DEI elimination, pro-Palestinian encampments loom large for faculty at UNC

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 2, 2024

By Clayton Henkel

NC Newsline

In less than two weeks, the Class of 2024 will collect their diplomas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and head into the real world.

But last week, UNC faculty members attending the Spring Faculty Council meeting expressed their concerns about the real world unfolding on their own campus.

As on other college campuses, a pro-Palestinian tent encampment has popped up in Chapel Hill in recent days, with students vowing to stay for the duration. While protesting the war in Gaza, the students are demanding the university divest from Israel.

Interim UNC Chancellor Lee Roberts told faculty members last Friday that the right to free speech is very broad at a public university, and that for the most part protesters have followed the rules.

“The news coverage that I’ve seen I think makes what happened appear more dramatic than it appeared from South Building,” Roberts told the council. “They’re not blocking pathways. They’re not being disruptive from a noise standpoint. So, to me, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

Roberts said he would continue to encourage peaceful and constructive dialogue.

“We have a long and noble tradition of peaceful protest here on this campus. And within the broad constraints placed on protests and demonstrations, we encourage respectful protest from the students and from the rest of our community.”

Roberts also sought to allay fears that the university was on the cusp of ending its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies.  The UNC Board of Governor’s Committee on University Governance voted without public discussion in mid-April to repeal and replace the current DEI policy.

But Roberts said that nothing is final until the full UNC Board of Governors votes at their next meeting in May.

“I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that it was placed on the consent agenda because any member of the Board of Governors can ask for an item to be removed from the consent agenda and debated and voted on separately,” said Robert. “In my experience on the Board of Governors that that’s pretty routine for any high-profile measure.”

Roberts said the faculty should view this period ahead of the Board of Governor’s meeting as an opportunity for board members to hear from all constituencies.

“It’s explicit that academic freedom is not affected in any way. The policy by its own terms does not implicate anything happening in the classroom. And I think (System) President Hans said that it doesn’t affect the student centers.”

Associate Professor Allison Schlobohm of the Kenan-Flagler Business School leaned into the conversation with Roberts.

“I’m sure this is a very challenging time for everyone, most of all our students,” said Schlobohm. “I’m wondering, when you’re meeting with the Board of Governors, legislators and donors, what is the story that you or we are telling about the importance of campus community and freedom here at UNC?”

Robert said he talks about the core value of free speech and the importance of that to the history of UNC as a place of learning and academic freedom.

“Most of the concerns I hear from parents in particular, sometimes from donors and other constituents, is about safety. In particular, I hear much more about the physical and psychological safety of Jewish students than about other students,” Roberts shared.

“I’ve made a concerted effort of outreach to multiple communities across campus, certainly the Jewish community. We have an obligation to make sure that we’re reaching out to all corners of our community, and make sure they feel heard and seen.”

Schlobohm said she just had a conversation with a tearful Palestinian student who did not feel heard or seen.

“They feel in their words, ‘scared’ that they’ll lose their scholarship and no longer be able to attend the university if they express their freedom of speech in the ways that they thought they would always be allowed to do here at UNC, and I was wondering what you might say to such a student?”

“No student should be fearful of consequences for expressing their right to free speech in really, in any environment, but certainly in this environment, an academic environment.”

Roberts said the university has wide guardrails to protect speech and has been as accommodating as possible.

“So, I would encourage the student to speak out and make her voice heard as every other student should feel free to do,” offered the interim chancellor.

Associate professor Roxana Pérez-Méndez wanted to return to the DEI policy and language that implies “maintaining neutrality.”

“Many have benefited from these DEI efforts over the last several years. And it’s not just in terms of equity within our classes and hiring. I think of the residual effects of the care that I’m receiving from UNC,” said Pérez-Méndez. “Now that many of those faculty leaders and physicians are equipped to understand and talk about with training about African American maternal health issues, Latino community issues, the importance of not assuming that someone’s a woman’s partner is a man. I just wanted to hear your perspective on this notion of an existence of neutrality.”

Roberts said he believed the intent of the neutrality language was aimed at political neutrality.

His hope was the university would redouble its efforts around engagement.

“We have some counties that haven’t sent a student to Carolina in five years. We need to do a better job with that. We need to do a better job going out on offense as I think about it and making clear to everyone around the state that this can be a place for them across every dimension of diversity,” he said.

Roberts said college affordability was another part of the equation.

Pérez-Méndez said messaging and marketing was not the issue at hand. Lessons of equity in healthcare and other professional fields are critical if Carolina is to remain strong, she said.

“I wonder how effective that we will be in the future if folks are not trained to engage with each other equitably while they’re here,” Pérez-Méndez said.

By early Tuesday morning, WRAL reported that police began removing pro-Palestinian protesters camped out at Polk Place, just hours ahead of the last day of classes on the campus.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s commencement is slated for Saturday, May 11. The UNC Board of Governors could vote on changes to the DEI policy as early as May 23.