In the past several years, the Martin Center has exposed and reported on numerous diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at UNC-Chapel Hill. Since late 2021, we have uncovered DEI plans that pose significant threats to academic freedom and free speech in at least three schools.
In November 2021, John Sailer exposed “The UNC School of Medicine’s Quiet ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ Revolution.” In December 2022, Shannon Watkins wrote about the School of Journalism’s “Plan of Action on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).” And just last month, Harrington Shaw documented Chapel Hill’s latest DEI push in the College of Arts and Sciences. These plans enforce ideological dogma and undermine the principles of free speech, academic freedom, merit, and equal opportunity.
At first glance, the simultaneous emergence of nearly identical initiatives may seem organic, or perhaps attributable to an increased focus on DEI on the part of accreditation agencies. For example, the UNC School of Medicine, in its updated Task Force to Integrate Social Justice into the Curriculum report, claimed that many of its recommendations were “required to maintain accreditation” by the LCME.
The flurry of DEI plans may be traceable to an email from UNC’s chancellor.But it turns out that the flurry of such plans among UNC’s academic and administrative units may be traceable to an email sent on behalf of UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz in July 2020. The Martin Center obtained a copy of the email via a public records request last month and was startled to find an explicit directive that every Chapel Hill school or unit “submit measurable deliverables around diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
In that email, university leaders were instructed to answer three questions:
1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Carolina’s scholarly, co‐curricular, administrative and service efforts to identify and eliminate structural racism on our campus and beyond?
2. What should we be doing/what can you do to stand against structural racism and stand for equity within our/your school/unit?
3. How can we learn from and partner with other schools/units, institutions, organizations or communities in the region to be agents of change against structural racism?
In a July 2 letter attached to the email, Chancellor Guskiewicz wrote further,
[I]t is clear we have an enormous amount of work ahead of us. Much of that work centers on systemic racism. […] The barriers, threats and challenges faced by people of color in higher education are not new. Today, it is excruciatingly clear that we have not moved quickly enough to take action against the racism within our system. […] [O]ur new Diversity Council … will work closely with us throughout the year as we deepen our work at Carolina to address structural racism on campus, in the region and beyond. I’m looking for actions and big ideas.
The email in question was sent to all members of the chancellor’s and provost’s leadership cabinet, nearly 40 people in total. The list includes deans of the UNC School of Law and the Kenan-Flagler Business School, the president of the UNC General Alumni Association, Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham, then-Provost Bob Blouin, and the vice chancellor for human resources and equal opportunity and compliance (among others). No members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees were included on the email.
Reached for comment, Chapel Hill’s senior director of media relations provided the following statement:
Free speech and diversity in all of its forms are critical to the success of the university. Those ideals remain core tenets of our strategic plan, which includes building our community together and promoting democracy. This holds as true today as it did three years ago when the campus leadership collected ideas and thoughts about potential ways to address racism after the George Floyd tragedy. At that time, questions were being raised about how universities across the country and our society could be better and safer for everyone.
More recently, the university, Faculty Council, and the Board of Trustees have adopted commitments to academic freedom and free speech principles. The UNC System enacted a compelled speech policy, and a university committee was formed to help develop resources and information on these topics to assist faculty, staff and students in navigating issues around free speech and academic freedom as they arise.
Following the chancellor’s request, the resulting “measurable deliverables” for each unit were presented at a joint cabinet meeting on August 4, 2020. The Martin Center obtained those deliverables via a public records request.
As expected, the plans produced by Chapel Hill’s academic units are exclusively focused on racial diversity. The phrases “economic diversity,” “socioeconomic diversity,” and “financial diversity” don’t appear anywhere. Nor does “intellectual diversity.” (The Martin Center explores the “measurable deliverables” document in greater depth here.)
The plans produced by Chapel Hill’s academic units are exclusively focused on racial diversity.Many university units planned to mandate diversity training. The list of deliverables includes 200 references to trainings and uses the word “require” (or its derivations) 58 times. Several schools also expressly tout the lowering of academic standards as a technique to admit more minority students. Several mention “holistic admissions” or the elimination of standardized testing. Changing the appointment and tenure processes to favor minority job candidates is also referenced several times.
In its own plan, the UNC Hussman School of Journalism overtly attacks viewpoint diversity, writing,
[UNC should] revisit “diversity of viewpoint” in our definition of diversity. There is a fundamental conflict between efforts to promote racial equity and understandings of structural racism, and efforts to promote diversity of thought. These two things cannot sit side by side without coming into conflict.
Elsewhere in the long “measurable deliverables” document, there is some pushback against mandatory, top-down programs. Several writers note that making diversity training mandatory is unlikely to be helpful. For example, library faculty write, “The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and several studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.” One writer says that attendance at a training should be “motivat[ed] by social incentives, not by mandates.”
Many of the initiatives mentioned in the document run afoul of new laws pertaining to UNC:
- S195, recently passed by both chambers of the North Carolina legislature, includes a provision mandating that each UNC institution “shall remain neutral, as an institution, on the political controversies of the day.”
- S364, which recently became law, bans compelled speech, including the use of DEI statements, as well as the use of certain concepts in state employee training. The concepts listed are related to structural racism, critical race theory, and some understandings of equity. (This is in addition to the UNC Board of Governors’ own prohibition of compelled speech earlier this year.)
It’s also possible that certain provisions, depending on how they are being implemented, will violate existing civil-rights laws, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. For example, it is illegal to hire or promote someone based on race or to limit participation in certain programs to individuals of certain races only.
Going forward, UNC should conduct a university-wide audit, revisiting these “DEI deliverables” to ensure that they do not violate university policy or state or federal law. Diversity and inclusion should not come at the expense of free speech, academic freedom, equality of opportunity, and a culture that respects merit.
Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.