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'A chilling effect:' UNC community grapples with pending diversity and inclusion policy change

Students, staff, and visitors enjoy the quad in front of Wilson Library on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.

The UNC Board of Governors could eliminate current diversity and inclusion initiatives at the 17 campuses in the UNC System next month.

On Wednesday, the UNC Board of Governors Committee on University Governance approved a policy that repeals and replaces current diversity and inclusion regulations across the UNC System. The current policy includes requirements for all schools within the System to employ diversity officers. The new policy would get rid of those positions or the positions' connections to diversity.

It took less than two minutes for the committee to unanimously pass the motion, which sent the proposed policy to the full BOG's consent agenda for a vote on May 2. There was no public discussion by committee members. 

“This is really stealth legislation,” UNC-CH Chair of the Faculty Beth Moracco said. “That’s really contrary to the principles of shared governance, of open discussion and collaboration.”

UNC System President Peter Hans said in a statement that the System will uphold its responsibility to "prohibit discrimination, protect equal opportunity and require a safe and supportive learning enviroment for all students." 

Section 300.8.5 of the UNC System policy manual, has been the UNC System’s policy on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, or what the System calls D&I, since 2019. Following the full BOG vote next month, this section could be replaced with a new policy titled “Equality within the University of North Carolina."

The current DEI policy requires the chancellor of each UNC System institution to appoint a diversity and inclusion officer, who would be responsible for creating DEI-related programs, strategies and training plans. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion aims to prioritize DEI in teaching, research and faculty hiring.

UNC System Faculty Assembly Chair Wade Maki and Moracco both said they were unaware the proposed policy would be on the meeting agenda until the day prior.

“This was a little unusual in that it appeared the day before the meeting,” Maki said. “Usually, we know about a week before a meeting what's coming.”

If the BOG committee's policy is approved by the full BOG, those employed by the UNC System would be prohibited from publicly discussing or providing training on social action or political controversies on behalf of a university.

The new policy extends nondiscrimination requirements to University-led student orientations, training or activities — a policy previously only applicable for state government workplaces.

BOG chair Randy Ramsey said in a statement he expects to see debate and feedback about the proposal and its impact over the next month. He emphasized the BOG's commitment to equal opportunity, but made note of a "narrowing of room for good-faith discussion" on campuses in recent years. 

"Welcoming students from all backgrounds makes our universities better and stronger," Ramsey said in the statement. "North Carolina is a diverse state, and our public universities belong to everyone. That means we cannot require everyone to think the same way about race, gender, or any other challenging topic."

The proposed changes follow national and statewide conversations about DEI efforts in higher education.

“It’s my belief that it is likely that the Board of Governors or the state legislature will follow Florida’s path as it relates to DEI this year,” UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees member Jim Blaine said in a March 27 BOT committee meeting.

In March, the University of Florida closed its DEI office, eliminating all DEI positions, after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill preventing universities from using federal or state funding on diversity programs and initiatives

DeSantis said in a press conference that he thinks DEI is discriminatory and does not have a place in public institutions. 

Mark McNeilly, a business professor at UNC, said the practice of DEI separates groups and interferes with the pursuit of truth — something he said he feels should be the mission of the University.

“Many DEI supporters see diversity of thought as a threat to the main ideology on campus, which is liberal,” he said. “They don’t really want ideas, other than a specific set of ideas, to have a place on campus."

Ramsey said the UNC System universities should support intellectual freedom rather than promote a certain ideology.

Moracco said she has not seen any evidence beside anecdotes that supports the opinion that DEI is divisive, and fails to see a compelling need for the policy change. She said she worries the language concerning institutional neutrality and "off-limit" topics in the System's proposed policy will have "a chilling effect" on free speech.

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Many students have also expressed concerns about the potential for anti-DEI action impacting universities.

“DEI, and similar racial justice policies like it, are necessary in order to advance racial justice and racial equality,” Toby Posel, the policy chair for TransparUNCy, said. 

Approximately 170 UNC students, staff and faculty attended a teach-in about what they described as the systemic attack on and removal of DEI efforts at the University, hosted by the Affirmative Action Coalition and TransparUNCy on Tuesday. Julian Taylor, Pragya Upreti and Posel spoke to the attendees, emphasizing the importance of DEI at an institution like UNC-CH.

“We are now in a post-affirmative action world,” Upreti said at the teach-in. “Ideally, we should be funding these DEI programs a little bit more than we already are.”

Per the new guidelines, the chancellor of each System institution would be required to write a report detailing reductions in force and spending. The savings achieved from these reductions would be redirected to student success and well-being initiatives.

Maki said he believes the policy will "absolutely" pass at the meeting in May. He believes the BOG committee would not have proposed this change if they hadn’t already reached a consensus on it.

“Our students should understand that they are attacking the very idea of racial equality and racial justice, and they want to roll back the clock on the generation of social and racial progress that we have made,” Posel said.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and former UNC System President Tom Ross released statements regarding the committee's motion on Wednesday. 

“Our diversity should be used to highlight our state’s strengths, not our political divisions," Cooper said in the statement. "Republican legislative and university leaders who attack diversity at our public universities are failing in their duty to protect students while threatening our ability to recruit top scientists, researchers and innovators who power our economy,” 

Ross said System universities should encourage diversity on their campuses and on governance boards that reflect that of the state.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article cited numbers from an report created by a partisan organization. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this oversight. 

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