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Some Black UNC-Chapel Hill faculty feel 'undervalued,' consider leaving over tenure controversy
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Some Black UNC-Chapel Hill faculty feel 'undervalued,' consider leaving over tenure controversy

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CHAPEL HILL — About 20 Black faculty and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill say they are considering leaving because they feel undervalued on campus, particularly in light of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones not being offered tenure.

Members of the Carolina Black Caucus took a poll at their regularly scheduled meeting this week and found that 70% of the about 30 attendees are considering leaving UNC-CH and more than 60% of them are actively looking for other jobs.

The group announced the news in a tweet Wednesday.

The Carolina Black Caucus is made up of about 250 faculty, graduate students and alumni who advocate for equal rights across campus for Black faculty, staff and community members.

“We feel as though we’re treated differently when it comes to things like tenure, raises and promotions,” said Jaci Field, co-chair of the group’s advocacy committee. “We feel like we’re generally undervalued at Carolina.”

Though just 30 members were in attendance Wednesday, Field said they think this poll is representative of the climate for all Black people at UNC. Black employees feel uncomfortable at Carolina and don’t want to stay, she said.

“It’s been a conversation that we’ve been having for a couple of years,” Field said. “The Nikole Hannah-Jones situation really just brings the issue to the forefront.”

Hannah-Jones, who is a Black woman, is set to join the faculty in July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The Board of Trustees has not offered Hannah-Jones tenure for that position, which previous Knight Chairs have received. She is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work on The 1619 Project, which aims to reframe the country’s history by putting slavery and Black Americans at the center of it.

The issue has caused national outrage among professional journalists, scholars and UNC-CH faculty who have defended Hannah-Jones and demanded she get tenure. Critics have pointed to race and politics as the reasons behind the board’s decisions, particularly surrounding The 1619 Project.

And at least one top faculty recruit withdrew her candidacy because of the situation.

Hannah-Jones’ attorneys threatened a federal lawsuit in May, saying UNC-CH “unlawfully discriminated against Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race.” No lawsuit has been filed yet, but university lawyers are talking with her legal team.

“Especially over the last year and a half, this is exactly what we’ve been trying to describe to everyone,” Field said. “This very situation is the definition of systemic racism.”

UNC-CH has 226 Black full-time faculty members as of fall 2020, according to a university report. And 69 of them have tenure, which is about 30%. Black faculty members also make up less than 5% of the total tenured faculty. There are more than 4,000 total full-time faculty members at UNC-CH.

About 8% of UNC-CH’s student body are African-American students.

Student Body President Lamar Richards, who is Black, tweeted this week that he’s spoken to more than a dozen incoming undergraduate students of color and their families over the past week who are concerned about the campus environment.

Richards said “many, if not all, of them are reconsidering coming to Carolina” and he firmly supports that decision.

It’s understandable why students and faculty wouldn’t feel safe coming to Carolina, Field added. And while she supports her colleagues who don’t feel valued and want to leave, she believes some need to stay at the university — even if Black faculty and staff aren’t recognized appropriately.

“Someone has to stay in the fight and stand up for everyone else that can’t and for those that come after us,” Field said.

The environment had been improving over the past two years with the new chancellor and new leadership, she explained. They’d fought through the issues with the Silent Sam Confederate monument on campus and were making progress.

“It felt like we were climbing out of this hole, and then the Board of Trustees stood on our fingers as we were about to climb out,” Field said. “It really was getting better.”

Field applauded the work that UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has done to continue the conversation of racial justice, particularly through the Commission on Race, History and A Way Forward.

“He’s done a great job listening and creating some new initiatives for hiring minorities and restructuring the diversity equity and inclusion program,” Field said. “It’s a shame that we’ve gone so far back with just one incident.”

Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-CH faculty, was alarmed by the Carolina Black Caucus announcement, but said it does speak to strong feelings on campus surrounding the Hannah-Jones situation.

“The longer this situation is unresolved,” she said, “the greater distress we are going to experience as a faculty.”

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