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Equal opportunity and diversity report sparks UNC Board of Governors debate

A new report on “Equal Opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion” was presented at Thursday’s meeting of the Personnel and Tenure committee of the UNC Board of Governors – and pushback was almost immediate.

Several of the more conservative members of the almost entirely Republican board questioned the “return on investment” of diversity programs and personnel, asked if they couldn’t be centralized rather than existing at all campuses and cited examples of students made uncomfortable by diversity programs.

“I’m not trying to be provocative here,” board member Joe Knott said as discussion began. “I’m asking a question. I have no animus toward any of the topics we’ve been discussing. 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.”

N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin and N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson were on hand to talk about the value of diversity programs and staff at their schools. They told Knott and other board members that most of the staff doing that sort of work isn’t doing it alone.

Still, Martin said, resources devoted to diversity and inclusiveness are valuable and worth not only preserving but expanding.

“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. He cited student and parent complaints that included a white student feeling embarrassed when asked to take part in an orientation game where 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 preference and that of their parents  – things Long said were outside of the scope of what the university should be doing.

Martin, Woodson and UNC 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.

“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?'”

“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 a feel-good measure, Woodson said, but the result of many studies that show students who learn in a diverse environment and are taught to value diversity perform better in the real world.

“We can’t prosper as a system if our students aren’t successful,” Woodson said. “And that’s beyond just graduating – that’s going out into the workforce and finding a career.”

The committee unanimously approved the report, which will go on to the full board for discussion.

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