Less than a week after its surprise inclusion at a University of North Carolina Board of Governors meeting, faculty and students across the system are reacting with confusion and anger at a policy that seeks to eliminate DEI on campuses.

“We are stunned at the speed, the secrecy and the exclusion,” said Wade Maki, the head of the UNC System’s Faculty Assembly and a professor at UNC-Greensboro. “Very few people in the UNC System seemed to know this was coming. We had no testimony, no questions, no discussions and now that it’s been put on the consent agenda, there’s not likely to be any.”

Wade Maki, in his office on campus at UNC Greensboro Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 in Greensboro, N.C. Maki is in his first year as UNC FacultyAssembly Chair. The University of North Carolina Greensboro is facing the highest budget cuts in the UNC System due to a loss in student enrollment.
Wade Maki, in his office on campus at UNC Greensboro Friday, Jan. 27, 2023 in Greensboro, N.C. Maki is in his first year as UNC Facility Assembly Chair.

Maki and a group of faculty chairs are set to meet with UNC System administration on Thursday to discuss the policy. It is unclear if UNC System president Peter Hans will attend the meeting.

The new initiative will undo a 2019 policy that required all UNC System universities to have on-campus diversity, equity and inclusion officers and/or staff. Last week, the Committee on University Governance voted unanimously to replace it with a policy that pushes “institutional neutrality,” and directs chancellors to reduce “force and spending” for DEI efforts, as well as change job titles and descriptions.

The vote was shrouded in secrecy. It was added to the board’s agenda about 24 hours before the committee met and was voted on in less than four minutes with no discussion from board members.

After the meeting, the UNC System did not make anyone available to WUNC to comment on the record about the policy or the process by which it was presented and voted on.

The only comments from board members have been written statements from UNC System leaders and a BOG member op-ed posted by a conservative-leaning publication.

The repeal and replacement of the 2019 policy is in limbo until the full Board of Governors votes on it next month. That vote is currently scheduled to take place on May 23 at the System Office in Raleigh.

Ahead of this vote, campus leaders are organizing multiple efforts to share their concerns.

On Thursday, the UNC Faculty Assembly will hold a regular meeting with System Office administration. The group will include senior leadership, and Maki said he has “every expectation” that UNC System President Peter Hans will be there as well.

The meeting is not open to the public, but faculty assembly leaders plan to use this time to share campus community concerns about the BOG’s DEI policy.

Beth Moracco will represent UNC-Chapel Hill. She said that faculty who have commented to her are, for the most part, against the new policy and feel like it’s divisive.

“The other thing I’m hearing is ‘it feels like a big setback, it feels unnecessary, we feel blindsided, it doesn’t feel inclusive and welcoming,’” Moracco said. “There’s a lot of concern and just really negative feedback about the process, because it’s counter to the principles of shared governance. To not even be consulted, or even aware that this was coming, (faculty) really feel blindsided, taken aback and like (it’s) an action that’s not taken in good faith.”

Headshot of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill associate professor Beth Moracco
UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chair Beth Moracco

Maki said at his school, UNC-Greensboro, he’s heard reactions for and against policies enforcing DEI efforts.

One thing faculty members agree on, however, is that the BOG’s process is problematic.

“Faculty are very concerned about wondering what’s next — is this how North Carolina’s going to operate?” Maki said. “Dropping things last minute, no evidentiary phase, no discussion and just rushing things through without really knowing what the impact is going to be?”

In his role, Maki is often the bridge between System administration and faculty across the state. That means he’s involved in discussions around policy revisions, including a civics learning requirement he recently spearheaded that took nearly four months to pass.

He said policy decisions are typically a months-to-year-long process filled with presentations, panels that include stakeholders from multiple perspectives, and robust BOG discussions.

“But that’s not what happened here — and that’s a loss for everybody,” Maki said. “This affects us not only on the DEI issue. This has a corrosive effect on trust and relationships that will impact us negatively going forward in the state of North Carolina.”

UNC-Chapel Hill students Alexander Denza, Samuel Scarborough and Jaeda Wagner said the BOG long ago lost their trust. The three are part of a campus-level progressive coalition called transparUNCy, as well as a multi-campus group called the Southern Student Action Coalition.

Last week, they held a “teach-in” with over 170 students to discuss administrators’ “attack on DEI.” The discussion followed a March UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting, where member Jim Blaine predicted the UNC BOG would “follow Florida’s path” and eliminate DEI initiatives. Blaine is the former Chief of Staff to Republican Phil Berger, the North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem.

Anti-DEI bills in Florida led the University of Florida to fire 13 staff members and eliminate its chief diversity officer position. Florida is part of a growing list of states that have been passing legislation banning DEI efforts on college campuses.

Several UNC-Chapel Hill trustees had also planned on advocating for completely eliminating DEI funding from UNC-Chapel Hill’s budget, before the BOG committee plan surfaced.

This statement from Blaine coupled with the UNC-CH BOT’s plans has left Denza, Scarborough and Wagner worried about how a DEI policy change could be implemented at their school.

These worries include what might happen to identity-based academic centers, DEI-based research and internship programs through the Chapel Hill DEI office.

“A lot of (initiatives) are devoted to serving marginalized communities,” Scarborough said. “There’s a wide range of academic centers and programs that might fit under the (defunding) umbrella, depending on who your chancellor is.”

Moracco, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chair, said faculty are also worried about how broad the policy is, especially the “institutional neutrality” section. She said faculty are concerned that it could influence work in classrooms, research centers and labs.

“That could have a potential chilling effect on (a variety of campus-related) activities, because the language is so broad and nonspecific,” Moracco said. “And it does feel like it’s kind of added on in a way that isn’t consistent with the rest of their proposed policy.”

The full UNC Board of Governors meets April 18, one day after a board committee voted to repeal the System's DEI policy. The policy previously mandated DEI offices and Chief Diversity Officers at all public universities in North Carolina.
The full UNC Board of Governors meets April 18, one day after a board committee voted to repeal the System’s DEI policy. The policy previously mandated DEI offices and Chief Diversity Officers at all public universities in North Carolina.

Maki said the UNC System has stated that there will eventually be guidance to accompany the policy, but he too worries how individual chancellors will interpret it all.

“Some may not go far enough and then they have to make changes later. But some people will over comply – and (that’s) a real concern for us,” Maki said. “Because it means that things that were actually good and beneficial may stop, because of a particular fear or interpretation about what the actual rules are.”

In addition to the faculty assembly meeting this week, Maki said he and others are organizing several efforts to share their concerns with UNC System leadership. This includes connecting with other groups, such as those representing students, marginalized communities, and staff to organize joint actions.

These efforts are, however, up against a timeline. The full board vote is scheduled less than a month from now and semesters are coming to an end.

“In a week or two, most campuses are going to be empty and that’s unfortunate,” Maki said. “But we’re moving as fast as we can to respond to something that we had no warning was coming.”

The hope is that by hearing concerns across the System, the Board of Governors will pull the policy change off its consent agenda and vote on it as a separate item. But Maki said the end goal is to push that vote back even more — at least by six months — to allow for students, faculty and other campus stakeholders to have their voice heard.

“Concerns around equity, diversity and inclusion aren’t new. We know the legislature has expressed concerns, some governors have written publicly about their concerns,” Maki said. “Let’s make sure we follow a process that engenders trust to all stakeholders and actually surface issues in public, discuss them and then develop a policy. That’s the best way to do things.”

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC's higher education reporter and 2023 Fletcher Fellow, working in partnership with Open Campus.