Photo: Adobe Stock
When the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations sent a recent detailed request to the UNC System seeking information about any Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) training programs employed by the system and its 17 campuses, Professor Jelani Favors wasn’t surprised.
“We’ve been here before,” he told Policy Watch this week.
Favors is a history professor at N.C. A&T University and author of the award-winning book “Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism.” As he teaches his students, he said, powerful social movements often have their beginnings at colleges and universities — and they often inspire powerful backlash.
“The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired a conservative backlash in the late 1960s that gave us Nixon and Reagan at the national level,” Favors said. “There was also a movement at the state level; we saw university presidents fired as they tried to get at the heart of many of these social movements, the universities and especially HBCUs.”
History is now repeating, Favors said, as it so often does.
“The movement we have seen the last few years in terms of confronting the racist history of America and confronting white supremacy now is seeing that same kind of backlash,” Favors said. “By trying to redefine terms like ‘critical race theory’ and ‘DEI,’ in making them the boogeyman, they are trying to stomp out real discussions of racism and the ‘training’ around race that led to a lot of the ideas we have today.”
The request, part of a larger “inquiry into university employee training programs administered through the UNC System or its member universities,” included a long list of terms defining DEI that reads like a round-up of recent conservative talking-points:
‘Diversity’, ‘equity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘accessibility’, ‘racism’, ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-racist’, ‘oppression’, ‘internalized oppression’, ‘systemic racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘gender’, ‘LGBTQ+’, ‘white supremacy’, ‘unconscious bias’, ‘bias’, ‘microaggressions’, ‘critical race theory’, ‘intersectionality’, or ‘social justice.’”
The deadline for producing the requested information on training programs using those words was Tuesday. Policy Watch has requested the responses from the UNC System and from the commission but has not yet received them.
Similar inquiries have led to 28 bills in 17 states so far this year banning aspects of DEI — most built on model legislation from conservative think-tanks like The Manhattan Institute.
“So-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies at public universities operate as divisive ideological commissariats, promulgating and enforcing Critical Race Theory and related political orthodoxies as official campus policy,” one issue brief on DEI from the Manhattan Institute reads.
That’s a far cry from how the people actually engaged in DEI efforts describe their work.
‘It’s about learning’
This month Policy Watch talked with six employees at five UNC System campuses — two of them HBCUs — who have direct involvement in DEI efforts and trainings. Policy Watch agreed not to identify them as they fear retribution for speaking openly on a contentious political issue that involves aspects of their work being specifically targeted.
“Quite simply, efforts toward Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are what they sound like,” said one staff member who has done DEI work at N.C. A&T. “It’s about making people in the community — students, faculty, staff, even administration — think about their words and actions, the ideas those words and actions represent, and whether that’s creating the kind of on-campus community and culture that is safe and productive for everyone from every background to learn and to achieve.”
One example, this staffer said, was a training wherein a professor at A&T said he has taken his Black students to task in class for wearing their hair naturally. That will make it harder for them to get work in the corporate world, he said, and they need to know that now while they are studying.
“That’s an example here, of a professor at the nation’s largest HBCU, publicly criticizing his students in his class for nothing more than choosing to wear their hair in the way it comes, without changing it to make white people more comfortable,” they said. “Should a student at any university have to face that kind of race-specific criticism about their body in a classroom? Should anyone who works for a university feel free to tell them they need to racially assimilate, to be less obviously Black?”
Confronting those ideas, and talking about why they are inappropriate, is an example of everyday DEI work, the staffer said.
“It’s about learning,” they said. “The idea that we would be against learning at a university, that there’s nothing that needs to be taught, no training that needs to be done, around these issues at our universities, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
To Favors, it is as much about un-learning. As much about re-training as it is training.
“There is a reason that a professor might say that kind of thing, about their hair, to a student in their class at an HBCU,” Favors said. “HBCUs are not magical places that are free of racism, self-hatred and all of the white supremacist ideas that we’ve all been taught, we’ve all been trained, to believe. We’ve been trained for generations to embrace these ideas, that Black is inherently unprofessional, the idea of the need to assimilate and respectability politics.”
One of the things DEI aims to do is confront and interrogate those ideas, Favors said. That’s why it’s under attack.
Diversity ‘makes us who we are’
“It’s a trend you see on the national news,” said Dr. William Sturkey, a UNC-Chapel Hill history professor who specializes in post-1865 U.S. history and the history of race in the American South. “People want to get riled up, they want to get involved, and people without ideas need something to attack. Right now, higher education is in the crosshairs.”
The current moral panic over Critical Race Theory and DEI is very much the chorus of a familiar song in the nation’s history, he told Policy Watch.
“When you look at it [a list of terms like the one requested from the UNC System], you can see that they can cherry pick — they can look for the Blacks, the gays, whoever,” Sturkey said. “It’s just taking the playbook from a number of other states. This happens in American life, and especially happens with regard to the history of race in this country.”
“The Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century were states emulating each other,” Sturkey said. “Louisiana passed some law about street cars and Mississippi said, ‘You know what? That’s a great idea. We want to do that too.’ It’s the same exact thing happening, without much thought I think to the unique situations in each state.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz confronted staff concerns about the DEI request and a UNC recent Board of Governors policy on “compelled speech” at last week’s meeting of the General Faculty and Faculty Council.
The policy change, written broadly, doesn’t give specific examples of “compelled speech.” But in practice, the language would prohibit “DEI statements” — either asking students or prospective hires for their view on diversity, equity and inclusion or asking that they commit to the institution’s values on the subject.
“[T]he University shall neither solicit nor require an employee or applicant for academic admission or employment to affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement,” the proposed change reads.
“Nor shall any employee or applicant be solicited or required to describe his or her actions in support of, or in opposition to, such beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles,” it reads. “Practices prohibited here include but are not limited to solicitations or requirements for statements of commitment to particular views on matters of contemporary political debate or social action contained on applications or qualifications for admission or employment or included as criteria for analysis of an employee’s career progression.”
Together with the targeted look at DEI, the efforts of the legislature and its political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors appear very much in line with national trends in conservative activism.
Guskiewicz acknowledged the national trend toward targeting DEI and reiterated the university’s commitment to diversity.
“We are not the only university system in the country that is being asked to take an inventory of D, E and I,” Guskeiwicz said. “We are not alone there.”
“I want to be clear that our commitment to the value of diversity remains unchanged,” Guskiewicz said. “I said that in the campus message I released a few weeks ago. It’s the first initiative in our strategic plan, Carolina Next — build our community together.”
The university can’t do its work if it’s not a place where people from all experiences and backgrounds feel that they are welcome and will contribute to the mission of the university, Guskiewicz said.
That point was underlined this week by polling from the Art & Science Group, a consulting firm specializing in higher education.
The group’s polling, fielded this winter, found that one in four high school seniors reported they ruled out certain campuses based on the politics, policies or unfolding legal situations in certain states.
The findings held true across the political spectrum, with self-identified liberal students (31 percent), conservative students (28 percent) and moderates (22 percent) all reporting they avoided certain states.
Faculty members told Guskiewicz that they feel under increased scrutiny from conservative political appointees on the board of governors and the school’s board of trustees — often leading to highly partisan conflicts that cast their work in political rather than academic terms.
Dr. Jennifer Goralski, an assistant professor of Medicine and co-director of the university’s Adult Cystic Fibrosis Center, said the compelled speech policy leaves a disturbing amount of room open for what could be considered “contemporary political debate.”
“Reproductive health is not a ‘contemporary political debate,’” Goralski said. “And neither is transgender suicide. That is a health care problem. Racial biases in medicine are a health care problem. It concerns me that making this policy so broad is going to serve as a slippery slope to narrow down what we are allowed to teach our trainees and future doctors.”
The university will comply with requests from the legislature and follow the policies set forth by the board of governors, Guskiewicz said. But it will also continue its work toward diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I want you to hear that we as a leadership team and you as a faculty, I believe, are committed to this diverse community that makes us who we are,” Guskiewicz said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.