2021 wasn’t a return to normal.
The year began at the height of a pandemic — with an attack on the Capitol, the inauguration of a new president and continued work by activists around the country for racial justice, voter's rights and sustainable climate policy.
At UNC, the year was marked by power tensions between University leadership bodies, ongoing COVID-19 concerns and the impact of vaccines. Community conversations focused on mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. Through protests, petitions and action, students were vocal about issues they cared about most.
Students lost the opportunity to learn from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones after the Board of Trustees initially failed to offer her a tenured position. The case shed light on inequities facing students and faculty of color across University departments.
Students and faculty returned in-person to the classroom after over a year of Zoom instruction. As other major universities mandated the vaccine, debates were had both at the System and institutional level about the feasibility of a vaccine mandate at UNC. The UNC System advised campuses that under state law, the only group that can mandate a vaccine is the North Carolina Commission for Public Health.
In Orange County, residents voted in local elections for mayor, Town Council and School Board of Education. Local schools also transitioned back to the classroom.
UNC’s return to campus also sparked conversations about a campus mental health crisis. Community need for mental health support isn’t new — but the fall semester brought increased student demand for Counseling and Psychological Services and other local and student-run mental health organizations. CAPS hired two AAPI-identifying providers in August following a student petition last spring, and partnered with a teletherapy service to increase capacity for individual brief therapy care.
University leadership and transparency was questioned. Some alumni, faculty, staff, students and other community members formed the Coalition for Carolina, a group dedicated to promoting open inquiry, equity and inclusion at UNC. The group cited UNC’s failed fall 2020 reopening attempt, the vacated $2.5 million Silent Sam settlement and and the BOT's decision to not offer tenure after backlash from conservatives as reasons for concern about campus autonomy.
Also at the University level, the UNC Libraries announced $5 million in budget cuts over the next two fiscal years. Progress was made on removing the names of known white supremacists from campus buildings. The Chancellor’s Committee to Review History Commission Resolution unanimously agreed in November to recommend the building name removal of Avery Residence Hall and Bingham Hall.
The James Cates Remembrance Coalition honored Cates’ legacy, and took steps to add his namesake to the UNC Student Stores. The Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward held discussions this fall about the dedication and status of the Unsung Founders memorial.
The University also officially recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day — but community members are still calling for an official land acknowledgement.
In community news, a suspect was arrested and charged in September in the murder of Faith Hedgepeth, who was found beaten to death on Sept. 7, 2012. The suspect’s DNA was a match to a profile based on DNA from the original crime scene.
In this issue of The Daily Tar Heel, we look back at 2021.
The UNC community has felt loss. The continued loss of a traditional college experience. The loss of over 700,000 Americans from COVID-19. And the loss of fellow students.
The community has also felt joy.
The Asian American Center opened its first physical space this fall. The Carolina Latinx Center welcomed student organizations to the theme of 'Pa'lante' — a saying that means "moving forward." And the arts made a long-awaited return to the stage.
UNC sports again welcomed fans to the stadium — with Hubert Davis succeeding Roy Williams as the men’s basketball head coach.
Students celebrated reconnecting with friends on campus and meeting new ones.
So 2021 wasn't "normal." It wasn't a classic college experience or a callback to life before the pandemic. Instead, it was a year of setbacks and progress, grief and joy.
Onward to the next.
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