DEI on the chopping block: What does it mean for HBCUs like NC Central University?

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) is the nation’s oldest state-supported liberal arts college for Black students. Photo courtesy of Discover Durham.

By Pragya Upreti

On April 17, 2024, the UNC Board of Governors approved a motion to reverse and replace a policy related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the UNC policy manual. It was a move made in less than 4 minutes, lacking any substantial discussion or space for reasoning. Students who intended to attend the meeting were left outside under the presence of police and were barred from participating in vital discussions surrounding the future of their institution. Immediately after the vote was called, the board proceeded into a closed session, and because closed sessions are not inherently subject to public record, much is left to be considered about the integrity of such decision-making processes.

This decision comes on the heels of public discussions by members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, which includes members either appointed by the UNC Board of Governors or the North Carolina General Assembly. These critical discussions involved what the trajectory of DEI policy and programming may look like at the UNC system’s flagship institution. 

Just weeks before this vote was called by the Board of Governors, Trustee and former advisor to Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger, Jim Blaine, made a public statement in regard to the future of the school’s DEI policy.

“It is likely that the Board of Governors or the state legislature will follow Florida’s path as it relates to DEI this year,” he said at the March 27 UNC Board of Trustees meeting.

It’s a circumstance becoming all too familiar in spaces of higher education policy across the United States. In March, Alabama voted to defund all DEI offices in public universities across the state, a move mirrored in Florida, Texas, Ohio and Kentucky under the oversight of Republican-majority legislatures. 

The passage of such legislation reflects not only direct attacks on the integrity of higher education institutions but also an ongoing movement to roll back decades of progressive policies aimed at expanding opportunity and access to historically disadvantaged communities.

Today, DEI is on the chopping block.

But the University of North Carolina is a system—its prestige and expanse stretches far beyond that of its flagship institution.

At the heart of Durham exists North Carolina Central University, the nation’s first public liberal arts institution for African-American students and an institution among the top-ranked historically Black colleges and universities in the country.

As NCCU undergoes a multi-step search for its new chancellor, alongside UNC-CH and Appalachian State University, there is far more to be considered. The initial move to repeal the DEI policy from the UNC policy manual leaves extensive discretionary power to individual campuses in regard to decision-making around funding or divesting from DEI efforts. But even the process for going about selecting a new chancellor has changed significantly in the past five years.

Over the years, UNC System President Peter Hans has sought increased authority in chancellor selection, proposing to add hand-picked candidates to finalist slates. This move was met with resistance from campus Boards of Trustees, especially at HBCUs like NCCU, due to the concern of a predominantly White body of conservative political appointees guiding the trajectory of the university. Yet, despite concerns over the hyper-concentration of power in the hands of the system president, there has been increased support for private sector practices, though, during his tenure, Hans did not exercise this authority.

For far too long, young people have been excluded from policy decisions in higher education that are intimately intertwined with their educational experiences. It should be widely understood that the governance of institutions must be reflective of the communities of diverse individuals being served within them. 

At an HBCU, this becomes more important to acknowledge. The current members of the UNC Board of Governors are predominantly White. This same group of individuals is on track to strike down the entire DEI framework that exists across all 17 UNC system institutions, which is something that many members of the board have frequently dismissed as a necessity in higher education. 

In the broader context of the American South, HBCUs have a particularly fascinating history to consider. They continue to outperform non-HBCU institutions in retaining and graduating first-generation, low-income African American students. But while the culture these institutions cultivate around opportunity and closing the racial achievement gap is profound, the leadership under which they operate should reflect the same urgency and commitment.

Yet, time and time again, we are confronted with the reality that this is simply not the case.

The dangers of overlooking the long-term ramifications of such plaguing decisions are vast. Policies like those to roll back safety nets of DEI programming on campuses across North Carolina are not unique to this state, nor just the American South.

Perhaps the most damaging misconception about schools in the United States is the belief that they operate in isolation from the broader systems of power surrounding them. Schools have an obligation to reflect the diversity of the communities they intend to serve. While political networks have often consumed the oxygen in the room around decision-making for public institutions, it’s important to acknowledge that collective action is among the most profound means of pushing back against regressive policies.

This means uplifting the work that young folks are doing on the ground around university governance which has seen a wave of growing momentum over the past year. 

On campuses like UNC-CH, collective action has turned to the formation of groups like TransparUNCy, a project of the UNC Affirmative Action Coalition with a mission to pull back the curtains on who controls public education, how they do it and what they don’t want students to know.

The need for this organizing to expand onto campuses like NCCU is deeply necessary and long overdue, particularly because the work to dismantle the integrity of higher public education has been rooted in a decades-long regressive conservative movement that shows no signs of slowing down.

As we navigate the intricate landscape of higher education governance, let us not forget that the future of our institutions rests in the hands of those who are most affected by their policies—young people.

Edited by Ava Dobson.