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'Time To Go': Faculty of Color Explain What Made Them Ready To Leave UNC Chapel Hill

The Old Well on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.
The Old Well on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.

Professor Malinda Maynor Lowery signed her offer letter for a position at Emory University hours before the news broke about Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“I got chills,” Lowery said. “Part of me felt a confirmation of my decision.”

The fact that the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did not offer tenure to acclaimed journalist Hannah-Jones is not why Lowery and several other faculty have recently announced their resignations.

Rather, Lowery says the university’s treatment of Hannah-Jones, a Black woman who has built a career writing about racism, exemplifies a persistent culture at UNC Chapel Hill that has marginalized some faculty to the point that they feel ready to move on.

Lowery is a native of North Carolina, a member of the Lumbee tribe born in Robeson County, a full tenured professor at UNC Chapel Hill, and director of its Center for the Study of the American South. Her roots are deep, and she speaks about the power of public education with awe — but she’d had enough.

Lowery says if it had been an easy decision, she would have left a long time ago, at the first sign that university leadership, “did not offer people the freedom to fulfill their own potential.”

“But I stayed, through many years and repeated examples,” Lowery said.

She counts many private and public examples — most notably the UNC system Board of Governors’ decision to pay the Sons of Confederate Veterans a $2.5 million settlement to house the Confederate monument that long stood on campus, a decision that was later overturned in court.

For her, the breaking point was one year ago, when university leaders decided to move forward with plans to reopen campus during a global pandemic with double occupancy dorms and staff reporting in person.

“The impact of that thinking was to diminish the value of human life,” Lowery said.

She began her job search while mourning the death of an uncle and friends who died of COVID-19.

Lowery and others who are resigning this summer did so in response to events that happened months ago. She expects that the full consequences of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ fight for tenure will not be felt for another year.

“The pressures that create these departures are partly because of individual decisions. But they're also because of accumulated, recognizable patterns of decision-making … which makes it difficult for people like me to thrive,” Lowery said.

Lowery is the only Indigenous female who is a full professor at UNC Chapel Hill. Soon, there will be none.

Decisions about job searches are personal, complex and unique. But faculty who have recently left UNC Chapel Hill and who also identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian or Latinx describe a pattern: That the racial and political climate at the university fortified their decision to accept better job offers outside North Carolina.

The announcements have trickled in this month on Twitter, in university press releases, news headlines, and have been whispered about from professor to professor.

  • Sibby Anderson-Thompkins is UNC Chapel Hill’s Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion and interim chief diversity officer. She announced her departure after applying for and not receiving the position as the university’s permanent chief diversity officer.
  • Kia Caldwell is a professor of African, African-​American, and Diaspora Studies. Caldwell co-authored a “roadmap for racial equity” that she and other faculty presented to university administrators as a list of actions to pursue equity and support staff and faculty of color. Caldwell is currently one of 9 Black women at the university who are full professors.
  • Annette Rodriguez is an assistant professor of American Studies who was recruited away by the University of Texas at Austin, which offered better funding and resources, and she says, showed respect for her research.
  • Gloria Thomas is Director of the Carolina Women’s Center. She began job hunting after struggling with the financial limitations of a director position that afforded her no program staff.

Summertime turnover is not unusual at universities, but faculty and staff who spoke to WUNC describe larger systemic issues that played into their decisions.

They describe receiving offers of salaries and resources that UNC Chapel Hill could not or did not financially match; feeling undervalued for time spent mentoring students of color and other faculty; being asked to spend additional time supporting diversity initiatives that they feel have not resulted in lasting change.

WUNC reached out to UNC Chapel Hill Media Relations for comment on this story. In a written response, the university described its programs to recruit a diversity of new faculty and post-doctoral students. The university has made diversity and inclusion part of its current strategic plan, including an intention to prioritize the recruitment, retention and promotion of under-represented faculty and staff.

“We have put tremendous financial resources into recruiting and retaining highly qualified diverse faculty, and while we believe those efforts have been successful, we know that our work is not done,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin said in a written response.

Gloria Thomas often looks out her office window at the name engraved above the building’s entryway — Sonja Haynes Stone, an African-American studies professor beloved by students who fought her own bitter battle for tenure at UNC Chapel Hill in 1979.

“She was such a fighter… not only for herself, but for others and a real advocate for Black students, Black faculty, and administrators on campus,” Thomas said.

Thomas said she sees the same fighting spirit in Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“This was the straw that broke the camel's back,” Thomas said of Hannah-Jones not receiving tenure. “It really just solidified for many of us, ‘Yep, time to go.’”

Thomas is nearing her five year anniversary as Director of the Carolina Women’s Center, housed in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. She will depart in August to head a leadership development program for women in higher education at the University of Denver.

“It's a good time to be leaving,” Thomas said. “This [new position] is my dream job, but let me be clear, I had decided about a year ago I was going to be leaving.”

Thomas felt her workload at the Carolina Women’s Center was unsustainable. She has been the sole administrator for a center that provides programming, internships and support for female-identified students, staff and faculty across campus. The center’s two other staff exclusively counsel students who have faced gender-based violence, such as sexual assaults.

“We are so financially constrained here that I couldn't envision … not only opportunities for me to continue to grow, but to grow the staff here at the Carolina Women's Center," Thomas said.

Thomas’s passion is fostering leadership development among women in higher education. She lent those skills to UNC Chapel Hill’s TEAM Advance program on a volunteer basis, but did not see an opportunity to be paid for that part-time work. In her new job, she will pursue her passion full-time.

Thomas is a member of the Carolina Black Caucus, which tweeted this week that a majority of the roughly 30 members who were present at their recent Zoom meeting are currently job hunting. UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has announced he will meet with members of the caucus this week.

“It has always been my goal to build a community where everyone truly knows they belong and are valued for their own unique perspectives and experiences," Guskiewicz said in a written statement. "I am deeply concerned that some members of the Carolina Black community do not feel they can thrive in this environment."

Thomas worries that the Board of Trustees not considering tenure for Hannah-Jones has already had a ripple effect on hiring and retaining Black employees.

“That can't help but taint our reputation,” Thomas said.

When Annette Rodriguez first began receiving recruitment calls from competing universities, she politely turned them down.

But as a scholar who studies racial violence and lynchings, she says it was “staggering” to see her institution intend to pay $2.5 million in public funds to a neo-Confederate group. During the pandemic, she saw the UNC System’s plans as hostile to working class staff. Last summer she felt worn out preparing for online classes instead of focusing on research.

“After all of that, the calls I was getting from institutions were suddenly more interesting,” Rodriguez said.

What’s more, the universities that courted her showed interest in her, a junior faculty member.

“Those conversations were about my book. They were about my research agenda,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone I talked to knew the work I did.”

After she had an enviable offer in hand from the University of Texas at Austin, she also received phone calls to retain her, even a direct call from UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

“In those calls, it was so deflating that no one knew the work that I did. Nobody said that we value your scholarship,” Rodriguez said. “What they knew about me was that I had been a visible, Latinx queer faculty, and they hoped to retain me as a visible, queer Latinx faculty."

Her identity and experiences were an asset to students, she acknowledges. Her office hours and her time were in high demand, especially among queer students and students of color.

“We do talk about their work, and we do talk about course content,” Rodriguez said. “But we also talk about, you know, I understand that this feels awkward to be the only Mexican in your classroom.”

In her three years at Chapel Hill, Rodriguez says she also spent countless hours serving on task forces and diversity initiatives when invited.

“I was distracted from the actual work I do,” Rodriguez said, adding that it would distract her from work that could help her achieve tenure.

She describes helping write and co-teach some of the curriculum for a multi-course program on reckoning with race and Southern history, only to have the new class offerings dropped after one semester.

“It's this strange thing about the institution actively recruiting … marginalized scholars of color, with the expectation that they will help to reform an institution that has no actual interest in changing,” Rodriguez said.

Jennifer Ho left UNC Chapel Hill for the University of Colorado Boulder two years ago. Lowery says Ho's presence at UNC is still missed.

Colleagues say she was known for her patience, her leadership and for taking time to listen to students and faculty.

“I had been the de facto person that you would call or you would send people to if you had a question about Asian Americans,” Ho said. “So, for example, I had a medical school student who came to my office hours who said, ‘I was told to talk to you, because I'm having a workplace issue with my supervisor, and I think I'm being targeted as an Asian American.’”

Ho is an English professor who studies Asian American literature, not a human resources specialist, she points out.

Ho was also the Associate Director of the Institute of Arts & Humanities, but she wanted the opportunity for a stronger leadership role. When the director position opened, she applied and was disappointed to not make it past the first round of interviews.

“I finished that interview," Ho recalls, "and my husband said, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘I nailed that interview.’”

She watched two white male colleagues progress in the search.

Colleagues told her if she wanted a leadership position, she would be wise to look outside Carolina. She applied to be the director of the CU Boulder’s Center for the Humanities & The Arts and was thrilled to learn she was their top choice.

Accepting the offer wasn’t an easy decision. She had been a professor at UNC Chapel Hill for 14 years. She loved her home in Carrboro and being near her husband’s family in Raleigh.

UNC Chapel Hill could not match the salary or position CU Boulder offered Ho. So she made a different request.

“What I said to them was, ‘If you want me to stay, I need a commitment that you will hire a tenure ladder faculty member who can teach Asian American history.’”

That is what she had wanted since she came to UNC Chapel Hill, the opportunity to work alongside other faculty studying Asian American history and culture.

“From the point of view of the administration, there's no way they can make me that promise, because that's a million dollar promise,” Ho said. “I did it to make a point.”

She had supported students in their plea for Asian American history classes and an Asian American student center. The university fulfilled the second request in 2020.

“The reason I left UNC Chapel Hill was not because of the racial climate, but the racial climate at UNC Chapel Hill did not make me want to stay,” Ho said.

She continued: “Until there's a real racial reckoning, there's going to be an exodus of more faculty of color who have opportunities to go elsewhere and who want leadership positions. Because if you look at who is in higher administration positions [at UNC Chapel Hill], none of them look like me.”

Editor's Note: The Dean of UNC's Journalism School Susan King is a member of WUNC’s Board of Directors, which is appointed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. WUNC maintains editorial independence in all news coverage, including stories involving UNC.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.