The stakes keep rising as the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees remains silent around its decision to deny tenure to the acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The university may soon see a sizable Black exodus – a direct response to the board’s decision that many say will harm UNC’s scholarship and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Black community. 

At a meeting of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Black Caucus Wednesday, 70 percent of faculty members in attendance said they are considering leaving the university. More than 60 percent are actively searching for a job outside the institution. 

Although just fewer than 30 people attended the meeting, it doesn’t lessen the magnitude of such statements, says Dawna Jones, assistant dean of students and chair of the UNC-CH Carolina Black Caucus.

“One is too many, right now. We are often working to continue to recruit Black faculty, Black staff, and students to UNC-Chapel Hill, to create a more representative body and a more inclusive body for the university as a whole,” Jones says. “And no matter if it’s one or 100 faculty or staff who are intending to leave, that’s just too many. This is a situation that we believe certainly could have been avoided, and we hope that this wrong against Nikole Hannah-Jones will be righted by the Board of Trustees.” 

Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial brought to light a more systemic, endemic issue impacting Black faculty and staff, says Jones. Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer prize winner and MacArthur genius, is as credentialed, or more so, than former Knight Chair holders, yet she’s the first candidate ever not to be offered tenure.  

“Black faculty and staff, students, and alumni can attest to a history of micro-aggressions, of feeling undermined or undervalued,” Jones told the INDY. “This particular situation highlights circumstances where the goalpost keeps getting moved when it comes to Black folks in general. There is one set of rules, it seems, and we’ve worked through and worked toward whatever those sets of rules are to meet that goal, and in [this case] we see that goal post was moved. And so, it just shows for us the systemic nature of being undervalued either via our scholarship, but also our humanity as Black people.” 

When Black professors, faculty, and students make up such a small portion of the UNC community, a single departure can have a large impact. 

In 2019, there were eight Black women serving as full-time, tenured professors at UNC and 23 serving as tenured associate professors, the INDY reported.  This means about half a percent of full-time professors with tenure are Black women. Only about eight percent of UNC’s student body is composed of Black students. 

One Black student who has been outspoken is Lamar Richards, UNC’s student body president. Richards said in a tweet that he firmly supports incoming undergraduates of color who are reconsidering attending UNC. 

“I love my people too much and UNC is not worthy of us. Period,” Richards said. 

He elaborated in an open letter to the UNC community, where he writes that racial oppression continues to flow through the university and that Carolina is “not prepared for the ‘reckoning’ of which it continues to speak.”

“Our student body president is living his values as a leader,” Jones says. “And he is being honest about what his experience has been, what he has heard from his constituents in the Black community. And he chose to be honest with what he thinks the experience could be for people considering coming into the institution at this time.” 

Although Jones says she hopes the board will call the vote to consider Hannah-Jones for tenure, she says she does not know whether sharing intentions to leave the university will impact trustees’ decisions. Regardless of the outcome of Hannah-Jones’ tenure case, UNC has not yet made a serious commitment to antiracism, Jones says, which is not true for all universities. 

“No matter where you go, there are going to be some kinds of challenges,” Jones says. “But I think there are opportunities out there that are with institutions or with employers that have a serious focus on antiracism and a plan to break down the systemic barriers that have been put up around people of color.” 

The consequences of  Black faculty leaving will likely reach beyond UNC’s campus.

Because many Black staff and faculty live nearby, the board’s inaction could potentially lead to further population decline in the historic Northside neighborhood, Jones says. The university already bears partial responsibility for Northside’s recent gentrification, largely due to growing interest from college students who appreciate the neighborhood’s proximity to campus, character, and comparatively affordable rent prices.

But living in Northside is becoming less affordable for longtime residents. The Marian Cheek Jackson Center, which advocates on behalf of local historically Black neighborhoods and their residents, told the INDY in May that the property owners they work with will pay 53 percent more on average this year in property taxes. In a neighborhood that saw its Black population decline by more than 40 percent from 1980 to 2010, every departure is a loss, says Jones, who is also president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, not only in terms of scholarship.

“What they pour into our community members is just as important,” Jones says. “We see a lot of connections to the NAACP, to the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, and many other different spaces. And so when we lose faculty and staff at the university level, we also lose that commitment to community and that is where it becomes really drastic and sad.” 

The board’s decisions may have unprecedented ramifications for all members of the university’s faculty, says Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty at UNC. For Chapman, this controversy is different from any that has happened at UNC before – even Silent Sam. 

“[On Silent Sam], there were differing opinions,” she says “On this, there is really no differing opinion. I have heard from faculty members all over campus saying this is outrageous. If it happens to this person, it could happen to somebody who’s studying something in the hard sciences that is controversial or becomes politicized. It could happen to someone who’s studying climate. It could happen to someone else who studies race and uses critical race theory. It could happen to all manner of scholars on our campus.” 

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