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UNC’s diversity vote will ripple through UNC Charlotte soon

Chief Diversity Officer Brandon Wolfe (center) and other members of the UNC Charlotte Diversity and Inclusion office face uncertainty after last week's UNC System Board of Governors vote.
UNC Charlotte
Chief Diversity Officer Brandon Wolfe (center) and other members of the UNC Charlotte Diversity and Inclusion office face uncertainty after last week's UNC System Board of Governors vote.

This news analysis appeared first in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. Sign up to get it to your inbox first.

Leaders of UNC Charlotte are awaiting further direction on what last week’s UNC System Board of Governors vote will mean for Charlotte’s Diversity and Inclusion Office. The vote repealed a previous diversity policy, effective immediately, and replaced it with a policy that emphasizes “equality of all persons and viewpoints.”

The previous policy, passed in 2019, required each school in the university system to name at least one senior-level administrator to handle diversity, equity and inclusion, and to create DEI metrics and goals.

Now those schools have until Sept. 1 to report on “reductions in force and spending, along with changes to job titles and position descriptions” that will redirect money to “initiatives related to student success and wellbeing.”

UNC Charlotte currently has a chief diversity officer, three additional staff and four graduate assistants listed as part of the diversity program. Among their functions is tracking data on a university that has become increasingly diverse over the past decade. Its total enrollment of just over 30,000 is now 47% white, 17% Black, 13% Hispanic and 9% Asian, with significant increases in Hispanic and Asian students in recent years. The university also serves about 2,300 international students.

DEI is sometimes seen as part of a recent trend, which critics tend to put under the dismissive label of “woke culture.” On a recent Charlotte Talks news roundup, Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis noted that today’s DEI programs have roots in 1950s and 1960s efforts to create space in universities for Black students who had been barred by segregation. Today’s mission, she said, is much broader, encompassing not only efforts to be racially inclusive but to welcome and support veterans, people with disabilities, first-generation college students and members of religious minorities.

“When you eliminate all of that, who is going to be there for the international student, for the veteran, for the student with disabilities, for the minority students?” Curtis asked.

Indeed, the UNC Charlotte DEI website lists accessibility programs for students and employees with disabilities; links to religious accommodations, gender-affirming housing, all-gender restrooms, lactation rooms and a student food pantry; guides to veterans’ services and rights for immigrant students … and links to articles on how all this fits into recent decisions related to free speech and “institutional neutrality.”

What is neutrality?

Institutional neutrality has been a central theme in the UNC system DEI debate.

“Our public universities must take a stance of principled neutrality on matters of political controversy,” system President Peter Hans said last week. “Faculty and students are free to weigh in on all manner of current events and high-profile issues, while university staff must exercise restraint.”

“It is not the job of the university to decide all the complex and multi-dimensional questions of how to balance and interpret identity,” Hans continued. “... this policy will preserve the university’s role as a trusted venue for that vital debate, and for all others. I believe it’s what our democratic responsibility demands of us, and I am fully committed to help us realize its aspirations.”

In the UNC Charlotte guide, General Counsel Jesh Humphrey talks about how universities must balance free-speech rights for students and employees with a new state law that prohibits public universities from expressing views on controversial issues.

“As has always been the case, when our faculty and staff express a personal opinion, they should make it clear they are speaking as citizens and not as representatives of UNC Charlotte, and take care that their speech doesn’t compromise the neutrality, efficiency or integrity of the University or any University department or unit,” Humphrey writes. “Faculty members are also entitled to academic freedom in the classroom when discussing issues related to their course, including controversial topics, but should be careful not to introduce controversial topics that are unrelated to the curriculum.”

Recent years have shown us how elusive the concept of neutrality is, not just in academia but in K-12 public education and the news media. It rests on a set of common beliefs, social contracts and cultural ground rules, which are crumbling.

When I was growing up, those ground rules were set by people like me — white people (usually men) who had achieved some level of prosperity. We believed we had built the country and earned our position, and all we had to do was offer others the opportunity to be like us.

Those assumptions (which are, of course, vastly oversimplified here) have been under attack by people who have rightfully noted that many others built our country without hope of equal reward. We’ve learned that other cultures have richness that goes beyond European -American norms. There’s been vigorous analysis and debate over everything from how history is taught to what policing means for different communities. Even that unquestioned assumption of my childhood — that everyone is male or female — has been challenged. And we’re nowhere near agreement on how to define objective truth.

I won’t try to dish up an easy answer. But I hope our universities can carve out paths to truly challenge and enlighten our young adults and our broader society.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.