Diversity programs at UNC campuses are coming under fire

Sydney Floryanzia, in goggles in the foreground, with a group from Apex High School that visited NCSU labs with members of the university’s Women In Science and Engineering Program. The high school’s Society of Women Engineers, founded by Floryanzia, visited a lab where they learned about how recycled paper is made from pulp.
Sydney Floryanzia, in goggles in the foreground, with a group from Apex High School that visited NCSU labs with members of the university’s Women In Science and Engineering Program. The high school’s Society of Women Engineers, founded by Floryanzia, visited a lab where they learned about how recycled paper is made from pulp.

Some have questioned the UNC system’s $16.6 million annual spending on diversity and equal opportunity programs, but Sydney Floryanzia sees them as her lifeline.

Floryanzia, who is African-American and a freshman chemical engineering major at N.C. State University, is thriving with the support of several diversity initiatives. She jokes that she might have dropped out without N.C. State’s summer program for minority students and its Women In Science and Engineering program. She lives in the same village with other women and has an upperclass female mentor. The WISE women study chemistry together, do community service together and push ahead in male-dominated fields of science, technology, math and engineering. This week, at an ice cream social, they commiserated about physics classes.

“What I’m going through is not specific to me,” Floryanzia said. “There are girls that have gone before and have conquered and succeeded. They’re well into their majors. So I can do it too.”

Floryanzia is surrounded by “streams of men” in her engineering classes. But the 18-year-old from Apex is confident about her future – she wants to develop drugs for degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Campus leaders say such initiatives are key to their mission to prepare graduates to compete in a diverse job market. But diversity programs have been on the radar for the Republican-led legislature and the GOP-majority Board of Governors, whose members have questioned their cost, value and efficiency. They also cite programs that they believe have gone too far in advocating an agenda.

A new study, mandated by the legislature and conducted by a UNC-hired consulting firm, examined policies, personnel and programming of diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity programs across the UNC system’s 17 campuses. A board working group could make recommendations for changes to the programs within 90 days.

The report said there are 11 related UNC system policies and 198 policies across the campuses. Some 527 programs, events and training opportunities were identified by the consulting firm.

Much of the expense is in personnel salary costs – $14.7 million. Half of that is devoted to employees who perform necessary compliance functions, for example, to prevent and deal with discrimination and sexual misconduct complaints.

UNC board member Joe Knott, a Raleigh lawyer, posed a question that he said was not meant to be provocative.

“What would be the effect on our university system if all the money and all the people and all the staff and all the energy that goes into these separate divisions for equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion were just eliminated,” he asked, “and those responsibilities were to fall back on the people, the traditional staff and faculty?”

Campus leaders say many of the people who do diversity work are not assigned solely to it. They’re also academic advisers and those who have additional student affairs responsibilities.

Last year, the legislature mandated a study of the efficiency, effectiveness and transparency of the functions and whether services should be consolidated into a single office at each campus. But the consultant found that consolidating programs would not yield significant savings and would evoke negative reaction on campuses.

Instead, the report recommended better coordination, streamlined processes and performance measures to make sure the efforts are serving the university’s goals. One proposal was to have the UNC system office provide greater guidance and standards to the campuses or to have a single officer leading efforts at each campus. Smaller campuses could share services, the report said.

University leaders argue that diversity is not just about race and ethnicity, but also about gender, sexual orientation and military status. Creating more inclusive campuses is exactly what industry wants, said Randy Woodson, chancellor at N.C. State. And demographic predictions are clear, he said, that the future college-going population will increasingly come from underrepresented groups.

“I’m in the office of a lot of CEOs around the country that hire our graduates,” Woodson said. “In every one of them, the first conversation we have is about what are we doing to support diversity and inclusion on our campus. That’s not to feel good, although it’s important for society. It’s because there (is) study after study that shows that organizations that embrace diversity and inclusion are more innovative, are more profitable and move the economy forward more quickly.”

N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson during a meeting with The News & Observer editorial board on Feb. 29, 2016. N&O file photo N&O file photo

For example, a recent study co-authored by two NCSU management professors found that U.S. companies with policies that foster diversity yield more innovations and patents. The paper, published by the journal Financial Management, found that more diverse companies could expect to introduce two additional products over a 10-year period.

N.C. A&T State Chancellor Harold Martin said universities have to serve the needs of all students and broaden their experiences. For example, he said, many of the university’s bright students are “from rural parts of the South, whose narrow lens around diversity and inclusion are related to their upbringing.”

Yet, the university must prepare them to be leaders and successful members of diverse work teams. “So this conversation is incredibly important for our university,” Martin said.

UNC board member Steve Long, a Raleigh lawyer, said he’d heard parent complaints about surveys, for example, that ask students about their sexual orientation. He cited one UNC-Chapel Hill exercise about privilege in which students were asked to step forward from a line if they had two parents at home, if they were white and if they had traveled abroad. Long complained to Chancellor Carol Folt, who ended the student-run exercise because she agreed that it was inappropriate.

Long said the public does want diversity and inclusion at its universities. “We are Americans,” he said. “We believe that regardless of who you are we should have the same opportunities, etc. But my question is does the public believe we need a diversity officer in every single department? Because it does get to be expensive.”

UNC Board of Governors member Steve Long. File photo

Across the system, 273 employees are responsible for equal employment and diversity and inclusion activities. About 80 percent of the salary costs are funded by the state.

Board member Marty Kotis, a Greensboro developer, suggested that the programs could be paid for with foundation money or student fees, rather than taxpayer dollars.

Woodson said the universities would be legally vulnerable if they skimped on basic compliance functions. He cited the recent child sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar that brought down the president of Michigan State University. The doctor’s sexual abuse of gymnasts had been reported to MSU personnel, who did not act to stop Nassar.

Bill Webb, a retired judge and UNC board member, said he was offended when he read last year that a diversity administrator at NCSU had advocated an all-black female dorm. “Who supervises these folks and how does this happen?” Webb asked.

Woodson said the residence hall never would have happened. He attributed the idea to a staffer who voiced an opinion during a campus newspaper interview on her first day on the job.

Martin, the N.C. A&T chancellor, said missteps occasionally happen with student programs. “We have knuckleheaded people who make stupid decisions,” he said. “When such situations occur, we do as we always do. We fix those things in this complex maze on our campuses.”

Appalachian State University student Tyler Hardin said he sees diversity efforts as a way for universities to help students become global citizens.

“If I wind up in another state, or another town or country, there will be different people that don’t look like me or don’t speak the language that I speak,” said Hardin, who is white. “I just want to really emphasize the importance of this and how it truly means a lot to the students all over the system.”

Floryanzia, the NCSU engineering student, says she’s learned how to navigate the university with the support of others. She will travel to Rwanda for a service-related spring break with NCSU’s Women and Minority Engineering Program.

“Because these communities are small – the women in STEM community is small and the minority community is small – there’s a lot of incentive for us to pull together and to lift each other up, and I guess, just make sure we all have what we need to succeed,” she said.

Woodson, attempting to take the politics out of the debate, told the Republican-dominated board: “I can promise you this: I don’t wake up in the morning and think about what can I do to educate a liberal. I wake up every morning and think about what can I do ... to give our students the skills and the talent that they need to be successful.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill