UNC reopening hampered by lack of diverse leadership

By: - August 26, 2020 5:30 am
Image: Creative Commons

This is a difficult and painful time for students, staff and faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill as students move out of campus housing and quickly switch to remote instruction. To be sure, this is a constantly changing and very serious situation, but there are leadership lessons to start applying now.

Over the past few months, I have attended countless virtual meetings where faculty and students shared their concerns about the university’s reopening. They also proposed alternatives to UNC’s Roadmap to Fall 2020. During these meetings, I was repeatedly struck by the lack of racial and cultural diversity among our university’s top leadership and decision-makers. It also quickly became clear that students and faculty of color had been excluded from the decision-making process. This must change.

Throughout the summer, student leaders from the UNC Commission for Campus Equality and Student Equity, which is mainly composed of students of color, called on the university to adopt a plan to “de-densify” residence halls and have 100% online classes. At the time, no one appeared to heed their recommendations. But now, university leadership claims this as their plan.

UNC’s reopening plan cannot be divorced from ongoing challenges related to race and racism at the university. Along with other UNC faculty of color, I developed and launched the Roadmap for Racial Equity in late June. Our roadmap calls for substantive structural and policy changes, as well as increased diversity among the university’s faculty and leadership.  While more than 1,200 UNC faculty, students and alumni, as well as community members, have endorsed this roadmap, it remains to be seen how fully the university will implement the recommendations.

Approximately 86% of UNC’s leadership is white, a greater proportion than the student body, which is 64% white. When we think about statewide demographics, 70.6% of North Carolinians are white, 22% are African American, 9.8% are Latinx, 3% are Asian American and 1.6% are Native American.

Unfortunately, however, this diversity is not reflected among key higher education decision-makers in the state, including members of the UNC Board of Trustees and UNC System Board of Governors. There is one African American on the 13-member UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees (8%) and three African Americans serve on the 24-member UNC System Board of Governors (12%). The composition of both boards is especially troubling, since neither accurately represents the citizens of North Carolina or the changing demographics of our country.

The private sector has increasingly recognized that having diverse teams and decision-makers drives innovation and encourages “out of the box” thinking. I am convinced that the lack of diverse perspectives involved in the construction of UNC’s Roadmap to Fall 2020, as well as in implementing it, led to the outcome we are now facing. Our personal experiences inform the decisions and policies we make. They also influence who and what we prioritize.

This is especially relevant to decision-making during a pandemic that is having a disparate impact on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. Had a diverse group of UNC community members been involved in developing the university’s reopening plan, they would have been able to construct a roadmap and “off-ramp” that centered on the needs of marginalized students, faculty and staff. Such a plan would have accounted for low-income students’ financial situations and the needs of low-wage staff, ultimately benefiting the entire campus at this critical time.

UNC students of all backgrounds are now in deep distress. They are being forced to spend time and money to leave the campus and quickly reconfigure their lives, while taking classes. Much of the turmoil the university is experiencing could have been avoided if we had diverse leadership and if decisions were made in a more transparent manner with true shared governance among faculty and administrators. We need change in who makes decisions and how they are made, from the Board of Governors down to committees and task forces at the university. The voices of all members of our campus and state community matter and need to be included and valued.  This is a hallmark of not only good, but also inclusive, leadership.

Our nation and higher education system are at an important crossroads as we face the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. Leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the UNC System level can use this as a teachable moment. One important lesson is that diversity in leadership and decision making is not optional; it is essential. During the current moment, who makes decisions and how may also mean the difference between life and death.

Kia Caldwell is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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