an email to the DTH last month that "administrative upheaval," along with Carol Folt’s departure as UNC’s Chancellor last year, have led to situations that happen often in bureaucracies like UNC.

“That is, when one or two persons change or leave positions, anything that hasn’t been written down and transmitted to a responsible person, or institutionalized through some office, falls through the cracks,” Jordan said in an email. “The crack here is on the scale of the grand canyon.”

When he sent the email in December, Jordan said he didn't know for sure that a Black History Month lecture would not be happening. He said there was still time to plan an event, but that he was not sure how.

In an email response to follow-up questions last week, Jordan told the DTH he doesn't believe there is confusion over the event and that he has been focused on assisting its organizers.

Sturkey, though, believes the Black History Month lecture was simply "forgotten" this year. He said last week that he believes the DTH's inquiries sparked the University to begin last-minute planning of the event.

"It’s way too late to get whoever we want. These are lined up months in advance. As an example, I’m booked for a similar talk elsewhere in January of 2021," Sturkey told the DTH in an email.

Sturkey said he is disappointed that the lecture series, previously run by the history department and later given over to the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, has gone by the wayside. He referenced the UNC System’s recent $2.5 million Silent Sam settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“It’s obviously more striking in light of the fact that, you know, we’re committing all these resources to a neo-Confederate group, and we can’t even fund our own history programs on campus,” he said.

A UNC spokesperson said the funds for the black history month series are entirely separate from those used in the SCV settlement.

“Funding for campus events will not be affected by the settlement payment as it was paid through non-state endowment funds used for legal settlements,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion added funds for the lecture to its budget in time for the 2019 lecture after years of advocacy by the history department and an extensive proposal obtained by the DTH, which was written by history professor Genna Rae McNeil and others in late 2016.

A UNC spokesperson said the Chancellor’s Office has committed a budget of up to $25,000 for a Black History Month lecture this year, the same amount it budgeted in 2019.

Previously, the history department had struggled to find funding for the annual event, Brundage said. To host a speaker, the history department traditionally needs $8,000 to $10,000, he said, but the department’s budget has usually only allowed it to contribute less than half of that.

Brundage said the department had to scrounge together money each year, which is why they encouraged UNC to adopt the lecture into their budget.

“There was a lot of work involved in pulling together the resources to host it every year, and it put a fair amount of strain, if you will, on all the participants to do this, as well as all the other things they were doing,” Brundage said.

Last year, award-winning historian and New York Times best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi spoke about racist ideas in America.

The day after Kendi’s lecture, Rumay Alexander, UNC’s diversity and multicultural affairs officer at the time, sent an email to various UNC personnel, including Jordan and Sturkey, thanking them for assisting with the lecture and looking forward to the next year.

“We will be reassembling soon to debrief and began giving thought to next year’s lecture. In the meantime, feel free to share with me any concerns or observations you had about the evening,” Alexander said in the email.

Alexander would later leave her role to take on a position in the School of Nursing.

After both Alexander's and Folt’s separate departures last May, McNeil sent an email to colleagues and officials in the College of Arts and Sciences urging them not to forget about the lecture once the organizers left.

“I hope that you and whomever is in charge of the Humanities will, with the support of your Interim/Acting Dean, Terry Rhodes, stress to the leadership of the University’s Diversity Office that the lecture is not one that should now ‘slip through the cracks,’” McNeil said in her email. “I don’t believe there is anyone in the office now who has a history with the event or sat in with us for any of the meetings regarding the proposal for permanent funding.”


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