UNC’s Campus Safety Commission has dissolved following disagreements between administration and commission members, who felt their recommendations regarding COVID-19 and campus police were ignored.
In an Aug. 9 letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz obtained by The Daily Tar Heel, six members of the commission said that they were no longer willing to work toward solutions if the administration would not take action on them.
“We have talked, listened, facilitated communications, hosted meetings, and made recommendations for two years,” the letter said. “... During this same time, other actors in the UNC governance structure, including prominent actors in the UNC System office, in our Board of Trustees, and in our Board of Governors, have taken actions. These actions have undermined our efforts to build trust. Actions speak larger than words.”
UNC Media Relations said in a statement to the DTH that they appreciated the work of the commission.
“The Chancellor has valued the input of the Campus Safety Commission and its commitment to supporting a safe campus environment for our employees, faculty and students,” Media Relations Manager Pace Sagester said. “The Chancellor’s office has spoken to the Commission chairs and looks forward to meeting with them later this month to determine the best path forward for the Commission to meet the current needs of our campus.”
Though the statement mentions a “path forward” for the commission, signatories of the Aug. 9 letter were adamant that they had no interest in the group being reestablished in any form.
Guskiewicz established the Campus Safety Commission in April 2019 following several incidents with white supremacists who came to campus, sometimes armed, to protest the toppling of UNC’s Confederate statue Silent Sam. No arrests were made — despite carrying a firearm on campus being a felony — and some police were even photographed shaking hands with members of the Confederate groups.
The dissolution letter came after the commission’s two-year term expired on June 30.
Frank Baumgartner, who was a chairperson of the commission, said Guskiewicz asked them to come up with a plan to retool the commission, but he and his colleagues ultimately decided against it, saying there was no point if their recommendations would not be taken.
Baumgartner said he has not received a response to the Aug. 9 letter.
Barriers to police accountability
Upon establishment, the commission’s aim was to improve relations between UNC Police and the campus community by studying the department's actions and impact and serving as advisers to University administration.
The commission recommended building a permanent memorial for James Cates Jr., a Black man who was murdered on UNC's campus by a white supremacist group. It also asked the University to build a permanent structure around the Unsung Founders Memorial and set money aside to recruit and retain faculty of color.
Commission members said that, more often than not, their recommendations were not implemented — especially when it came to some of the most pressing issues on campus.
“We have played virtually no role in the most significant threat to campus safety in a generation: University response to the COVID pandemic,” the letter said. “We have been completely uninvolved in decisions to remove the chief from the UNC Police Department, though our initial creation specified ‘building relations with campus police’ in the very first sentence of the letter you sent asking us to join the commission.”
In June, David Perry announced he would step down as UNC police chief — days after UNC Police forcibly removed students from a Board of Trustees meeting where they were protesting the handling of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case.
The University said it could not provide details on the reason for Perry’s resignation, citing personnel exemption laws. But trustees later provided The News & Observer with an internal audit detailing misspending and misconduct within the police department.
Perry responded in an email to The News & Observer saying that the release of the audit violated a nondisclosure agreement he had signed with the University.
“I have been advised by my attorney that the sharing of this information by UNC Board of Trustees members with the media constitutes a violation of the non-disclosure agreement UNC attorneys created, forced me to sign and agreed to in an attempt to mute and counter my complaints to the administration of racial discrimination and hostile work environment,” he wrote.
Baumgartner said the commission was never made aware of the reasoning behind Perry’s departure, and that he doubts the results of the audit were the true reason.
“I don't believe for a minute that the reasons why he was forced out correspond to the allegations that were made public in that letter,” he said.
The handling of Perry’s resignation was one of many matters related to UNC Police that the commission felt excluded from.
Baumgartner said that the commission had expected to serve as an oversight board for the department, but quickly found that state law prevented them from accessing any police information that was not offered up voluntarily.
“We wouldn't have any access to private information about activities within the police department,” he said. “So we could have them come voluntarily and talk to us, but if ever there was an actual crisis that needed to be investigated, we wouldn't have the legal tools to investigate it — so that was a trap.”
'We had basically no power'
Despite their lack of oversight ability, commission members felt that their group was being used as positive public relations for the University.
“We basically felt like we were being used,” a commission member, who requested to remain anonymous, said. “That we were just a nice little non-entity that makes it look as though there is a safety commission that is active and empowered, when in fact, we felt like we had basically no power to do anything.”
In June, the commission published its annual report, which found, among other things, that Black student enrollment at UNC has not changed substantially since 1991, though enrollment among other minority groups has increased.
“They (enrollment numbers) raise the question of whether there is a ceiling on Black student enrollment or a lack of commitment or interest in seeing these numbers substantially change,” the report said. “Historical data tell a very different story than the diversity language we hear from the University, unfortunately.”
The commission asked the University to investigate why Black student enrollment has stagnated and take action to increase it.
Baumgartner said Guskiewicz was supportive of these and other goals laid out by the commission, but that interference from the UNC System constantly blocked any meaningful progress.
“I don't blame the Chancellor for these things,” Baumgartner said. “I don't think these things were coming out of his office, I think they were coming out of the higher levels of the university governance system.”
Commission members asked the Chancellor not to reestablish their group in any form following its dissolution — raising the question of what body will now serve to check decision-making regarding student safety.
The UNC System Office did not respond to a request for comment.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.