Allegations, administration, accountability: tensions at Kenan-Flagler Business School
Update Monday, Nov. 21 at 10:45 a.m.:This story has been updated to reflect recent court filings by the University and business school professors.
Larry Chavis’ hands start to sweat when he gets near the Kenan-Flagler Business School — his home for the past 16 years as a professor.
The school has a heightened sense of life and death, professor Chijioge Nwogu said. Normal stressors are made more trying, with some students and alumni leaving the school with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
This semester alone, a discrimination lawsuit was filed by a former doctoral student, the co-leads of the school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative both left their positions and the dean, who had been serving since 2014, unexpectedly retired.
The Kenan-Flagler Business School has seen internal tensions to start its school year.
Rose Brown lawsuit
In late August, Angelica Rose Brown, a former UNC Kenan-Flagler graduate student, filed a federal lawsuit against the University, three professors and the UNC Board of Governors. The 10 counts include allegations of race discrimination, unlawful retaliation and Civil Rights Act violations.
Brown joined Kenan-Flagler’s organizational behavior doctoral program in fall 2020 and faced an “ongoing pattern of discriminatory actions,” according to the filing in U.S. District Court.
Brown, a survivor of PTSD and sexual assault, was “subjected to a double standard motivated by a combination of her race and gender and when she had the audacity to complain,” according to the lawsuit.
She alleges to have been “pushed out” of the doctoral program in the summer of 2021, despite having an academic standing and research performance that met the program’s standards.
Brown declined a request to speak directly with The Daily Tar Heel. Her attorney, Artur Davis, said the fact that Brown was succeeding as a student makes the case unusual — a “red flag” to him as a lawyer.
“This is not someone who was stumbling and struggling, but trying to blame racism and sexism,” Davis said. “This is not someone who wasn't succeeding and was trying to explain a way of their lack of success.”
Earlier this month, Sherry Wallace and Elizabeth Dickinson, both co-leads of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative at Kenan-Flagler, left their positions.
The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Wallace and Dickinson but did not hear back by the time of publication.
The professors accused in the lawsuit include Michael Christian, Shimul Melwani and Sreedhari Desai, all within the organizational behavior program. Melwani and Desai are both women of color.
Davis said racist and sexist stereotypes are so pervasive that individuals are not immunized from believing them even if they are of the same gender or are also of a minority ethnicity.
“A lot of the trouble that Ms. Brown ran into in this Ph.D program was because she was believed to be too assertive, and she was thought to be too direct about speaking her mind,” Davis said.
Melwani, who is also the associate dean of the undergraduate business program, said she was advised by legal counsel not to speak directly about the lawsuit.
“It has been really hard for me. I really want to speak about this issue," Melwani said. "Our hands are tied. We have no voice in this because legal counsel has advised me not to speak about this issue."
Acting in his capacity as the organizational behavior area chairperson, Christian said in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel:
“Student inclusion and support has long been a cornerstone of our PhD program in OB. The Organizational Behavior Area is very proud of our progress on DEI and strives to be the most inclusive management department in the U.S. Since 2017, our OB PhD Program – which admits 1-4 students per class – has graduated 9 students, 7 of whom are women, 3 are women of color, and 2 were presidents of the PhD Project, which strives to increase diversity in management scholarship. We currently have 11 students, including 5 women, and 4 students of color in our OB PhD program.”
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The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Desai but did not hear back by the time of publication.
UNC spokesperson Pace Sagester said in a statement, "We are aware of these allegations but unable to comment on the pending litigation at this time. UNC-Chapel Hill strives to provide a positive educational experience for all our students.”
Four female graduates of Kenan-Flagler’s organizational behavior doctoral program wrote an open letter in September sharing their experiences within the department, specifically working with Christian, Melwani and Desai.
“As a Black woman who spent five years in UNC’s Organizational Behavior department Ph.D. program and remains connected to the faculty and students in the department, I am deeply troubled by the characterization that has been published in the media about the department,” Angelica Leigh wrote.
On Nov. 18, the University and three Kenan-Flagler Business school professors filed motion to dismiss Rose Brown’s lawsuit.
In court documents, University counsel said any issues between Brown and the professors were focused on research projects and were not linked to her race.
“While the research in question involved issues of race, the content of the research does not transform an academic disagreement with Brown into racial discrimination,” the filings said.
The three professors had a “less than ideal working relationship with Brown,” the documents said.
The defendants claim Brown failed to allege facts that “reasonably infer” that the University and professors are liable.
The dean’s retirement
Douglas A. Shackelford, who had been serving as the dean of Kenan-Flagler since 2014, unexpectedly announced on Sept. 16 his plans to retire effective three days later.
In a video message sent to the business school's faculty, staff and students from the beach, he said serving as dean was the greatest honor of his life, but he was tired and needed to hand the baton to someone who could run the school at the pace it deserves.
Jennifer S. Conrad, who has been part of the business school for over 35 years, including in senior administration, was named interim dean on Sept. 22.
Conrad and Shackelford are not mentioned by name in Brown’s lawsuit, but Davis said the case is a reflection of the atmosphere of the business school as a whole.
“Accountability starts at the top," Davis said. "The leadership of that organization has an obligation to create a climate and a culture in which anyone has a fair chance to succeed."
In a statement to The Daily Tar Heel, Conrad said Brown’s lawsuit had “absolutely no bearing” on Shackelford’s decision to retire.
Nwogu, professor of the practice of strategy and entrepreneurship, said Kenan-Flagler prioritizes the generation of revenue over the success of all students.
“I understand that there’s budget cuts, but there’s ways to do it where at least you show that you care about students,” Nwogu said.
Melwani said, when asked about Shackelford’s retirement, that business leaders around the world are facing different challenges today than in previous generations. Today, the changes includes being able to balance both people and profit.
Shackelford’s background in accounting led his thinking and perspective through a particular lens, she said.
"We really have realized the importance of communities, belonging, inclusion and equity. Many of these leaders who are not trained to do that have to retool quickly,” Melwani said.
While Chavis, clinical professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, affirmed Shackelford’s love for Kenan-Flagler, he said the school's leadership struggles with talking about issues like race and gender.
“It’s almost like they don’t even have the vocabulary for it, and that they’re scared,” he said.
Chavis, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said he has been passed up multiple times for Kenan-Flagler administrative roles, but was recommended by Shackelford for Native American-related roles.
Chavis served as the UNC American Indian Center director from 2017 to 2021.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Kenan-Flagler
In terms of diversity, Kenan-Flagler is 61st out of 81 ranked U.S. business schools, according to Bloomberg's 2022-2023 Diversity Index.
The data shows that 66 percent of students are male and 70 percent are white. Hispanic and Asian students make up 10 and 11 percent of students, respectively, but only 5 percent of students are Black.
While the gender data includes international students, the race data does not.
“Carolina’s challenges with diversity and inclusion are well known across the country, and I think of Kenan-Flagler as the worst of the worst — or one of the worst,” Chavis said.
Chavis said there is an “old guard,” particularly of professors who are scared of the way the world is changing.
Earlier this month, Chavis sent an email about diversity and inclusion to all Kenan-Flagler faculty and staff. In the message, Chavis shared disparaging messages he has received in anonymous course evaluations, as well as the response he received from leadership that made him feel “worse.”
“If I had wanted a degree in some sort of Native American studies or African American studies, I would not have pursued an MBA,” one student wrote.
Chavis said a reply from Randy Myer, professor of the practice of strategy and entrepreneurship, was especially notable.
“This is quite a long list of issues and sad to read it,” said the email by Myer obtained by The Daily Tar Heel. “I hope it has made you feel better to have it out there. But I can’t help but wonder if you are still trying to change our world, would Martin Luther King have written something like this.”
Myer referred all questions about the situation back to Chavis.
The future of Kenan-Flagler is yet to be determined, but it will continue to be influenced by the search for a permanent dean, the start of a $150 million expansion and Brown’s ongoing lawsuit.