Chapel Hill’s Latest DEI Push

The College of Arts and Sciences has declared war on institutional neutrality.

In January 2023, UNC-Chapel Hill launched its “DEI Strategic Plan” for the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). The DEI Strategic Plan is an offshoot of Chief Diversity Officer Leah Cox’s “Build Our Community Together” initiative, itself part of a 2020 program entitled “Carolina Next.”

That initiative outlines plans to align admissions, hiring, and retention policies with administrators’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Objectives include “​​prioritiz[ing] diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, research and service, and in hiring, evaluation, retention and promotion of under-represented faculty and staff.” This is in addition to “explor[ing] innovative approaches to admissions” focused on DEI.

In 2021, after the unveiling of the “Carolina Next” program, the university convened a “DEI Strategic Plan Committee” to craft DEI policy for the College of Arts and Sciences. Spearheaded by Senior Associate Dean Karla Slocum, whom CAS Dean James White appointed “to clearly signal that DEI is a core tenet of the College and a vital part of everything we do,” the committee spent 15 months developing its “Action Steps for Equity.”

College of Arts and Sciences: “All faculty and staff are part of our plan for DEI.”In December of 2022, James White and Karla Slocum sent a message to their CAS colleagues in anticipation of the new DEI plan’s implementation. The two explained that the College’s DEI overhaul would involve action from the “Dean’s Office, academic departments, noninstructional units and individuals.” Notably, they seemed to reveal an implicit expectation that all employees toe the DEI line, stating that “all faculty and staff are part of our plan for DEI.”

According to UNC’s website, the new plan involves four primary DEI agenda items: “enhancing climate,” “more deeply understanding pay equity,” “exploring and implementing measures in recruitment and retention to improve diversity,” and “attending to areas of repair, especially concerning our past.” Many of these initiatives began in the spring of 2023, while others are set to begin this fall.

The university routinely describes its DEI policies with jargonistic and innocuous-sounding language. For example, the new strategic initiative is couched as a way to prepare students to participate in a “more diversified economy.” Of course, DEI administrators do not mean “diversified” in the sense of possessing a growing range of products but, rather, in the sense that identity politics supplant free markets.

In fact, the terms “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are themselves euphemistic in nature. Diversity, while typically held to mean collaboration between people with different life experiences and viewpoints, has come to mean manipulating admissions and hiring so that “victimized” racial, gender, or other groups receive greater representation relative to “oppressor” groups. Equity, historically a reference to equal justice under law, now requires standardizing economic and educational outcomes, a process that is antithetical to the essence of classical liberal education. Inclusion, which might once have meant creating a space in which anyone is welcome, now means cracking down on speech and ideas that are incompatible with intersectional political thought, supposedly to protect minority groups. It is telling that UNC defines none of these terms on its DEI Strategic Plan website.

Once one understands the clandestine insidiousness of DEI terminology, it becomes clear that the action items listed in UNC’s “DEI Strategic Plan” are not so benign. For example, examination of “recruitment and retention” action items reveals potential plans to discriminate in hiring. In its effort to “improve diversity,” the university will “create annual cluster hires, expand existing cluster hires, and adopt hiring strategies to augment diversity among faculty.” Given the university’s superficial understanding of diversity, this action item likely implies employing overt racial or gender discrimination in hiring to meet administrators’ DEI goals.

It is telling that UNC fails to define DEI terms on its Strategic Plan website.Reached for comment, the UNC Media Relations office told the Martin Center that “cluster hiring is a way to build community and help the new faculty feel part of Carolina.” Though the university maintains that the practice is intended to foster interdisciplinary research, cluster hiring appears to be a covert way to pad diversity metrics by hiring from academic disciplines in which candidates are more likely to be “diverse.” According to the Media Relations office, cluster hires since 2018 have recruited faculty in the disciplines of “energy and water; data science; health and wellness in communities of color; and American Indian and Indigenous studies.”

The strategic plan’s aim to introduce “innovative approaches to admissions” is likewise worrisome. Given that UNC is currently under Supreme Court scrutiny for its use of racial preferences, perhaps these “innovative approaches” are designed to flout potential forthcoming restrictions on racial discrimination in admissions. Certainly, any DEI-focused admissions strategies will necessarily tilt the selection of students away from merit and achievement and toward favoring identity groups, at the expense of those disfavored.

Other legally questionable initiatives include apparent plans to investigate and restructure salaries and wages along racial and gender lines. The “DEI Strategic Plan” requires investigation into “pay equity,” which would be laudable if it meant ensuring that all employees are compensated fairly for their labor and the benefit they provide to the school. However, programs pursuing “pay equity” may involve wage discrimination. In one recent example, Appalachian State University reportedly paid “diverse” employees more than their “non-diverse” colleagues by implementing a “diversity rate of pay per hour” scheme, possibly in violation of federal law.

Furthermore, the initiative seeks to “require and provide access to annual DEI education activities for all faculty and staff.” While providing access to such material is not overly concerning, mandating training on DEI issues is far more troublesome. By forcing all faculty and staff to participate in advancing controversial and highly politicized positions, administrators will certainly run afoul of the university’s commitment to institutional neutrality. According to the Kalven Report, which was adopted as official policy by the UNC Board of Trustees last summer, the university is a “community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.”

When administrators implement top-down programs that mandate ideological training, dissenting faculty self-censor.The vitality of the university depends on maintaining a culture of free thought and open inquiry. When administrators implement top-down programs that mandate ideological training, dissenting faculty and staff will tend to self-censor and withdraw from campus discourse. They will be made to fear reprisal from administrators and students alike, as the latter are increasingly encouraged to identify and report violations of DEI orthodoxy. The result will be a chilling effect on campus free expression, dampening the university’s ability to serve as a center of ideation, education, and research.

Additionally, it appears that this latest initiative will only exacerbate the university’s wasteful DEI spending habits. In addition to UNC-Chapel Hill’s more than $3,000,000 annual spending on DEI administrators, the “DEI Strategic Plan” calls for “standardiz[ing] and mandat[ing] compensation for DEI leadership in units” and “increas[ing] grants supporting department and unit DEI projects.” Administrative bloat and excessive spending on political fads detract from the university’s mission to serve as a center for education and research. In a period in which university leadership has cut library funding and deferred critical building maintenance to balance the budget, responsible governance requires abstaining from wasteful administrative initiatives.

When questioned about implementation strategies for pay equity, mandatory DEI training, cluster hires, and new admissions policies, CAS Dean James White declined to comment, referring the Martin Center back to the aforementioned response from the Media Relations office.

Due to the pervasive ambiguity of the “DEI Strategic Initiative,” however, it remains unclear whether administrators are making an honest attempt to keep DEI initiatives legal and in line with university policy, rather than attempting to circumvent anti-discrimination laws—existing or forthcoming—to achieve their DEI ends. If administrators wish to alleviate these concerns, they must be far more transparent and use language that is clear, detailed, and meaningful. Additionally, they must tread carefully, as even well-meaning and lawful policies can bring disastrous consequences for institutional neutrality, academic freedom, and free expression on campus.

Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a senior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.