UNC System committee votes to strip DEI policy, potentially eliminate DEI-related jobs and initiatives

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The University of North Carolina System Board of Governors’ University Governance committee voted Wednesday evening to eliminate a key diversity, equity and inclusion policy, setting up the likely elimination of many DEI-related administrative positions and offices at all of the state’s public universities.

The 2019 policy, titled “Policy on Diversity and Inclusion Within the University of North Carolina,” had chartered the creation of jobs, metrics and goals for DEI for the 17 schools within the UNC System. Now, these initiatives may be eliminated if the 24-member board votes to move forward with the committee’s decision at their next meeting on May 23.

UNC System President Peter Hans wrote in a Thursday statement that the system would "continue serving students of all backgrounds and beliefs," according to The News & Observer.

“There is broad and deep commitment to that goal, and support for the UNC System’s longstanding efforts to reflect the diversity of North Carolina,” he wrote. “We have well-established laws and policies that prohibit discrimination, protect equal opportunity, and require a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. We will uphold those responsibilities.”

The goal of the policy change would be to “protect the freedom of students and faculty to teach, research and advocate, while insisting that administrators follow the law when it comes to institutional neutrality,” wrote Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey in a Thursday statement.

“Our universities will support intellectual freedom, not promote a particular ideology,” Ramsey wrote. “... North Carolina is a diverse state, and our public universities belong to everyone. That means we cannot require everyone to think the same way about race, gender, or any other challenging topic.”

The committee voted to reverse the policy in less than four minutes with no discussion or questions, according to The Associated Press.

"Our diversity should be used to highlight our state's strengths, not our political divisions,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wrote in a press release following the committee’s decision. “Republican legislative and university leaders who attack diversity at our public universities are failing in their duty to protect students while threatening our ability to recruit top scientists, researchers and innovators who power our economy."

The changes come in light of a campaign against colleges’ DEI efforts by Republican politicians that began in early 2023. There has also been a broader backlash to DEI in higher education. In late February, the School of Medicine came under fire from conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and billionaire Elon Musk for allegedly lowering its admissions standards as part of its DEI efforts.

The proposed replacement policy does not reestablish the DEI jobs — including the positions of system office diversity and inclusion liaison, institutional diversity and inclusion officer, and institutional inclusion executive — that were outlined in the 2019 policy. The institutional positions were established at each of the 17 schools in the UNC System.

The officer position, for example, was a role for a “senior-level administrator” at each institution in the UNC system. Responsibilities included “advis[ing] on training, outreach, educational programs and other strategies for students, faculty, staff and other stakeholders to promote and advance diversity and inclusion throughout all levels and areas of the institution.”

The new policy, titled “Equality Within the University of North Carolina,” makes no mention of these responsibilities, though it features sections on compliance with “nondiscrimination” and “ensuring equality of all persons and viewpoints.”

Instead, it reaffirms the UNC System’s commitment to institutional neutrality — the notion of administrative officials limiting the public issues they weigh in on to avoid politicizing their university and constraining the academic freedom of faculty — a term that was absent from the 2019 policy.

“I'm very much against the overreaction that states are having to their concerns about the prevalence of diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses,” Eric Mlyn, distinguished faculty fellow in the Kenan Institute for Ethics, told The Chronicle. “... I think we should have a conversation about this issue as we are in many places, but the potential of fully banning those offices is frankly shocking to me, and is a place I don't think I ever imagined we would be in the United States.” 

The new policy also reaffirms commitments to “freedom of speech and expression” and “maintaining academic freedom,” topics which were not addressed in the 2019 policy.

“Pressure is building across the nation, both within universities and in bodies that oversee universities, to dismantle at least the divisive, polarizing, and discriminatory structures that fall under the DEI rubric,” wrote Timur Kuran, professor of economics and political science and Gorter Family professor of Islamic studies, in an email to The Chronicle. “Replacing those structures with an office that protects all campus members as individuals, as opposed to favoring groups deemed oppressed, would be a step in the right direction.” 

 “To return on their core mission of seeking the truth, universities must also recommit themselves to institutional neutrality,” Kuran wrote. 

Duke’s primary DEI policy affirms a commitment “to the principles of excellence, fairness and respect for all people.” It is incorporated under the Office for Institutional Equity, which works to advance the University’s “culture of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging through educational opportunities and resources.”

“Places like Duke have been naively quiet about these things, because we think we're immune from it because we're a private institution,” Mlyn said. “... I believe that the kinds of DEI efforts that we have on our campus will come under increasing scrutiny and criticism from the federal government if Trump is reelected, and maybe even attempts to withhold types of federal funding of universities in some ways, if they don't get rid of their DEI initiatives.”

Duke Human Resources has its own “Diversity and Institutional Policies” that promote “diversity in the workplace” and seek to “take advantage of the rich backgrounds and abilities of everyone.”

“The most important thing about it is for us as a private institution to understand that this anti-diversity movement is well-organized, strategic, has clear objectives and they're going after us next,” Mlyn said. “I think what Duke needs to do is look at what's happening in this state and understand we are living in an environment where that's coming. And if it comes at the federal level, it's going to affect us in some very, very important ways." 

“I think North Carolina's system of higher education, our public university system, has been the best in the country. But it is at risk … because I'm concerned that all of the governance of the UNC system is now concentrated in the Republican legislature,” Cooper told The Chronicle in January. “And consequently, you are not getting university leadership that reflects North Carolina. It doesn't reflect the diversity of North Carolina demographically or diversity of thought.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated Wednesday evening to include Kuran's comment. It was updated Thursday afternoon to include comment from Hans, Mlyn and Ramsey.

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Michael Austin | Managing Editor

Michael Austin is a Trinity sophomore and managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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