Alumni Send Letter Denouncing DEI Change

(Photo: UNC/Johnny Andrews ’97)

This article was updated June 7, 2024.

Nearly three dozen Carolina alumni sent a letter to the UNC System Board of Governors last week expressing their “profound disappointment” over the board’s vote this month to replace the current diversity policy with one that will likely lead to the elimination of DEI positions at its 17 public institutions.

“The move to eliminate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, staff and initiatives in the UNC System is a decision to walk away from the very resources that have historically contributed to the success of countless marginalized and underrepresented students,” the letter states. “The Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s mission at the state’s flagship institution, UNC-Chapel Hill, innocuously champions ‘inclusive excellence.’ It seeks to ‘celebrate all members of the Carolina community, to broaden our collective understanding, and foster a sense of belonging by uplifting diverse identities, cultures, experiences and perspectives.”

The letter states the board’s actions “imperil this vision.”

The letter suggests the Board of Governors should “honor the achievements of DEI programs” including Carolina Covenant, an academic scholarship program, and Project Uplift, a 50-plus-year-old initiative that works to increase access to higher education for high school seniors, in particular those who are underrepresented in postsecondary education.  It also touts Carolina’s Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity as “one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious faculty diversity pipeline programs in the country.”

The letter concluded saying, “Future generations of North Carolinians will see this decision as ‘a slap in the face’ and will not feel welcomed, supported, and most importantly valued, because of” the board’s action.

An introductory paragraph to the letter says the statement “represents the personal opinions of the undersigned.” Among those who signed the letter are current and former members of the Carolina Alumni Board of Directors, the incoming chair of the UNC Board of Visitors, members of UNC Black Pioneers, a former congressman and a former chief diversity officer at UNC.

“I was distressed that DEI was removed with the apparent subtext that we’re taking the idea of many voices away from the conversation,” said Martha Peck ’73 (’77 MS, ’04 MD), who emphasized she signed the letter as an alumna, not in her official capacity as chair of the Carolina Alumni Board of Directors. “I know there are laws that still protect equality and access, a lot of rights and a lot of activities will go on, but it just didn’t seem to be something that we should grandstand about. I know I’m walking a fine line and some people will say ‘Martha, you shouldn’t have spoken out on this. Carolina Alumni is supposed to be neutral.’ I’m just stating my personal opinion, and I think everybody’s entitled to have their personal opinion on matters.”

The UNC System Board of Governors voted May 23 to replace the current diversity policy, which required system schools to hire diversity officers and meet certain goals, with one that would likely eliminate DEI positions and divert the funds to programs that support student well-being. The new policy, called Equality Within the University of North Carolina, has been lauded by some and criticized by others. Two members of the board voted against the policy change. Many say the change will not eliminate DEI initiatives altogether.

Board member Gene Davis ’90 (’97 JD) said before last week’s vote that diversity programs have increased student retention and graduation rates, made the state’s public institutions feel more welcoming, made them “stronger and better” and changed the lives of North Carolinians and their families. He voted, however, for the policy change, saying, “I have been made aware of things that have been done in the name of DEI that make me uncomfortable and that I believe actually result in our university communities being less welcoming to all.”

Board member Pearl Burris-Floyd ’78, a retired leader in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion, voted for the policy change and asked “that the leaders on our campuses will not feel as though we’ve turned our backs on them.”

UNC System President Peter Hans (Photo: University of North Carolina System)

In an e-mailed response, which included excerpts from a letter sent to the group, UNC System President Peter Hans ’91 said, “The revised Board of Governors’ policy does not call for the wholesale dismantling of campus diversity efforts, as your letter suggests. It asks chancellors to take a detailed look at the diversity and inclusion initiatives on their campuses, ensuring that those efforts do not infringe on academic freedom, equal opportunity, or institutional neutrality on the part of university administrators. I do not believe this will result in the wholesale abolishing of programs or personnel devoted to supporting students of different backgrounds, and UNC Chapel Hill’s leadership has already made clear that the Carolina Covenant, Project Uplift, and similar programs will continue to thrive.”

Hans also said in his statement, “I take to heart your concern that these changes may be interpreted as a ‘slap in the face’ to some students and alumni. I have been at pains to express — repeatedly and publicly — my deeply held belief that diversity is a source of strength for our nation, and that all students benefit from learning alongside peers of different backgrounds and beliefs.”

Archie Ervin ’99 (PhD), who worked at UNC for 25 years and left in 2010 as chief diversity officer to accept a similar position at Georgia Tech University, also signed the letter. “It just kills me that people in these positions equate diversity to an ideology, which is unbelievable,” Ervin said. “Diversity is a concept regarding human nature and is equal in application to all those we call human beings. It tells me that the people who are driving that agenda or who have power and use those kinds of interpretations do not have any understanding of what they’re dealing with.”

Ervin said he hopes the letter “is the opening volley to awakening the citizens of North Carolina to what is truly happening in our university system.”

When contacted for comment about signing the letter, former Rep. Mel Watt ’67, who represented for 21 years North Carolina’s congressional district in northern Charlotte, said in an email, “My level of disgust & outrage about this whole DEI process & decision is so over the top that I am afraid that answering your questions would be counterproductive.”

Others who signed the letter included UNC football and NFL player Algernon “Alge” Crumpler ’00, who completed in April a one-year term as second vice chair of the alumni board and is the incoming chair of the UNC Board of Visitors, and Janet Southerland ’82 (’84 BSDH, ’89 DDS, ’94 MPH, ’05 PhD), a former GAA board member and a recipient of Carolina Alumni’s 2024 Distinguished Service Medal. Southerland chairs the Black Alumni Reunion’s Light on the Hill Society scholarship program, which raises money for Black students who attend Carolina.

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