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Student organization leaders steadfast in support for D&I despite potential policy change


South Building and the Old Well sit on Cameron Avenue on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2023.

On May 15, the UNC System Board of Governors will consider changing the System's policy on diversity and inclusion. Section IX of the proposed policy change discusses exceptions for student-led organizations, as long as those groups do not violate Section VII, which mandates employing subdivisions of the University maintain institutional neutrality.

Despite this, some student leaders have expressed confusion and concern for the future of D&I-related positions, events, organizations and initiatives.

Who has to comply?

Several large student-led organizations on campus are classified as University Sponsored Organizations. Last updated in 2020, these groups include the Executive Branch of Undergraduate Student Government, the Undergraduate Senate, the Residence Hall Association and the Graduate and Professional Student Government, among other groups.

Different from registered student organizations, University Sponsored Organizations have the authority to act as an agent of the University in certain circumstances. Due to this, those organizations may be subject to the broader implications of a potential policy change, Matthew Tweden, speaker of the Undergraduate Senate, said.

Institutional neutrality — the doctrine regulating when student-led organizations are exempt from the diversity and inclusion changes — is the idea that colleges and universities should not, as institutions, take positions on social and political issues.

"There's this question that's being raised as to whether certain forms of speech in your University capacity can violate the standard of institutional neutrality," Tweden said. "And we'll need more guidance to better understand what restrictions, if any, that imposes on these organizations."

According to a statement from UNC Media Relations, undergraduate student fees for this academic year included $394 for student activity fees, $49 of which was earmarked for student organizations. For graduate students, about $372 in student activity fees included $39 for student organizations. The Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate and Professional Student Government are responsible for the allocation of student fees to registered student organizations.

Student organizations funded by the Undergraduate Senate include some multicultural Greek Council fraternities and sororities, religious groups and affinity groups like the Black Student Movement and the Arab Student Association. In maintaining institutional neutrality, Tweden said, the Senate must evaluate organizations that apply for funding based on objective aspects like the size of the group and the number of people who will benefit from the funding.

"Two events of the exact same size bringing in a speaker, one Republican and one Democrat — we could not give one organization more money for that event, specifically based on party affiliation or based on what type of speaker they're bringing in, because we're evaluating on the equal application of objective criteria," Tweden said.

Paid D&I positions in USOs

Katie Heath, the 2024-25 graduate student president, said there is concern about the ability of GPSG to allocate funding toward paid positions that are centered around diversity and inclusion. She said, as of right now, she designated a vice president of diversity and inclusion in her cabinet for next year.

"This is not a position that I'm planning on removing at this moment because it's a priority for us," Heath said. "That's one of our pillars and one of the things that is important to the student government."

The Residence Hall Association also designates specific D&I positions. Tahliyah Smalls, the president of the RHA, said the organization has been training social justice advocates in each residence hall using modules created by the multicultural director of the RHA.

"We mostly try to empower the students to take this information and use it in the way that they see fit, and to really inspire their own education and inspire their own creativity," Smalls said.

She said the RHA aims to push the initiatives even further by fostering discussion and critical thinking about implicit bias and inclusive language, among other topics.

Smalls also said her administration increased its collaboration budget this year to circumvent some of the restrictions on the use of money that is allocated from the Undergraduate Senate, such as being unable to purchase food. She said she feels that the RHA's spending reflects its values.

"The collaboration board has given out over $10,000 throughout this past academic year, much of which has been to cultural organizations, so that we can — in our own way, even if we can't say certain things as a University Sponsored Organization — we can empower and fund the students who can," Smalls said.

Cedra Ali, the executive social justice advocate for the RHA, said the social justice positions across residence halls aim to recognize different communities and make them feel at home.

"I think without this position, there would just be a lot less events to celebrate culture and to feel recognized at UNC," she said. "Especially at a [predominantly white institution] and as a woman of color, I really appreciate the events that celebrate different cultures and just help us feel a sense of belonging."

The future of D&I within student organizations

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Ali said she does not think the policy proposed to the BOG, which stipulates that funds for D&I positions be redirected to student well-being, will have an outsized impact on the RHA's social justice initiatives.

"Making sure people are aware and feeling safe in their homes and represented — either by race or religion, et cetera — that is something affecting the well-being of students," she said. "So I think to remove the social justice aspects of the RHA will completely take away the point of the Residence Hall Association in the first place."

The policy has been placed on the consent agenda for the full Board of Governors' meeting, which means it does not have to be discussed before a vote. But, any member of the board can request for an item to be taken off the consent agenda and debated.

Many USO leaders said more communication and clarification from the Board of Governors would be necessary to determine the fate of D&I efforts and positions housed under USOs, if the policy is passed in its current form.

"I think the language of the policy still allows a degree of leeway to allow the University to support people who most need it when they most need it," Tweden said. "And so I don't think that this will create — or I certainly hope this will not create — a sudden vacuum of support for students."

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