North Carolina university committee swiftly passes policy change that could cut diversity staff

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The future of diversity, equity and inclusion staff jobs in North Carolina's public university system could be at stake after a five-person committee swiftly voted to repeal a key policy Wednesday.

The Committee on University Governance, within the University of North Carolina Board of Governors that oversees 17 schools, voted in less than four minutes to reverse and replace a policy related to DEI. The full board of 24 members is to vote on the matter again next month, and if approved, the repeal would take effect immediately.

If the policy is fully repealed, the UNC system could join other major universities in dismantling their diversity offices. Among the most notable, the University of Florida in Gainesville announced in a memo last month that it was scrapping its office and shifting its funding for faculty recruitment instead.

In Texas, universities saw major cuts in their diversity and inclusion staff in 2024 in compliance with a state ban signed into law last year. The state higher education board in Kansas was also to address a ban on diversity initiatives in hiring staff and accepting students Wednesday.

At least 20 states have seen Republican bill proposals seeking to limit diversity and inclusion programs in several public institutions such as universities.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is defined by the American Psychological Association as a framework to guide “fair treatment and full participation of all people,” especially those belonging to minority groups. It has become a recurring point of contention for conservatives who argue DEI programs are discriminatory.

The proposed policy change, first reported by The News & Observer of Raleigh, would impact a diversity, equity and inclusion regulation adopted in 2019. It defines the roles of various DEI positions — such as a system office diversity and inclusion liaison and diversity officers across the university system — and the establishment of a diversity and inclusion council made up of members representing each university, according to the policy.

Under the policy, the officers’ responsibilities include assisting the chancellor with diversity policy and programming, in addition to facilitating training for students and staff.

But Andrew Tripp, senior vice president for the UNC System Office’s legal affairs team, said the change would reaffirm “the university's commitment to non-discrimination and institutional neutrality.”

The policy that could replace the existing regulation does not include the outlined responsibilities of DEI officers and liaisons, suggesting they may be eliminated. Other inclusion efforts such as tracking the university's diversity metrics and giving reports to university boards will continue, the replacement policy said.

UNC-Chapel Hill — the system's flagship campus and whose website says has an office for diversity and inclusion with a 12-person staff — will review the policy change and work with the university system if implemented, spokesperson Kevin Best said in an emailed statement.

“As the Board of Governors noted, equality of opportunity in education and employment is a long-standing commitment of the University of North Carolina as a core value in service to our vibrant and growing state,” Best said. “As part of that mission, UNC-Chapel Hill will continue to welcome people from all walks of life with a variety of experiences and perspectives who come here to learn, work and live.”

Immediately after the vote to repeal the diversity policy with no questions or discussion, the governance committee went into closed session, according to the agenda. Closed sessions are not subject to public record, according to state statutes.

Efforts to dissolve university diversity efforts are a “disservice” to students and create “controversy and volatility," former UNC System President Tom Ross said in a joint statement with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper after the vote. Instead, Ross, who served as president from 2011 to 2016, said universities should celebrate diversity.

"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,” Cooper said.

However, conservative-leaning advocacy group Carolina Partnership for Reform said in a statement the new policy would “go a long way toward rooting out DEI bureaucracies."

The full UNC Board of Governors is scheduled to meet May 22-23 in Raleigh. Members of the board are elected to four-year terms by the state Senate and House of Representatives, which Republicans have controlled since 2011.

Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said fellow Republicans have expressed interest in taking up anti-DEI legislation in the session opening next Wednesday. He recently told reporters the legislature may allow the university boards to review their diversity policies first before introducing any bills.

“It's still at the conversation stage,” Moore said.

04/17/2024 23:32 -0400

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