Members of the newly formed Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward gathered in Wilson Library on Friday afternoon for the group’s inaugural meeting.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz officially launched the commission — which has been 10 months in the making — in early January.
According to the chancellor, the commission will focus on studying the University’s archives and furthering the curation of research, developing curricula on UNC’s history to incorporate into students’ general education requirements and engaging in discussions with underrepresented groups and the University community to reckon with UNC’s past.
“We know that some of the injustice, exclusion, racism that’s been part of our history is out there, we know it, but there’s a lot more that we have not yet understood,” Guskiewicz said. “And I think that that will be really important for this commission, it’s part of the goal.”
The commission is meant to build on former Chancellor Carol Folt’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History, which aimed to encourage individuals to examine how the University and country have been shaped by “race, class and privilege.”
During Friday’s meeting, co-chairpersons and UNC professors Jim Leloudis and Patricia Parker outlined a series of principles to guide the commission, including openness, transparency, collaboration and accountability.
After some discussion and feedback from Assistant Dean of Students and Commissioner Dawna Jones, courage was also added as a principle for the commission “to speak boldly” and not be beholden to political considerations.
Members Danita Mason-Hogans and Joseph Jordan also identified a concern during the meeting regarding a lack of adequate student representation, particularly as a potential issue of credibility for the commission.
“It would be difficult to argue that we’re working on (students’) behalf when the cases over these last, what, 15 years, they’ve been the ones that triggered most of the things that are happening,” said Jordan, who directs the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.
Ultimately, the commission decided to share recommendations of both undergraduate and graduate students via email with the intention that by their next meeting, the group will be joined by two to three new student members.
Other commissioners also questioned how structural change would be brought about at the University in the face of inevitable roadblocks with administrative procedures.
“Part of what we’re embarking on is a process of change,” Parker said. “...If we ask the hard questions and have that in a forum in which we can get some response, if the response is no, then that provides a context for our work to then push back and ask more questions.”
One of the specific policies Parker emphasized building toward is an entry-level course required for all students to learn about UNC’s history with race relations and slavery.
Parker said the University has allocated funds for the commission to recruit graduate students to conduct research for their archival work. Additionally, she said next steps for the commission will include developing a sub-committee structure and determining what metrics will be used to measure their success.
“This cannot be about checking boxes and assuming that that’s efficient,” Leloudis said.
Mason-Hogans, who serves as a project coordinator for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, reiterated the importance of ensuring that the student perspective is represented among the commission. She said she has formed an “elder-informing, youth-led” advisory committee based on the commission that consists of people "generationally from Chapel Hill."
“I believe in the power of youth leadership, and I believe that had it not been for young people, we would not be here at this commission doing this work right now, and I’m very keenly aware of that,” Mason-Hogans said. “Plus, I believe any good change in this country has happened because of young people.”
As someone with generations of Tar Heels on both sides of her family, Mason-Hogans said she has deep ties to UNC — some of her ancestors were even among the enslaved people who built the University. She said the commission offers an opportunity for UNC to reconcile with its racialized footprint.
“We’ve always had a relationship with the University that has been dependent on our subjugation, so it is time for us to explore that and what impact that meant,” Mason-Hogans said.
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