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Thursday October 28th

Leah Cox, UNC's new chief diversity officer, plans to improve equity at UNC

Leah Cox is the new Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of Jenni Cook.
Buy Photos Leah Cox is the new Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of Jenni Cook.

Leah Cox wants to create a more equitable Carolina. 

The University's new vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer stepped into her role earlier this summer with plans to encourage open dialogue at UNC while setting clear, measurable goals to make campus more inclusive for everyone. 

"Just in the few weeks that I've been here, I've noticed that many of the folks talked about having either town halls or conversations in their departments, their schools, their units that have been a struggle,” Cox said. “Because either they weren't skilled in how to facilitate a dialogue or didn't know how to manage the conversation, and then it went left, so we're going to work to change that.”

Cox previously worked in Maryland at Towson University as the inaugural vice president for inclusion and institutional equity — a role she held since 2017. 

Cox began her job at UNC on July 19, working alongside Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin.

“In this role, Leah will serve on both the chancellor’s and provost’s leadership teams, advising us as we continue the important work of building a campus community in which all students, faculty and staff know that they belong and are equipped to thrive in a global society,” Guskiewicz and Blouin said in a letter to the UNC community.

Cox plans to gather data and perspectives from students and faculty to assess the climate of campus, Guskiewicz and Blouin said in their letter.

In an interview with The Daily Tar Heel on Friday, Guskiewicz said Cox is already working with others on campus and will help lead initiatives such as the Carolina Next "Build Our Community Together" strategic initiative.

“She brings 30 years of experience in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion," Guskiewicz said. "She is a well-known leader at the national level and I know she’s working really hard.”

Suzanne Barbour, who served as chairperson of the vice provost's search committee, said Cox draws from a wealth of experience — and she's doing her homework on campus. 

"She's going to give us an opportunity to take a really critical look at our culture and things that we just accept as normal, and she's going to prompt us to think differently about them, and I think that's what we need as an institution, ” Barbour said. 

Cox began her time on campus just two months after the UNC Board of Trustees initially chose not to vote on the tenure of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The move was marked by mounting political pressure from conservatives who disapproved of her work on The 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones told Gayle King on "CBS This Morning" that she believed this to be because of her race and gender.

UNC is not unique in facing racial equity issues, Cox said. They affect every university in the nation.

“So it also reminds us that we have a lot of work to do,” Cox said. “But I'm sort of optimistic that if we have some consistent dialogue across the community with all the members of our community — by setting up some actual goals, some measurable outcomes — that we're going to create a more equitable Carolina.”

Cox said she must also focus on intersectionality in addressing issues pertaining to race on campus.

“Coming in, I recognized that there were some issues going on at Carolina and it seemed to be focused on race,” Cox said. “But part of my job is to make sure that I am not just focused on race because there's a lot of diversity that needs to be recognized here.”

Anna Manocha, a senior who received a 2021 Undergraduate Diversity Award for her work advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at UNC, said she hopes Cox will use her role to amplify the concerns students of color have that often get overlooked.

“I’m hoping she does well,” Manocha said. “And it sounds like she’s already on a great path, putting her face out there and meeting people.” 

The new vice provost said she is happy and excited to be at UNC to help bring about positive change. She said she has spent her first few weeks getting to know everyone, helping units shape their DEI action plans and working with Human Resources to find staff that she plans to hire. 

But, Cox said one thing she has learned during her time at Towson University is that in DEI work, change takes time.

“It's going to take time for everyone to get on board to have the same focus and goal and mission,” Cox said. “And so I sort of felt like that was the same thing about UNC, that it's going to take time, but if we're all invested in doing it, it's going to happen.”

As she begins her work at UNC, Cox said she wants all students and faculty to know she is trying to connect with everyone on campus and listen to their concerns.

“All those folks that are feeling like they're not being heard,” Cox said. “I'm here to listen and to hopefully make a difference.”

@madikirk31

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