UNC-CH chancellor Folt outlines new steps on race issues

UNC chancellor Carol Folt answers questions during a meeting with the staff of the News & Observer on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 in Raleigh.
UNC chancellor Carol Folt answers questions during a meeting with the staff of the News & Observer on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 in Raleigh. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt says work is under way to foster a better climate around issues of race and equity.

Folt sent a message to the campus community this week outlining a number of initiatives in progress, such as creating a space for black students to gather, conducting a survey on the campus climate and changing student orientation programs with an eye to diversity, inclusion and wellness. She and her top administrators, as well as the Board of Trustees, will soon undergo training on structural racism and racial bias and look for ways to alleviate them.

“We’re taking a lot of very good, exciting actions,” Folt told trustees Thursday. “I feel very proud of that.”

The changes come after a campuswide meeting on race last November that revealed the extent to which minority students at times feel marginalized or uncomfortable on campus. The issue is not unique to UNC, made clear by demonstrations near, at Duke University, and far, at places such as Yale and the University of Missouri.

The concern is not new, either. In Chapel Hill, student activists have protested for years against symbols such as Silent Sam, the Confederate monument at a prominent spot on campus. Last year, trustees stripped the name of a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader, William Saunders, from a campus building, renaming it Carolina Hall.

Now, faculty, staff and students are working on what will be a lengthy effort to give more context to the university’s complex story. A task force on UNC history is developing an exhibit at Carolina Hall that will examine race through the years. A design is expected to be ready in March.

A longer effort will explore markers and historical interpretation at McCorkle Place, the large quadrangle where the Silent Sam statue is located. A group of students working with a professor conducted an audit of all buildings, designs and landmarks on campus. That will be the basis of the work ahead.

“This is a huge task we’ve undertaken,” said Winston Crisp, vice chancellor for student affairs. “The overall task we’re going to be engaged in for years.”

As of December, about 80 people had volunteered for the history effort.

Beyond the physical campus, other efforts will take a look at how successful students are in the classroom and whether they receive appropriate support to thrive. Folt said the university would launch a new study of student and faculty retention and graduation rates of students. Past studies were done in 2004 and 2010.

A campus ethics institute has launched a series of opportunities for graduate students and faculty to facilitate more give-and-take about diversity and race in the classroom.

“We heard a lot from people that they wanted to be able to host difficult conversations,” Folt said. “These issues on race are difficult to have and they’re happening around the country.”

The town hall meeting in November was at times dominated by frustration and anger. A large group of African American students issued a lengthy list of demands and chanted, “Whose university? Our university!”

Dwight Stone, chairman of the trustee board, offered cautions about the process ahead. He said it would be an important journey of learning and reflection for all.

“I ask that everyone with an interest in a successful outcome for Carolina to share their points of view with an open mind,” he said Thursday. “Being fearless enough to engage in civil discussion creates good public policy and a more informed and involved public.”

Recently, some universities have been caught in a collision between maintaining free speech and creating safe spaces for students.

Stone hearkened back to the infamous Speaker Ban law that threatened academic freedom in the 1960s, when the legislature acted to ban communist speakers from UNC’s campus.

“We resoundingly refused to ban speakers and thoughts then,” Stone said, “and my hope is that we will have the courage to not ban groups’ ideas or beliefs now. ... To make it a safe place for other ideologies, to sequester various beliefs and ideas goes directly against what a university does, or at least, what it’s supposed to do, which is to promote critical thinking.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill