Content warning: This article contains mention of suicide.
I’ve been asked repeatedly if the UNC communications department hired me as a token after they received flack over their abysmally low number of minority faculty. Sounds like it.
Living in Hell-A, California, I didn’t hear of the UNC vs. Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy.
From 2010 to 2012, I had taught at Fayetteville State University (also a UNC campus). There, I co-created the writing and journalism minor — and for the first time in history, the University took a group of journalism/military students on something else I created, the J-Student White House Invitational.
Dana Coen, the UNC director of the Writing for the Screen and Stage minor, and I had spoken several times during those two years and since. So, when Coen contacted me midsummer of 2021 about teaching a UNC writing course via Zoom, I had no reason to suspect any devious motives.
At the time, I was getting compliments in Los Angeles over my latest pilot script. I had writing room experience. I had the required degrees: a BA from Brown University and a MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dramatic Writing. I had even co-created an alien race in a Star Trek episode. And not only could I teach pilot writing to these students — I might even be able to use my contacts to get them jobs in the industry.
Shortly after classes began, several quick kicks in the butt by UNC convinced me that yes, UNC hired me as a token. Without even giving me a heads up, in an interview about the lack of diverse faculty at UNC, Dana Coen defended the University by telling The Daily Tar Heel that they had hired two minority professors and listed me as one of them.
First of all, it’s a UNC violation for the University to release information on an employee’s race. The UNC Department of Human Resources confirmed this.
Secondly, Coen did not list even one of my qualifications for the job in his interview with The Daily Tar Heel. His only adjective? A minority.
Third, he didn’t have the courage or courtesy to tell me in advance or afterward that he was showcasing me as a token. I found out accidentally a month later from The Daily Tar Heel article.
When I complained to Renée Alexander Craft, the interim chairperson of the Department of Communication, she said it was okay because I had been listed as Black in other publications. I guess going directly to the source, me, for the truth was out of the question. And without Ghostbusters, I guess he had no one else to call.
And as many have discovered as they grew older and researched their roots, I’m actually only one-quarter Black. I would have told both of them that if they had asked.
Since working at UNC, I have not been treated as a professor or an adjunct by the communications department. They eliminated the prerequisites and made my class a free-for-all without telling me.
For the record, one cannot teach scriptwriters who have never had any creative writing classes how to write a pilot script in one class. One cannot teach beginning writers in the same class as students who have had two or three writing classes. Writing scripts is learned in stages.
My students are all wonderful human beings who should not have been subjected to the midstream changes in the course subjected upon them by UNC. Not only were they used as tokens, but they had to pay for it — in the form of tuition.
I’m sure that the University thinks that I will keep my mouth shut. Complaining about a university gets one blacklisted. And if I were the only one hurt, I might lay low.
But recently, top Los Angeles Times editor Kevin Merida invited me to hear Nikole Hannah-Jones speak. And then, the American Association of University Professors launched a special investigation into UNC’s violations of academic governance principles and structural racism.
Students, including mine, have dealt with COVID-19 restrictions. They have dealt with untreated depression in the last year. Other students have committed suicide. They are forced to take classes via Zoom, often said by therapists to be responsible for symptoms of fatigue.
Students and faculty deserved better.
I came from a school district in which my teenage brother Clayton was murdered. We children stood by at Mount Hope Cemetery as police threatened to harm the rest of us if my parents called for an investigation.
So, UNC can threaten me. Been there. Done that.
Skye Knight Dent
Adjunct Professor, UNC Department of Communications
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