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Column: Netflix's "The Chair" eerily parallels UNC's campus climate

DTH Photo Illustration. The new Netflix show The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, is about a woman of color who must meet the high demands of being an English department chair at a major university.

Beyond mentions of "" and “clusterfucks,” Netflix’s new dramedy “The Chair,” draws strong parallels to UNC’s current campus climate. Additionally, it highlights the inequities within academia through its satirization of the higher education system.

This six-part series is set at Pembroke University, a fictional small Ivy League university with big issues.

In the show, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), a progressive Black female scholar, and new hire in the English department, describes Pembroke as a university “seeded by benefactors who got rich in sugar, cotton and from the railroads, from the backs of blacks and yellow people.” 

Does that sound familiar?

At the center of this series is Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the chair of Pembroke’s dying English department. Kim notes that 87 percent of Pembroke’s faculty is white. This statistic hardly challenges our own University's makeup, with 72.5 percent of the faculty at UNC being white.

Apart from the lack of BIPOC representation at the university, Kim must also combat low departmental enrollment rates, budget cuts, faculty who refuse to evolve their teaching styles and a conservative, white-male dominated administration.

As one of the two women of color faculty within this department, her first priority in reviving the English department is offering a Distinguished Lectureship to McKay, who is in the process of seeking tenure.

McKay offers a fresh, new approach to course content, making her classroom enrollment rates among the highest in the department, and her qualifications exceed her counterparts. Yet, she is still not seen as a viable candidate for tenure or the Distinguished Lectureship. 

During a meeting with the dean of the English department, Kim announces McKay as her selection for the Distinguished Lectureship. However, she was soon blindsided as the dean revealed a selection of his own for the position — David Duchovny (playing himself), an under-qualified celebrity seeking to use the university’s status as fuel for his doctorate degree.

Through Kim’s pursuit to single-handedly restore the English department, and the significance of McKay’s tenure offer, audiences understand that the faculty of color bear the burdens of fixing Pembroke University.

McKay’s galvanizing battle for the accolades that she deserved eerily mirrored that of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’. In "The Chair," McKay declines the tenure offer and accepts a tenured position and Distinguished Lectureship from a different university, one that made its proposal without hesitation. 

It is revealed in the series that McKay would have been the the first tenured Black woman in that department, which McKay states as the reason she decided to leave Pembroke. This decision was similar to the one made by Hannah-Jones just months ago. She would have been the second tenured Black woman at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. 

Hannah-Jones, like McKay, realized that it was not her duty to bear that burden.

"It is not my job to heal this university, to force the reforms necessary to ensure the Board of Trustees reflects the actual population of the school and the state, or to ensure that the university leadership lives up to the promises it made to reckon with its legacy of racism and injustice," Hannah-Jones wrote in a July 6 statement.

Outside of the English department’s dean suite, Pembroke is shown to be a hotbed of unrest as students protest against injustice, with no support or protection offered from university administration. 

In a classroom scene, a student is shown asking Kim to sign a petition to “put some pressure on the administration.” As Kim signs the petition, the student explains to Kim that although this is a student petition, they hope to foster support from faculty of color.

Later in the series, Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) uses Nazi gestures to explain the relationship between fascism and absurdism. Some students caught this moment on video, and it quickly circulated through campus, creating a cataclysmic atmosphere between students and faculty.

During a town hall hosted by Dobson on main campus, the students are shown boldly challenging him during his explanation. Rather than allowing the students to have that space to express how they felt, the dean calls campus police to remove the students from the area.

This is a move that UNC administration consistently makes during student demonstrations — fueling frustrations from students.

The flaws in academia as exposed by “The Chair'' aren't only applicable to Pembroke University and UNC, but in all systems that are rooted in racism and sexism.

Hopefully, this exhibition of the unfair treatment of faculty of color will be the wake up call that the educational system needs to begin the groundwork of deconstructing its inequities.

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@charity_cohen |