Toll from political push at UNC continues to mount

By: - June 14, 2021 12:34 pm

Prof. Malinda Maynor Lowery

In an exclusive interview, a distinguished Lumbee historian explains her decision to leave UNC-Chapel Hill

When renowned historian Malinda Maynor Lowery heard acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones couldn’t get a vote on tenure from the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, she felt sad and angry. But she was no longer surprised.

A Lumbee tribal member and director of the school’s Center for the Study of the American South, Lowery said she had for years watched weak leadership and the politicization of the university harm the school’s reputation and demoralize its students and faculty of color.

By the time the school’s failure to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones was generating international headlines, Lowery had already made her decision. She was leaving UNC-Chapel Hill for Emory University in Atlanta.

“If someone is as accomplished as her and so deserving of tenure, especially compared to the comparative mediocrity of what’s gone before, and they won’t recognize that…I just had to weep,” Lowery said. “I actually cried over the depth of the injustice and the wound that our decision makers were aggravating with that decision.”

It wasn’t an easy decision, Lowery said. She has deep connections to North Carolina and to Chapel Hill, from which she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees. But like much of the faculty, she said, she has seen a glaring pattern in the school’s decision-making.

An illegal, backroom deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the Silent Sam Confederate monument. The disastrous decision to bring students back to full capacity dorms in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic against the advice of the Orange County Health Department. Private communications with wealthy, conservative donors over the hiring of Hannah-Jones and the decision to avoid a vote on the tenure bestowed on her white predecessors.

The pattern in these actions: leadership that prized the political concerns of the conservative dominated UNC Board of Governors, political appointees of the North Carolina General Assembly’s GOP majority, above all else.

These decisions have risked the health and safety of students and faculty, Lowery said, harmed their trust in the university and cost the campus millions in lost court battles and grants pulled by funding partners who say the school is betraying its own declared values.

“There’s just a variety of things that, in this pattern, are going to ensue,” Lowery said. “It’s totally predictable and entirely avoidable. But they continue to ignore the expertise of the people around them in order to uphold the decision making of people who have no expertise.”

With the Hannah-Jones decision, which looks headed for a federal discrimination lawsuit, Lowery said the school now appears to be wavering on the core principle of academic freedom in the face of political concerns.

“I don’t have the bandwidth to spend the next 15 years of my career stressing over whether my campus leaders support academic freedom and the tenure that accompanies that,” Lowery said. “We absolutely depend on it to teach our classes. We absolutely depend on it to produce knowledge that benefits society. If UNC-Chapel Hill is not going to support it, then the reputation of UNC-Chapel Hill is going to decline.”

“Toxic positivity”

There were many factors in Lowery’s decision to leave.

The school’s disinvestment in Indigenous studies. Its refusal to offer competitive salaries to get the best scholars in their fields. A “do more with less” ethos Lowery said has been obvious since 2010, the year Republicans took control of state government.

“Still, I felt like I could accommodate all of that as long as university leadership was not also doing other, harmful things,” Lowery said.

But it became obvious that it was, and would continue to, Lowery said.

The school’s refusal to act around the overwhelming sentiment from its students and faculty that the Silent Sam Confederate monument should be removed from campus was bewildering and hurtful, Lowery said. When protesters actually pulled the statue down in 2018, she noted, members of the UNC Board of Governors called for it to be re-erected. The school’s leadership, from the chancellor to the school’s Board of Trustees, was slow to “take sides” on the matter just as they were on the importance of renaming buildings on campus that honored Ku Klux Klan leaders, enslavers and avowed racists.

“These are symbols not just of a racist past but a refusal to now adopt a way of life where we are responsible to each other,” Lowery said.

As a director of a center at UNC, Lowery said, she knows what it is like to be in difficult political positions and to make hard decisions that won’t make everyone happy.

“But when you make a decision, like the settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that does actual harm, you have to apologize,” Lowery said. “Even if you can’t prevent the harm or it was out of your hands – though, of course, now we know that administrators were directly involved – you owe an apology. And nobody did that. Not only was it not explained in a transparent manner, but nobody said, ‘I am sorry for the hurt this caused.’”

Instead, Lowery said, school leadership leaned on a brand of “toxic positivity”: asking students and faculty to concentrate on the removal of the statue from campus, but not the compromises with white nationalist groups by which the school attempted to make that happen.

It didn’t just insult students and faculty, particularly those of color. It also compromised the school’s relationship with the Mellon Foundation, which pulled a $1.5 million grant to the school over a legal settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans that was later legally invalidated by an Orange County Superior Court judge, anyway.

“For people in the qualitative social sciences and humanities, there are not that many big funders that we can turn to to develop innovative ideas,” Lowery said. “It’s not just the decision but the lack of action over the impact of the decision.”

There is a direct line between that failure of leadership and its consequences and the decision to leave UNC-Chapel Hill for Emory University, Lowery said.

“I can go to Emory and apply for Mellon funds,” Lowery said. “I can’t do that at UNC.”

That same “toxic positivity” was on display last summer, Lowery said, as the school struggled with whether to hold classes in person or remotely. The debate over COVID-19 was already highly politicized, and the UNC system’s board of governors was warning of heavy revenue losses and deep financial cuts to schools that went remote.

One of Lowery’s uncles died of  COVID just as it became apparent that school leadership — including the board of governors and campus chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz — was going to ignore the sentiments of the faculty, student groups and the Orange County Health Department in order to return students to full-capacity dorms. Guskiewicz and UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin went on television to preach positivity and assure people that the school could safely make the move back to on-campus living and instruction.

Within a week, however, clusters of infections overwhelmed the campus. The plan to return had to be abandoned at Chapel-Hill and most of the largest campuses in the UNC System.

Again, no one apologized, Lowery said. In fact, Blouin told faculty he didn’t intend to “apologize for trying.”

“That’s when I knew I had to begin looking for other opportunities,” Lowery said.

It was a moment that epitomized the dominance of politics over reason, Lowery said — and showed just how little faculty expertise was valued.

“Not valuing the faculty’s expertise around some of these core questions was a mistake,” Lowery said. “We talked passionately about the ethics of this — people in public health, in the humanities, in the colleges of arts and sciences. And none of that expertise was tapped. It was communicated around and dismissed in public forums.”

With the controversy over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure, Lowery said, it’s happening again.

“We are not being told what happened here, we’re not being told what is happening now,” Lowery said. “And we have faculty at our school, at schools around the country, telling the leadership what a mistake this was and how it should be handled. And again, that expertise is not being valued.”

As Policy Watch has reported, the costs are already apparent.

Lisa Jones, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Maryland at Baltimore that the UNC Chapel Hill chemistry department had been aggressively recruiting, decided against coming to the school earlier this month. In a letter to the school Jones, who is Black, called the treatment of Hannah-Jones “very disheartening.”

“It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity,” Jones wrote to the school. “Although I know this decision may not reflect the view of the school’s faculty, I will say that I cannot see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands. I appreciate all of the effort you have put into trying to recruit me but for me this is hard to overlook.”

Lowery said she could sympathize.

“Of course there is a cost to the harm to the school’s reputation from all of this and we’re seeing it,” Lowery said.

With Lowery’s exit, UNC’s loss is Emory’s gain. It’s not a decision she would have made years ago,  Lowery said, but it’s apparent UNC is becoming a different university.

“I don’t want to be at that university,” Lowery said. “I’m not going to stay there.”

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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.