Ideological battles at UNC continue as board considers equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion report

By: - January 31, 2018 5:00 am

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Last week the UNC Board of Governors received a report summarizing Equal Opportunity and Diversity & Inclusion services at the system’s 17 schools and whether they could be consolidated and centralized for cost savings.

The short answer, according to the report: Consolidation is possible, but isn’t likely to save much money. Also, doing so could hurt the good work being done across the system to conform to federal equal opportunity rules and create more diverse and inclusive campus communities.

In a committee meeting ahead of last week’s full board meeting, some of the more conservative members of the almost entirely Republican board questioned the “return on investment” of the diversity programs and personnel and criticized how the work is done.

“I have no animus toward any of the topics we’ve been discussing,” said board member Joe Knott. “But I’m wondering what would be the effect on our university system if all the money, people, staff and energy that goes into these separate divisions from Equal Opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion were just eliminated and those responsibilities were to fall back on the traditional staff and faculty – which my understanding is the faculty were traditionally there to answer the deep philosophical and moral questions.”

The cost of the work across the system isn’t insignificant.

Personnel salary costs related to Equal Opportunity, Diversity & Inclusion is currently $14,713,412 a year, according to the report. Another $1,902,312 is spent on non-personnel costs. That includes things like budgeted supplies, technology, space, publications and training.

“I think we have to look at money spent and return on investment,” said board member Marty Kotis. “How do we know we’re spending the right amount of resources on this and how do you determine ROI on this? Is this the best use of resources? How do we know the metrics? How should we fund it?”

Kotis suggested it would be better to find outside sources such as private foundations or nonprofits to pay for the work, if possible.

N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson was on hand with N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin to defend the programs at last week’s committee meeting.

He pointed out that about half of the money is spent on compliance – that is, making sure the universities are meeting federal equal opportunity guidelines. Failure to do so would not only be a failure of the schools’ missions but could open the system up to lawsuits.

“On the compliance side, I don’t think you want the vulnerability of 17 campuses being as exposed as we all would be without this equal opportunity work,” Woodson said.

But both Woodson and Martin said the measure of the work and its efficacy is best seen in the success of students when they enter a culturally diverse world, and in which students are being graduated.

“Last year N.C. State and Georgia Tech were the two major schools with engineering schools that produced African American engineers outside the HBCUs,” Woodson said. “Those are examples of metrics that drive us to think, are we making the kind of investments we need to be?”

“I’m in the office of a lot of CEOs around the country who are hiring our graduates,” Woodson said. “And every one of them, the first conversation is about what we are doing to increase diversity and inclusion on our campus. That’s not to feel good. That’s because there is study after study to show that organizations that focus on inclusion and diversity produce students who do better in diverse working environments.”

N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin and N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson defend the programs.

Martin echoes those sentiments, saying that at historically Black colleges and universities like N.C. A&T, the conversation about diversity is different. A&T has focused on integrating more non-Black students and faculty into the campus community while upholding its historic commitment to minority students, Martin said, as well as making lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students feel welcome.

But whatever the work looks like on each campus, Martin said, concentrating on diversity always strengthens the educational experience and creates better graduates.

“We run complex organizations,” Martin said. “And we are seeking to create a high quality educational experience and environment for our students. And at the end of the day, the [return on investment] is not only graduating students in record numbers but [that] the rest of the world wants them in record numbers, and they are continuing to distinguish themselves.”

The study does suggest that it’s difficult to directly measure the work being done across campuses and calculate a return on investment in a traditional business sense. That’s partially because of the type of work being done and partially because campuses across the system do it so differently, the report concludes.

Eleven schools in the system have a decentralized model without a single leader above all offices or programs for this work: Appalachian State, East Carolina, N.C. A&T, N.C. Central, UNC Asheville, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, UNC Pembroke, UNC Wilmington, Western Carolina and Winston Salem State.

The remaining six schools have a centralized model for EO and D&I work with one clear leader. Those schools are: Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, N.C. State, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC School of the Arts and N.C. School of Science and Math.

There are 11 state-wide Equal Opportunity and Diversity & Inclusion policies, the report said –most of them mandated by state or federal law or by executive orders. There are nearly 200 institution-specific policies among the schools, according to the report.

While the way it’s done may be open to improvement, Martin said, it’s worth not only preserving but expanding resources devoted to fostering diversity and inclusiveness.

“You also have to foster a conversation around what is good advising and what are the needs of our students, because there is a diversity of needs,” Martin said. “Some of our students come into the university with a very narrow view of the world and you have to start a conversation, broaden their worldview. You also have to have people who they feel comfortable going to and talking about who they are.”

Board member Steve Long said the programs can often go too far.

Board member Steve Long

He cited student and parent complaints that included a white student feeling embarrassed when asked to take part in an orientation game in which students stepped forward based on different aspects of societal privilege from their backgrounds – being raised with both parents, or having traveled widely, for instance. Long said the student, who was naturally shy, was embarrassed to be among those in the game who were determined to be most privileged.

In other examples students were encouraged to talk about their sexual orientation and that of their parents – things Long said were outside of the scope of what the university should be doing.

Martin, Woodson and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt all acknowledged that in large universities with a lot of moving pieces – including programs overseen by faculty, staff and students – missteps can be made. But Folt said when they are brought to the attention of administration, as in the examples given, they are corrected as part of an ongoing learning process.

Several board members said they worried that these programs are used – whether by faculty, students or staff looking to encourage diversity – as “indoctrination” of liberal principles rather than a focus on true diversity of thought.

Woodson rejected that idea in his comments to the committee.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘What can I do to educate a liberal?’” Woodson said. “I think ‘What can I do to give our students the skills and talents they need when they leave and go to work for IBM, Cisco or Joe Knott’s law firm?’”

Gabriel Lugo, chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly told board members that he was himself once skeptical of the salary costs of diversity personnel and the programs they ran. But as a professor, he has seen their work pay off.

“When I went to college I didn’t see anybody who looked like me,” Lugo said. “When I was a professor I looked for people who looked like me and for decades, I saw none.”

But within a few years of diversity programs being implemented, Lugo said, he began to see more Hispanic students in his upper level math classes.

“This is one of the reasons we do need these programs,” Lugo said.

The board’s Personnel and Tenure committee voted to accept the report and move it to the full UNC Board of Governors for discussion. The board’s next full meeting is March 23 at UNC Wilmington.

“I have heard nothing that would lead me to believe the report is not an accurate and complete report,” said committee Chairman Doyle Parrish. “I have also heard a lot of passion around this topic – diversity and inclusion. I don’t think I heard anyone say it isn’t a good thing, that it isn’t necessary. If anything, we’re looking to do it better and more efficient and put in place the things that will assist the training, oversight and better execution on the campus level.”

Read the entire study by clicking here.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.