UNC-Chapel Hill Trustees Could Begin To Defund DE&I

Joe Killian, NC Newsline

The dismantling of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts at UNC-Chapel Hill could begin in earnest as soon as this month, say two members of the university’s board of trustees. Trustees will likely meet this month in a yet-to-be-scheduled special meeting, finalizing the campus budget before forwarding it to the UNC System Board of Governors for final approval.

“I think the best way for the board to move forward is to advocate for the removal of all DEI funding from the UNC-Chapel Hill budget,” Trustee Dave Boliek, chair of the board’s Budget, Finance and Infrastructure committee, told NC Newsline. “I’m going to advocate that that be the case.”

Fellow trustee Marty Kotis, vice-chair of that committee, agreed.

“I believe DEI simply causes divisiveness,” Kotis said. “And the reason I think that is I’ve heard from a lot of people whose kids are applying to schools or who are applying for a job or applying to contract with various government entities and feeling like they’re being, frankly, discriminated against.”

Kotis said he appreciates the stated goal of DEI efforts to be sure everyone has an equal opportunity. He does not believe it’s the job of government or public universities to achieve that goal through quotas or promote a certain political view of diversity, he said.

Boliek, who is also a candidate in a May 14 runoff in the Republican primary for state auditor, went further.

“I think this entire DEI effort has been one of, if not the most divisive things in higher education in modern history,” Boliek said. “It cuts against non-discrimination and I don’t see a return on the money being spent, in my experience. I just think those dollars can be used more effectively, for student wellness, for example, and for mental health challenges on campus, and repair and renovation of aging buildings.”

DEI work has been a greater focus on campuses in the last decade and has become part of requirements by a number of accrediting agencies, leading to opposition from Republican lawmakers across the country and conservative groups like North Carolina’s own James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Last month, the trustee board’s budget committee asked Nathan Knuffman, the university’s vice chancellor for Finance and Operations and chief financial officer, to quantify how much the university is spending on DEI efforts, including programs and salaries.

Kotis said he estimates the total amount could be in the neighborhood of $3.7 million — money both he and Boliek said could be better used on a host of other needs on campus.

If the board of trustees eliminates that funding, it will be getting ahead of the board of governors and the General Assembly, each of which has been targeting DEI in their own, smaller ways for more than a year.

In a committee discussion late last month, trustee Jim Blaine said he expects the legislature to follow Florida’s lead in banning DEI in the short session to begin in just weeks. He said he believes that’s the right direction.

Like all members of campus boards of trustees in the UNC System, Blaine is a political appointee of the legislature’s Republican majority. He is also a well-connected political consultant and former chief of staff to state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) who jokingly calls himself an “unapologetic political hack” in his profile on X, formerly Twitter. While his fellow board members say his predictions about the legislature are likely well-informed, they don’t all think UNC-Chapel Hill’s trustee board should get ahead of any anti-DEI moves at the legislature.

At last month’s committee meeting, trustee Ralph Meekins pointed to a recent memo from UNC System President Peter Hans that both reminded UNC-Chapel Hill’s trustees that they are to serve in an advisory role to the university’s chancellor and formally shifted some delegated powers from the board to the chancellor — a process that has been underway at the system level at a number of campuses.

While some trustees at Chapel Hill believe the memo was a warning to a board that has been seen as particularly activist, others said they believe taking the lead in targeting DEI was perfectly within the scope of their powers.

The people of the state own the university system and its constituent campuses, Kotis said. The legislature, which represents those people, appoints the trustees and the board of governors. For that reason, he said, trustees have a responsibility to act on issues they regard as important to the health of their universities.

“I think most of us came to this board to lead on these issues,” Kotis said. “We’re here to do our jobs, not to kick the can to the legislature or the BOG. If we think reallocating those resources is something that should be done, we should do it and own it. Otherwise, why have us serve?”

A war on “wokeness”

On Wednesday, state House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said any possible anti-DEI legislation is “still at the conversation stage.”

“We may look at legislation,” Moore said. “We may allow, for example at the universities where this tends to be the most controversies brewing, the board of governors and the boards of trustees to take a look at it first.”

Moore said he didn’t believe there was a “big push” to do anything immediately at the legislative level.

“I think we need to make sure that there’s free and open exchange of ideas at the university,” Moore said. “Every viewpoint deserves to be heard.”

However, Moore went on to claim students face potential coercion and indoctrination, even seeing their grades suffer if they put forward opinions with which their professors may disagree.

“You have this DEI, this wokeness that is being pushed out there, and it simply shouldn’t happen,” Moore said.

In fact, as Newsline has reported, the most comprehensive study on student speech concerns at UNC System campuses found no evidence students feel intimidated, marginalized or indoctrinated by liberal professors.

Starting in 2019, UNC-Chapel Hill Political Science Professor Timothy Ryan and fellow UNC-Chapel Hill professors Mark McNeilly and Jennifer Larson launched a study at Chapel Hill that looked at speech issues on campus. The initial survey — and an updated, expanded one — found things on which people at both ends of the political spectrum have since seized.

Their work found students — especially conservatives, who are in the minority on most campuses — reported self-censoring in conversation for fear of being ostracized by their peers. Students who self-identified as liberal were less likely to want friendships with those who disagreed with them politically.

But it also dispelled the myth that faculty members push liberal political views, pressuring or indoctrinating students to agree with their own world views. Most students, the study found, leave college with much the same political view with which they entered.

Berger’s office repeatedly used the survey to jab at faculty and staff at the state’s universities who complained of what they said was long-standing pattern of political overreach by the General Assembly and its political appointees.

“These perpetual malcontents should examine why 68% of conservative students at UNC reported self-censoring their views in class,” said Lauren Horsch, Berger’s spokeswoman, in a statement in 2022, after the survey had been expanded. “Perhaps it has something to do with top university staff putting to paper their desire to extinguish viewpoint diversity.”

Faculty members and administrators denied they had any desire to eliminate viewpoint diversity and said the study didn’t back up the attack. Most students did not report censoring themselves for fear of the views of faculty or staff but because they feared they would be ostracized by their peers.

Ryan and his team told Newsline they were displeased with the way their research was cherry-picked for political purposes, but that is not uncommon in research touching on political issues.

“I did see that quote and I was disappointed by it,” Ryan said of the statement from Berger’s office. “The full report is there for him to be asked a tough question the next time he’s talking about it. If you think this report is so credible, what’s your thought on the rest of it?”

Larson said it was obvious people only concentrating on that statistic had not read the full report.

“Or if they did, they didn’t read it carefully,” Larson said. “You can cherry-pick anything, but to me the counter argument is so clear. If you’re concerned about this one part of the report, what do you think about the other parts of it? Do you acknowledge they are valid?”

Like “critical race theory” and “wokeness” before it, DEI has become a popular cudgel of Republican lawmakers — not just in North Carolina but across the country. While there is often little agreement on what the term actually means, The Chronicle of Education anti-DEI legislation tracker has documented 82 anti-DEI bills in 28 states since last year — including in North Carolina.

In March of last year, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations requested documents related to DEI programs through the UNC System and all of its 17 campuses.

The letter from the commission, which is co-chaired by Moore and Berger, included a 10-point request for documents, descriptions and costs on any DEI information on any offices or programs involving a lengthy list of terms to define DEI that read like a round-up of hot-button terms among political conservatives.

“For purpose of this letter,” wrote Derrick Welch, director of Senate Majority Staff Government Operations, “DEIA” includes, but is not limited to, those subject matters which reference or discuss ‘diversity’, ‘equity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘accessibility’, ‘racism’, ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-racist’, ‘oppression’, ‘internalized oppression’, ‘systemic racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘gender’, ‘LGBTQ+’, ‘white supremacy’, ‘unconscious bias’, ‘bias’, ‘microaggressions’, ‘critical race theory’, ‘intersectionality’, or ‘social justice.’”

Early last year the UNC System Board of Governors passed a ban on what it called “compelled speech,” proceeding from the assumption that even discussing issues that could be deemed controversial should be out-of-bounds when hiring.

The policy states that universities “shall neither solicit nor require an employee or applicant for academic admission or employment to affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement.”

Under the policy, a potential student or employee cannot be asked to “describe his or her actions in support of, or in opposition to, such beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles.” Nor can the system or its universities require “statements of commitment to particular views on matters of contemporary political debate or social action contained on applications or qualifications for admission or employment or included as criteria for analysis of an employee’s career progression.”

Faculty members and staff across the system said they weren’t sure how, under such a policy, they would reasonably vet candidates for positions wherein they may need to teach in medical schools or schools of law in which agreement on fundamental principles of empirically proven science or bedrock constitutional principles are important.

Despite pushback, Republican state lawmakers followed suit with Senate Bill 364, which essentially put in place the same “compelled speech” ban for those seeking employment with the state more broadly. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, but Republicans overturned that veto. The bill became law and went into effect in December.

Triangle-area Congresswoman Valerie Foushee (D-4) represents the area that includes UNC-Chapel Hill. Speaking with Newsline on Wednesday, Foushee said she’s disturbed by talk of eliminating DEI on campuses.

“I think we’re in an era where it seems that rather than to deal with the impacts of our nation’s history, we’d like to just brush it aside and use a phrase that is frightening to me: ‘All things being equal’” Foushee said. “Well, all things are not equal. They have not been. And the efforts that are made not to make things equal but to make things equitable should be something that none of us should run away from or be ashamed of.”

DEI is about dealing with the country’s history and its impacts on marginalized groups, Foushee said, as well as helping people who may not recognize inequity see it.

“When you know better, you do better,” she said.

Pushback at UNC-Chapel Hill

While some members of the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees seem eager to wade into the political fight over DEI, Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts appears to be trying to stay above the fray.

“At this time, the UNC Board of Trustees has asked us to gather information and answer questions about DEI as it pertains to our budget, which we will do,” a university spokesman said in a written statement to Newsline this week. “As Interim Chancellor Roberts has said in previous interviews, we have a profound duty to reflect the significant and growing diversity of our state. Carolina wants people from all walks of life with a variety of experiences and perspectives to come here to learn, work and live. Our University is here to serve all of North Carolina.”

Last week the second “teach-in” held by the student group TransparUNCy drew 130 students for a discussion of how conservative political appointees have shaped and continue to shape UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System. Roberts, a former state budget director under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, was himself a political appointee on the conservative-dominated UNC System Board of Governors until his controversial appointment as interim chancellor at Chapel Hill late last year. After the group’s first event drew much student interest and some media coverage, Roberts appeared in person at last week’s event.

After sitting through the student presentation, the interim chancellor said there was a lot with which he would disagree. Still, he thanked the students for their interest in both the politics of the state and their university.

“Thank you for just being involved and being engaged,” Roberts said. “You know better than I do that a lot of students aren’t. A lot of students don’t really care much about politics or about public affairs or about what’s happening on campus or in the state or in the world more broadly. So, I applaud your involvement, the fact that you care and want to be involved.”

When students asked about trustees’ recent anti-DEI comments, Roberts said there are political people on the board of trustees, as has always been the case. He said he wouldn’t support or denounce their comments because aligning himself or separating himself from their views would violate his goal and pledge to carry out his job in a non-partisan manner.

When asked about the value of diversity and DEI, Roberts reiterated that he believes in a diverse campus. When a student asked if he would support North Carolina following Florida’s path in eliminating DEI, Roberts said he knew nothing about the legislation in Florida. That response drew derisive laughter from the crowd. Pressed further, Roberts said he was generally aware of the Florida legislation but that no comparable legislation was currently moving in North Carolina and he didn’t want to address hypotheticals.

“The fact that he did not know what was going on in Florida, or did not have more than a cursory understanding of what was going on, that to me should be immediately disqualifying for any chancellor,” said Toby Posel, a student organizer who pushed Roberts on the DEI question during the event.

Last month, in an online conversation with the Coalition for Carolina, Roberts was asked about legislation recently passed in Alabama that prohibits state funding for DEI efforts at public universities and limiting the teaching of “divisive concepts” around race, gender and identity. He similarly hedged, saying he didn’t know about the Alabama legislation and couldn’t comment on it.

“This is perhaps the most important national political debate around higher education,” Posel said. “You are the leader of this state’s flagship public institution. What is your job if not to know what is going on [in these states] and to know the contours and ins and outs of that debate?”

Asked whether he believed Roberts actually doesn’t know about the Florida legislation or was being disingenuous, Posel said that for practical purposes it doesn’t matter.

Julian Taylor, another student organizer, said it seems unlikely Roberts is as uninformed as he would like the public to believe.

“If he claims to be uninformed about the things that we’re talking about, if he doesn’t know the state of legislation in Florida, he should continue coming to our teach-ins,” Taylor said. “That’s why we are having them.”

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