Last summer, the UNC Board of Trustees initially failed to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, which reframes U.S. history and examines the legacy of slavery in the U.S.
Hannah-Jones' tenure application was eventually approved by the BOT in a 9-4 decision in June — but she declined the offer, instead accepting a tenured position at Howard University.
This is not a situation unfamiliar for many UNC faculty of color.
Since 2010, the number of faculty of color at the University has increased gradually. But the retention of talent is waning, as prominent faculty of color in leadership positions choose to leave the University.
Hannah-Jones' tenure situation highlights the differences in treatment and retention of faculty of color compared to their white counterparts at UNC. And some in the University community are looking toward solutions to the longstanding problem.
Leah Cox, UNC’s vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said it is important to hire a critical mass. Faculty of color who are the only people of color in their department, or are the only tenured people of color in their departments, often feel as though they are not welcome or at home, she said.
Cox also said that it is important that the University not overcommit faculty of color to committees.
“Especially if you’re on a tenure track, you have to do all your research, all your scholarships, still teach your classes, apply for grants — and if you’re sitting on 20 different committees, you don’t have time to do all that,” Cox said.
Dr. Keisha Gibson, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics and vice chairperson of diversity and inclusion for the department of medicine, said UNC needs to work on helping faculty of color feel valued. She said this is important to address the invisible labor done by faculty of color that is not necessarily compensated or rewarded.
“We often get tasked with helping to diversify committees for being a support for others — students of color, trainees of color,” Gibson said. “A lot of us don’t mind doing that. But, there’s only so much time in the day, and so that might detract from your ability to stay focused on the things that do generate revenue for the institution, or that are expected and compensated."
Mentor programs, clarity about the tenure track and the creation of inclusive environments are key to retaining faculty of color, Cox said. There needs to be an avenue for clear feedback provided by faculty of color every year so the administration has an understanding of what they can improve on, she said.
In an email statement via UNC Media Relations, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin said that there is more work ahead for the University.
“There is great value in ensuring our students have the opportunity to learn from faculty representing diverse communities," Blouin said. "Carolina continues to strive to ensure that this commitment is realized. We put tremendous financial resources into recruiting and retaining highly qualified diverse faculty and while we believe those efforts have been successful, we acknowledge that our work is not done.”
In October, the University announced a cluster hire of six new faculty members as part of the Health and Wellness in Communities of Color cluster. The faculty will study health and wellness in communities of color and issues of U.S. slavery across several UNC departments.
But Cox said universities should also have a fundamental understanding that the experience of a person of color is going to be different from others.
“As a person of color, you always sort of know that you have to have sometimes two times, three times more background experiences, knowledge, skills than any of the other folks in the room,” Cox said. “And then, as a woman of color, you will get overlooked more often than most folks.”
Gibson said she is fortunate to be in a division and department that is supportive and allows her to advance in her career. But she knows this is not everyone’s story.
“We’re hemorrhaging faculty of color,” Gibson said. “This institution — we are absolutely hemorrhaging them.”
Deb Aikat, an associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said there is a sense among faculty of color that they do not move up to leadership positions. He said if one were to look at the deans and chairs across UNC, it is predominantly white men.
In addition, he said faculty of color often feel as though they are not being recognized by the University.
“Last year, we had several faculty who left and, truth be told, they have gotten better positions at other universities,” Aikat said.
Many faculty of color have families or are starting families, so sometimes they have to uproot their lives to relocate after serving at UNC, he said. There is also the issue of salary inequities, where faculty of color — especially women — receive less pay and feel the need to get a job elsewhere, he said.
“You are losing institutional memory,” he said. “You are losing an institutional richness.”
To approach this issue, Aikat said the process needs to be fair. When looking at hiring new faculty members, he said there is an implicit bias where people of color do not get what they deserve.
“For example, when Nikole Hannah-Jones was being hired, we could have done a lot better, don’t you agree?” Aikat said. “Why are we in the national headlines for all the wrong reasons?”
firstname.lastname@example.org | email@example.com
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.