On April 20, UNC-Chapel Hill students in two African, African American, and Diaspora Studies classes suddenly learned that their professor, Dr. Perry Hall, had died over the weekend. It was a sad, unexpected ending to a semester of sad and unexpected events. Hall was beloved by Black students, who were already under the stress of final-exam season, the coronavirus pandemic, and, in later months, an onslaught of racist state-sanctioned violence. 

But instead of getting a formal notice of Hall’s death from the university, students found out through informal emails from department heads. Hall’s classes would continue on with a substitute professor.

“Not only were we robbed of an opportunity to grieve, but we were also expected to move on with the class + assignments w/o skipping a beat,” tweeted recent grad Olivia McPhaul.

McPhaul says the substitute professor, Dr. David Pier, ignored documentation of extra-credit opportunities Hall created to ease the transition to virtual learning for students who didn’t have the resources to complete assignments or were experiencing added stress during the pandemic. According to McPhaul, Pier said it was too much to deal with.

“I took it upon myself to reach out to the chair of the department to explain my grievances and what had happened,” McPhaul says. “She then said, ‘If you have evidence, you should send that to me and Dr. Pier in order to get that credit.’ But I shouldn’t have even had to do that.”

UNC’s handling of Hall’s passing raises larger questions about how the university responds to Black student trauma and the effectiveness of its mental health resources.

Tributes from colleagues after Hall’s death noted that he was a “pillar of our department” and an “incredible scholar” in the national Black studies community. He was a member of the International Journal of Africana Studies’ editorial board, and his work was highly regarded.

“He contributed a lot to the life of the department,” says AAAD professor Dr. Kenneth Janken, who worked with Hall for decades. “He worked on a significant reconfiguration of the major and minor requirements. He also took an important role in the development of a graduate program in our department, which is in its last stages of the approval process. He was consistent and principled and deliberate and considered in his opinion, not to mention kind.”

Janken says UNC’s Faculty Council, a governing body representing university faculty members, holds an in memoriam moment of silence for deceased faculty at the end of the school year. The council, along with the College of Arts & Sciences and faculty news publication The Well, posted a memorial for Hall, saying they hope to honor him in person when it is safe to do so. 

While the AAAD department posted a memorial tribute on its homepage, it took the Black Student Movement sharing a graphic on social media and my article in The Bridge for most people to find out. BSM President Tamiya Troy says it’s “outrageous” how many responses they’ve received from alumni, parents, and current students saying they had no idea.

This isn’t the first time Black students at UNC have been left to handle their own mourning and community trauma. On September 25, 2019, UNC BSM hosted a “Fallen Tar Heels” vigil honoring the people lost from the Black Carolina community: Karriem “Eric” Ahmad Jenkins, Diamond Daniels, and former faculty member Ishna Hall

On June 5, following the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, George Floyd, and countless others, UNC BSM, UNC Black Congress, and student government organized a vigil in honor of Black lives. Troy notes that while Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz attended both events, the onus was on students to organize them. 

In the past school year, several student deaths have been reported by The Daily Tar HeelWynn Burrus, Madison DeVries, and Patrick Nixon. But there has been no article on Hall’s death.

The university says that when there’s a faculty or staff death, individual units or departments handle notifications, memorials, and replacements. But given the previous response to faculty death and Hall’s influence in the Black UNC community, students expected broader recognition of his passing.

McPhaul says some of her classmates have checked in with one another in a group message, but her grieving process would’ve looked much different if she didn’t have familiar faces in the class.

AAAD department chair Dr. Eunice Sahle listed the Counseling and Psychological Services website and hotline in her email informing students of Hall’s death. But CAPS didn’t feel like an option to McPhaul.

“I’ve visited CAPS and Campus Health, and I felt like it was never really about me or that I was prioritized,” says McPhaul, a Black woman in UNC’s mostly white and male computer science program. “When I first went to CAPS, it was surrounding the experiences and the trauma that I had endured in the computer science department with my professors, the racism and discrimination and exclusion. Since that experience, I have not returned to CAPS, nor would I have advised other people to.”

Troy says there are too many hoops students have to jump through to receive the help or accommodations they’re paying for.

“The university hasn’t asked students what you need when you’re experiencing a death or when something happens, because they fail to acknowledge it,” she says. 

The disconnect between CAPS and students of color, particularly Black students, is evident, though CAPS Director Allen Hamrick O’Barr has made efforts to seek input from BSM and We Wear the Mask, a minority mental health advocacy group. He says CAPS has a strong multicultural program in their training. 

“There’s only a limited amount of interaction that we’re going to be able to do with any student just because of the resources and the demand,” O’Barr says. “It’s a bigger issue in that a lot of the student body wants to have unlimited psychotherapy and we just don’t have the capacity to do it.”

Although there are Black staff members, most are social work fellows or predoctoral interns from other schools, not psychologists. Since these positions are transient, it’s hard for Black students to find a counselor who works for them and get continuous long-term care. 

As for grief counseling, there is a COVID-19 focused support group that addresses it at a lower level—things like “losing” part of the school year and a formal graduation. O’Barr says that they would need to create a specific group for dealing with death.

The university sent out formal emails about maintaining mental health during COVID-19, including one the day after Hall’s death was announced to students. Guskiewicz records weekly video messages checking in on the Carolina community, and visited Zoom classes to discuss what returning to campus in the fall could look like. In light of recent events regarding police brutality, UNC has even sent out emails regarding Carolina’s commitment to “campus-wide dialogue, healing, and structural change.” But they did not mention the psychological toll that white supremacy and widespread death has on Black students or what will be done to rectify it. 

Dr. Hall’s students aren’t just managing exams and trying to navigate an unforeseen pandemic—they are grieving the loss of a man that advocated for them, and UNC needs to advocate for its Black students. At a university that claims to be for the people, the people’s needs seem to be rarely listened to.  

An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Bridge, a media outlet created by UNC-CH and Duke students to share the voices of women of color at these institutions. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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2 replies on “UNC’s Handling of the Death of a Beloved Professor Raises Larger Questions about Its Sensitivity to Black Grief”

  1. I’ve worked for the school system for over 15 years I am an African American teacher. I have watched racial biases within the school system which is embreded within White society in regards to the Death of Professor Dr. Hall employed by UNC. Racial biases within the School system, example a death of a teacher’s love one or their beloved pet, higher ups would get together to collect money, cards and gifts etc., for the teacher who is White who sufffered loss. Then this Professor Dr. Hall those Head Instructors did not inform the Black community of his loss. I have had family members who have passed away, there were no cards, no money, not even an gift or an encouraging word. It is as if black lives do not matter. In court room a black man can be innocent but because of him being black he is more likely to be given a guilty verdict than a white man because racial bias within our society.

  2. I remember other professors that have passed and I thought it was not well publicized. It was handle by their respective departments whether they were white or black.
    This just sounds like perpetual whining, raising a whole generation to cry unfair over every single thing, it’s disgusting.

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