By Andrew Dunn
Chancellors of North Carolina’s top public universities are vigorously defending their campus diversity programs against what the left is perceiving as attacks by the Republican-led legislature.
But the truth is, the UNC System’s diversity efforts are desperately in need of an overhaul. Both sides of the aisle should be able to agree on this.
Nothing is imminently on the chopping block. But the debate came to a head last week when the UNC Board of Governors reviewed a consultant’s report evaluating both “equal opportunity” and “diversity and inclusion” programs on all 17 system campuses.
The report was mandated by the 2017 budget bill passed by the state legislature1. Changes could be coming in the next few months.
First, some definitions.
Equal opportunity refers to “the right for individuals to be considered for admission to, employment by, and promotion within the institution on the basis of merit, experience and qualifications, without unlawful or impermissible discrimination.” Basically, that you can’t hire or fire people based on their race, gender, age or other protected categories. Most of this stuff is mandated by federal and state law.
“Diversity and inclusion” is a little squishier. It encompasses all the different efforts that universities across the country are starting to “create an institutional culture and environment that offers safety, acceptance, support, tolerance and respect.” Most larger colleges at this point have multicultural centers and “Chief Diversity Officers” to work on this2.
The UNC System spends roughly $16 million per year on the two categories combined. About half of the expenditures are required by federal and state law.
Just over 80 percent comes from state money.
The consultants found a “complex web” of policies and procedures that vary widely from campus to campus.
For example, UNC-Chapel Hill has 34 different diversity-related policies, while schools like Western Carolina have a half-dozen3.
The difference in diversity programs — things like MLK lectures, sexual assault awareness programs and pre-Kwanzaa celebrations held across campuses, is similarly broad.
The consultants found that there is little to no communication across system campuses on these matters, including sharing of best practices and approaches. Schools like East Carolina and Chapel Hill have won awards for their diversity efforts — why not export that to other campuses?
In all these varying policies without standard language, there’s also the risk that some could be out of compliance with state and federal law.
As the report states:
“Most constituent institutions agree that increased coordination and communication between individuals (especially leaders) with EO and/or D&I responsibility would improve efficiency and effectiveness.”
What’s more troubling: Very few of these efforts have any measures of success.
It’s almost cliche at this point, but it’s true: What gets measured gets done. And when it comes to diversity programs, very little is getting measured.
The consultants found that less than half of any of the UNC System schools’ diversity programs had defined measures of success. If they did, they were generally qualitative instead of quantitative — things like having a “good turnout” for events.
In addition, fewer than half4 of the chancellors had goals related to diversity in their individual plans the past year.
From reading the report, it appears that most campuses’ diversity efforts are hodgepodge and with few goals or well-elucidated missions.
It’s not racist or anti-minority to question the value of specific diversity programs. If the schools can’t explain what they’re trying to achieve, how can they make progress?
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How can N.C. universities claim that their diversity efforts are working?
The report quotes numerous administrators who believe their diversity policies and procedures are working well.
Where have they been for the past few years?
Minority groups on numerous UNC campuses have publicly protested their school’s actions — or to be more precise, inaction — around diversity.
N.C. State’s student government cites “inadequacy within the institution in regard to racial diversity and the issue of tokenizing minority students.”
East Carolina came under scrutiny after prohibiting the marching band from taking a knee during the national anthem at football games.
Appalachian State’s tennis coach was suspended after one of his players used racial comments against a competitor from an HBCU.
Earlier, Black Lives Matter had protested at App State. “They aren’t doing anything that I can see to actively combat racism,” one student said, according to the student newspaper. “And if the university and the administration don’t make a point of standing against racism, then they’re being complicit with racism.”
Black alumni of UNC-Chapel Hill are calling for a boycott of the school’s fundraising campaign, claiming a “toxic racial climate.” There hasn’t been more than 125 black male students admitted in one class since 2009, The Daily Tar Heel found.
Further, two UNC schools — the N.C. School of Science and Math and the UNC School of the Arts — have nothing whatsoever being done in terms of diversity and inclusion.
Still, the coverage of this Board of Governors review has been melodramatic.
The headline in the News & Observer: “Diversity programs are coming under fire”
That appears to be based on conjecture about the General Assembly’s motives and one quote from a board member. The article itself begins with the straw man “some have questioned,” so we can’t be sure.
The quote in question, from Raleigh lawyer Joe Knott, courtesy of the N&O:
“What would be the effect on our university system if all the money and all the people and all the staff and all the energy that goes into these separate divisions for equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion were just eliminated,” he asked, “and those responsibilities were to fall back on the people, the traditional staff and faculty?”
I’m an advocate for open government, but things like this are why politicians make the argument that they need to conduct business in closed session to allow for open and honest discussion. It’s the board’s job to ask these questions, and they shouldn’t get hammered for it.
The N&O could have easily have gone with other angles on the story based on the same set of facts. Here’s a few.
“Legislature seeks to streamline, improve services for minority groups”
“Protections for minority groups vary widely at UNC campuses”
“Diversity efforts at UNC schools laden with bureaucracy”
But I won’t lay the blame solely at the feet of the traditional media. The consultants themselves come across as combative in parts of their report.
They take pains to say several times that it’s not worth collapsing diversity programs under one roof. But there’s one key breakdown here: The report’s authors used their own interpretation of the law, not the one specified by law.
As the bill read:
In conducting the study, the Board of Governors shall review and evaluate the equal opportunity policies with a particular focus on transparency and effectiveness of the policies. …
The study shall also consider the feasibility of developing equal opportunity plans at each constituent institution that consolidate all equal opportunity services offered at each constituent institution into a single office headed by an equal employment officer designated by the Chancellor in order to promote effectiveness and efficiency.
The consultants themselves recognize that if they actually read the law, they agree with the findings.
If only EO (not D&I) services is included in the scope of the proposed consolidation, as the exact language of the Bill suggests, then the feasibility of consolidation for most constituent institutions is high; in fact, at some constituent institutions, EO compliance reporting and programs are already managed within a single function, reporting to a single officer.
But they took it upon themselves to assume that the legislature wants to cut everything.
Diversity programs are needed. But they need to be better.
I haven’t heard much of an argument that the UNC System should do away with its diversity programs. Yes, the Board of Governors brought up a few troubling ones, like the N.C. State trial balloon of a dorm exclusively for black females. The chancellors themselves admit that bad ideas get proposed every once in awhile, but they always get deflated.
The broader argument is that universities need to prepare students for the real world, with all of its diversity. This is important. And it’s also crucial to students’ job prospects.
“I’m in the office of a lot of CEOs around the country who are hiring our graduates,” N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson told the Board of Governors, according to N.C. Policy Watch. “And every one of them, the first conversation is about what we are doing to increase diversity and inclusion on our campus.”
Nobody disagrees with this5. But let’s make sure our universities are actually effective in achieving these goals.