UNC-Chapel Hill grapples with non-discrimination policies, will set tone for university system

By: - July 27, 2023 5:55 am
UNC-Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill trustees continue to debate admissions policies in the aftermath of a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the use of affirmative action. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees began work Wednesday on changing the university’s non-discrimination policies after last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision against using race in admissions.

At a full day of committee hearings, board members crafted language expected to be brought to a vote at Thursday’s full board meeting.

Dean Weber, head of the university’s Internal Audit department, told the board his department has been assessing the school’s diversity mission and implementation after the court decision.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion topics, referred to as DEI, are currently on the forefront of the higher education landscape right now,” Weber told the board Wednesday. “This encompasses DEI concerns within the student admission process, human resources, hiring, contracting as well as perceived or actual occurrences of structural racism within policy.”

The Supreme Court decision affects that mission, Weber said.

“At this early post-decision point, the university is adapting admission practices to fully comply with the ruling,” Weber said. “Addressing structural racism within the UNC System in general, the UNC System, the university and state government are reviewing and addressing laws and organizational policies right now that have been created over time and may support, in some instances, perceived unfair advantages for some people or harmful treatment of others based on racial or ethnic groups.”

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz
UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (Photo: Screen grab of videostream/PBSNC.org)

Affirmative action in admissions, using race as a criterion, has long been politically divisive. In the recent court case, North Carolina has been in an unusual political position. The state’s Republican legislative majority generally opposes affirmative action. That majority appoints the governing board of the UNC System, as well as trustees at individual campuses.

But UNC-Chapel Hill was defending its policy of using of race in admissions – and by extension, that of universities across the 16-campus UNC System.

In the immediate aftermath of the high court’s ruling, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz called the decision “not the outcome we hoped for” in a message to the campus community, but said the university would comply.

That message led members of the UNC Board of Governors to question why Guskiewicz would publicly lament the decision. They also asked whether he agrees with the decision philosophically and if he agreed with comments by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the value of a diverse student body.

“The lens by which I view this through is my experience at a place like Carolina,” Guskiewicz told the board of governors.  “Where those different lived experiences and a curriculum coming to life when you have students in that classroom who can contribute in a meaningful way that I think prepares our students to become active participants in our democracy.”

“The bottom line is a decision has been made,” Guskiewicz said. “And we will abide by that decision.”

Diversity policies, statements scrutinized

As NC Newsline reported in March, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations has requested documents related to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) training programs through the UNC System and all of its campuses.

NC Newsline has requested the resulting data. The UNC System directed the request to the General Assembly, which has refused to provide it.

The General Assembly’s request comes during a national wave of anti-DEI legislation and sentiment from Republicans, comparable (and in some ways related) to their campaign to cast Critical Race Theory as racist indoctrination itself.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which claims to be world’s largest business organization, sees it differently. “Combined, DEI involves creating a place where everyone is welcome, supported, and has the resources they need to grow and thrive regardless of identity, origin, or difference in circumstances,” reads a piece encouraging DEI strategies published on the Chamber’s website last year. “Employers typically achieve DEI goals by creating a DEI strategy to develop best practices and track their progress.”

Republicans nationwide have seized on DEI efforts as liberal indoctrination, encouraged by conservative political activists who have been open in their desire to make diversity efforts “the perfect villain” in political campaigns ranging from local school boards to gubernatorial and even presidential races.

Early this year, months before the Supreme Court ruling, the UNC System Board of Governors passed a policy change that would effectively ban DEI statements or questions about commitment to diversity in hiring or admissions as “compelled speech.”

Many university divisions are now looking at their DEI efforts to be sure they comply with system policy, Weber told the board Wednesday.

A debate over wording, interpretation

Marty Kotis, a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, said Wednesday the board wants to be sure its own policy language complies with the changing legal landscape and UNC system policy.

“The concept of this is to ensure compliance out there,” Kotis said. “And to be sure we’re affording equal protection to our students and faculty and contractors out there. We’re anticipating, everyone’s anticipating, a follow-up to [the Supreme Court decision] that will delve in and look at compliance issues as well as where this spills over into other areas.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis. Photo: Joe Killian

The trustees are trying to be proactive, Kotis said, in examining language in the university’s own policies. On Wednesday, board members looked at non-discrimination language passed earlier this year, adding “admissions” to a section on non-discrimination in hiring and contracting in light of the Supreme Court decision.

In a discussion of policy language, Kotis and David Boliek, chair of the board of trustees, debated changes that would go beyond saying that the board would follow all applicable laws.

“None of us can do anything, theoretically, that is unlawful,” Kotis said. “I think what I’m looking for here is a little more policy. Not just saying we’ll follow the law, because clearly the university thought it was following the law before [the recent Supreme Court decision.]”

Kotis said the university should make clear it will seek out and eliminate examples of discrimination.

The university does discriminate, Boliek said. For instance, it discriminates based on students’ athletic ability and discriminates in favor of in-state students. Under state law, Boliek said, the university must discriminate in favor of military veterans. It’s important to keep existing language that makes clear the university follows the non-discrimination laws for protected classes, Boliek said.

Kotis suggested the university create a list of areas in which they lawfully discriminate. Boliek said he will see that the university prepares such a list for the board.

Another board member, Perrin Jones, suggested language that would explicitly prohibit the university asking admissions questions that may act as “proxies” for race-based preferences. When asking about personal experiences, Jones suggested, the university must judge answers based on their experiences as a person and not on the basis of race.

While that sort of language is being embraced in a number of Republican dominated states since the Supreme Court’s decision, critics call it an overreach.

In a roundtable discussion on the issue earlier this month, David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said universities are within their rights — and within the law — to ask students how race has impacted their lives.

While the Supreme Court’s decision would prohibit colleges and universities from making the race of applicants a factor, Hinojosa said, the majority opinion clearly stated that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

Whether or not questions about experiences of race would be unconstitutional, they may still violate the system’s policy banning questions “regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement.”

The university’s non-discrimination language will likely be further debated during Thursday’s full board meeting. That meeting, like Wednesday’s, has been designated a “special meeting” in order to allow members traveling over the summer to participate remotely.

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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.

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