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Faculty of color consider leaving, cite lack of opportunities and toxic environment

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(From left) Frank Baumgartner, Jennifer Ho and Sharon Holland discuss their collaborative "Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Sexuality and Social Justice" course at the Gray Squirrel coffee shop in Carrboro in 2016. Photo courtesy of Kristen Chavez, UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

Jennifer Ho was the associate director of the UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities — until she left in June 2019.

During the search for a new director of the institute, she wasn’t included in the final round of interviews, despite knowing the program “inside and out,” she said. 

“I do believe on paper, I should have been a finalist. I have the qualifications to be a finalist,” Ho said. “The message I got was, it's fine for me to be the associate director, but I don't look like the leader that they want to be public-facing.”

Ho is now director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“The reason I left was that there was no clear path towards a leadership position for me,” Ho said. “I think that many faculty of color and Indigenous faculty feel the same way.”

Other UNC faculty said they have considered leaving the University for peer institutions due to a lack of leadership opportunities and a toxic environment for faculty who are people of color.

“The work that we do is not valued as much as work that other faculty do,” Ho said.

There is a long list of faculty who are people of color who have left the University in the last few years, Miguel La Serna, associate professor in the Department of History, said. 

“Many of them — not all — but many who I know were persuadable, and could have been persuaded to stay, for whatever reason, didn’t,” La Serna said.

Executive Vice Provost Ron Strauss directs faculty retention programs. Strauss said there is not a huge number of underrepresented faculty leaving the University, but he has not kept records on the demographics of those who do leave.

“I regret that I have not created reports that focus on gender or race among faculty members who have left Carolina, except in selected specific years,” Strauss said in an email to The Daily Tar Heel. “To reconstruct this data now would be difficult and perhaps inaccurate.”

‘The homophobia and racism and sexism were just overwhelming’

Sharon Holland, chairperson of the Department of American Studies and ​Townsend Ludington distinguished professor, said she seriously considered taking an offer for​ the positions of presidential chairperson and chairperson of the gender studies department at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts a little over a year ago.

Universities often raid each other’s faculties and make offers to scholars who may not even be looking to leave their institutions, Strauss said. 

“Carolina might be especially perceived as a place to start looking, in part because of our lagging compensation, in part because of Silent Sam and the history of racial inequity that exists on the campus,” he said. 

Holland said other institutions often assumed faculty would want to leave UNC because the University wouldn’t remove Silent Sam and break the tie to its Confederate past. 

“A lot of us were going to leave at a certain point because one, we couldn't get leadership positions, and two, who would want to stay in this climate?” Holland said. "I think of all the institutions that we’re compared to — UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan — none of them have to go to work with that.”

Holland’s family had to walk past Silent Sam for four generations, she said. 

“I'm Tar Heel bred and born,” Holland said. “Trying to kill our Confederate past is what we needed in order for us to move forward as a campus and step into the 21st century where a lot of other people already reside.”

Ultimately, many factors played into Holland’s decision to stay at UNC, including family, she said. 

“I wanted to turn my retention last spring into something that would be viable for a community of people who do the kind of work I want to do and want that work to be visible,” Holland said. 

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Holland said counteroffers, the salaries universities offer faculty in an attempt to retain them, are often insulting.

Strauss said retaining faculty can be difficult because salaries are not up to national standards.

“Part of it is that Carolina hasn't been able to give compensation increases for a number of years,” he said. “We're just kind of limping along.”

Data presented to the Faculty Council in December 2019 showed professors at UNC earn approximately $19,000 less than faculty at peer institutions

Even generous offers are geared toward funding initiatives that die out after a year, Holland said, and faculty want real, permanent change. 

She said she asked for triple the money she was offered as part of her retention. With this funding, she convened the Critical Ethnic Studies Collective at Carolina, which is a space for intersectional academic work on institutional power and systems of privilege and inequity.

And while Holland said she feels like she’s finally come into her own at UNC, at times “the homophobia and racism and sexism were just overwhelming."

She said she was once referred to as a “black hole” in a meeting.

“I got the inference, let’s put it that way, and so did everyone else. And when I tried to see about doing something about that, I was consistently lied to about that process,” Holland said. “Those microaggressions from that person are still coming because nothing has ever been done about it.”

‘Looking for meaningful action’

Strauss said the University has work to do in recruiting faculty members from underrepresented groups. 

“Are we where we want to be? No, not at all,” he said.

Bob Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost, said in an email to the DTH that UNC is working to attract and retain faculty of color through several initiatives.

“We know that our faculty and the broader campus community are looking for meaningful action from us,” Blouin said. “We must understand the ways in which systemic, structural racism creates barriers at the University, and we will not solve this problem as an institution until we get to the root of that.”

One such initiative, Strauss said, is the Valuing Inclusion To Attain Excellence hiring program, which aims to recruit new faculty members from “underrepresented and other groups” for tenure-track or tenured appointments. 

Formerly known as the Target of Opportunity program, Ho said she witnessed colleagues saying this program produced poor candidates.

“I would have white colleagues who would say we shouldn’t really do Target of Opportunity hiring because it lowers the quality of the candidates that we get,” Ho said.

Ho said she came to UNC as a Target of Opportunity hire. 

“When you have your white colleagues say that and you're a person of color — especially when your other colleagues don't stand up and say that's really racist, or that's really offensive — it feels like, ‘OK, this isn't a welcoming place for me to be,’” she said.

Another program designed to aid underrepresented faculty is the Provost’s Academic Leadership Advancement Program for Underrepresented Faculty, which Blouin announced in July. 

The initiative provides “career development opportunities; interpersonal, organizational and operational competencies; and professional networking for a selected tenured or tenure track underrepresented faculty member who is seeking academic leadership career advancement at Carolina,” Blouin’s announcement said.

Regardless of the many reasons why faculty who are people of color consider leaving the University, La Serna said it leaves an impression. 

“The impression is that there is not really as much an effort being put on retention and recruitment of talented BIPOC faculty,” La Serna said. 

And in the end, Ho said she cares about UNC, which is why she wanted to share her story. 

“I'm going on record about this, not because I am trying to shame the administration or shame Carolina,” Ho said. “I want UNC to succeed, but they're not going to succeed if they keep doing business as usual and if they pretend there's nothing wrong.”


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