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What You Missed: TransparUNCy LIVE Pt. 2 Recap

By Emma Culley

Focusing on the Board of Governors, the current Chancellor search, the political power of Art Pope, and the future of DEI in higher education, TransparUNCy teach-ins give students relevant information on the political history of North Carolina, the racist legacy and reality embedded into UNC, a glimpse into the national state of DEI in higher education, and action steps to take moving forward while facilitating a discussion for students to share what they’re thinking and feeling. 

Higher education in North Carolina is unique for the rigor, funding, and quantity of its public universities. NC’s public universities are a source of great pride for the state and act as powerful economic engines, producing professionals that give their skills back to the state. For these reasons, the state legislature long prioritized a non-partisan involvement with higher education. However, education is always political. UNC was built on enslaved labor, didn’t admit Black students until 1955, and remains – with 8% of the student body being Black in a state where 22% of the adult population is Black – a disproportionate representation of the racial demographics of NC.

Decades of criticism have targeted UNC’s left-leaning nature; Jesse Helms, a former U.S. Senator from NC, said that “UNC Chapel Hill is the university of Negroes and Communists” and “we should build a wall around Chapel Hill to prevent its ideas from infecting the rest of the state.” While Jesse Helms didn’t have the power to push his conservative agenda onto the University, Art Pope changed how the game is played. Pope, the CEO of Variety Wholesalers and the Chair of the John W. Pope Foundation sees UNC as an institution overrun by leftwing ideology. After trying to get onto the BoG in the 1990s and failing because of his hyper-politics, Pope spent years building a political network to exercise power over the state. 

A turning point in the exercise of political power over higher education came in 2010 thanks to Pope's $2 million contribution to state elections, leading to the state legislature being Republican lead for the first time in over 100 years. Since then, the legislature has extended more and more power over public higher education in the state, including Pope’s attempts to cut millions of dollars to UNC while serving as the 2013-2014 budget director, the BoG cutting UNC’s Gene Nichol’s Poverty Center in 2015 and UNC’s Center for Civil Rights in 2017, and the creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership in 2023. The BoG’s conservative agenda is similar to anti-DEI legislation in states such as Alabama and Florida, and North Carolina has already passed legislation preventing UNC from asking for DEI statements from admissions, hiring, promotion, and tenure applicants. In a recent BoG meeting, Trustee David Boliek said “I personally believe DEI and CRT have caused more distrust in higher education than any other efforts in modern time” and Trustee Jim Blain followed up by saying “it is my belief that the BoG and state legislature will follow Florida’s path with respect to DEI.”

Despite national education politics being a focal point of the meeting, when asked about the possibility of NC following Florida’s anti-DEI lead, Lee Roberts said “I don’t know anything about the Florida legislation,” garnering the largest collective laugh of the evening. Roberts then said “I’m not going to get into the hypothetical,” clearly misunderstanding that the question wasn’t hypothetical at all – that, like mentioned before, the state has already passed anti-DEI legislation. Roberts tried to emphasize non-partisanship, saying, “I’m not going to try to answer for or defend 20 years of political developments in the state and the country more broadly … [the Chancellorship] is a non-partisan job and I’m going to do it in a non-partisan way.” TransparUNCy co-founder Toby Posel was quick to respond, saying “I don’t want non-partisanship.” Posel continued by saying that UNC’s legacy of exclusion and hatred is ongoing and “we as an institution and you as a leader have the chance to make that known … I want a Chancellor who will condemn those politics.” 

When asked what they were most worried about, multiple students at the meeting expressed concern over the current Chancellor search process – a process which has been monopolized by the BoG and the UNC System President, Peter Hans. Currently, UNC’s Student Body President Chris Everett is the only student representative on the search committee. Student Body President-elect, Jaleah Taylor, was at the meeting and spoke up to say “I am your ally … it is my duty and priority this year to really defend DEI because it honestly might go away.” A student I talked to said they felt powerless, asking, “how do we use people's frustration to organize?” Another student noted the significance of gender-affirming care services provided by Campus Health and expressed worry that conservative intervention would restrict these services – “I refuse to go back in the closet over this.” 

The reality is, higher education politics are intentionally complicated – those in power lose control when we advocate for ourselves and one another. While it's easy to feel powerless when your voice is being overlooked, those at the teach-in knew just how much power they can wield by refusing to be dismissed. Graduate student and Town Council member Theodore Nollert expressed great passion and enthusiasm for what he was seeing in the room – “I’ve seen nothing more impressive in my time here at UNC.” Nollert said that this type of activism and engagement is exactly what organizers in the state need to be tapping into. A professor at the teach-in said “we need to consistently have spaces like this,” spaces which help us “think about the larger infrastructure and how it mobilizes.” Our power lies in each other, in educating each other, learning from one another, and refusing to give up.

Make your voice heard at the next teach-in on Tuesday April 16th, at 5:00 in the Student Union (and get your CLE credit while it lasts), while learning about the recent developments in the attacks on DEI. Show Lee Roberts, Peter Hans, and the BoG that DEI will always be fought for at UNC at the Public Forum on University Governance on Wednesday April 24th at 5:30 in the Queen Anne Lounge at the Campus Y. We refuse to settle for lip service or performative action from the state legislature and higher education administration. Never forget how much power your voice wields and that there is more than one way to be heard.

“TransparUNCy Teach-In: Part 2.” 4 April, 2024, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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