UNC System Racial Equity Task Force hosts key findings meeting

Veronica Wernicke, News Editor

The UNC System Racial Equity Task Force, started this past summer under the system’s Board of Governors, was created in response to nationwide outrage against police brutality and to address the racial and equity climates on its 16 respective college campuses. 

In the past two months, the task force sent out a survey and held several town halls to listen to and take note of students, faculty and staff’s thoughts about the aforementioned. On Nov. 10 the task force held a public meeting, streamed on UNC-TV, to discuss their findings. 

“Over the past two months, the task force gathered input from faculty, staff and students on how racial diversity, equity and inclusion are perceived at UNC System institutions. It will explore and prioritize draft recommendations based on those findings and prepare a report to the UNC System Board of Governors and the UNC System Office,” as stated in an email sent out by the UNCW. 

The first item on their agenda was to hear a presentation regarding the key findings from the surveys and town halls. 

“I want to remind the body of how we got here,” said Reginald Ronald Holley, UNC Board of Governors and Task Force Chair. “It was not long ago when we all learned about the tragic death of a North Carolina native an African American man George Floyd who died at the hands of a white police officer. Many of us, myself included, watched the video in disbelief and horror. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, the officer pinned his knee into the neck of Mr. Floyd ultimately taking his life. This incident, as we know, was not the first time we’ve seen this type of injustice and by no means do I want to become numb to these types of acts. 

“Around the same time, we were already outraged mourning, if you will, the untimely deaths of Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Cries for justice were exploding in our streets, near on campuses and had finally reached the doorsteps of the UNC system. We heard from the leaders of the faculty assembly, staff assembly and the Association of Student Governments. We are obligated to act as leaders of this great university system. It is our responsibility, do the hard work to make the necessary changes for the benefit of our students, faculty, staff, and all North Carolinians. This process has been guarded by our ability to listen. And that we did to ask the right questions and to examine the existing data in pursuit of greater racial equity and understanding.”

The key findings were presented by APCO Worldwide, an advocacy communications consultancy group. 

“There’s urgency and there’s a need to make sure that we get this right,” said Eleanor Arlook, a consultant from APCO Worldwide. “It’s also important to note that this conversation today is not about a few bad apples, it’s not about one institution falling behind and others doing it well, it’s really about addressing systemic problems. One of the top-line findings in our work is that there’s a gap between knowing that change needs to happen and people believing that that change will happen. So given that type of result we see a great opportunity to rebuild trust.”

APCO Worldwide found seven areas of priority that students, faculty and staff believe that the task force should focus on to improve racial equity across the UNC System. Lauren Compton and Arlook from APCO Worldwide then broke down and presented the data behind each of the seven priority areas.

The first priority was to formalize a path to more diverse, inclusive leadership. APCO Worldwide found that at both the intuitional leadership and UNC System leadership level, students, faculty and staff thought that they did not see these leadership roles as diverse and that diversity was perceived to be of low priority. 

“We also did hear quite a bit from students, staff and faculty [about] this idea of how do we make sure that those who are in leadership roles are held accountable and that achieving racial equity and promoting racial equity becomes part of their core competency, something that they’re assessed on and becomes an expectation for that leadership role,” Compton said. “So I would encourage you all as you’re discussing and thinking through your recommendations that we think about that approach, as well as how we can retain and recruit more diverse leadership at both the institution and the system level.” 

The second priority was ensuring equity in hiring, promotions, tenure and compensation. They found that “more than 4 in 10 faculty & staff feel opportunities for leadership roles, tenure track or promotions are, at best, “only sometimes” equitable.”

Some of the opportunities to resolve this issue that Arlook mentioned include “mitigate biases in performance assessments and hiring processes, create structures for career mentorship/sponsorship and address any disparities in compensation between HMSIs, MSIs and PWIs.” 

The third priority was to establish a diversity education model, a clear pathway to independent reporting and accountability measures. APOC Worldwide found that “many BIPOC participants say they have experienced microaggressions, discrimination and/or harassment and they have a lack of comfort, confidence in current reporting structures.”

There is a desire from students, faculty and staff for “mandatory, regular anti-discrimination training, independent reporting structures, improved transparency in process and outcomes, zero-tolerance policies and results-based accountability.”

The fourth priority was to invest in equitable mental health. The survey and town halls revealed that “equitable mental health is a No. 1 priority for students, some are turning to faculty and staff which can have opportunity costs and increased representation and culturally-competent support for BIPOC traumas is key.”

“It’s something that you can take a look at the system and you can integrate some policies, processes and hires in place to make sure that a mental health system is representative of the students and faculty and staff body,” said Arlook. “I also see it as a very actionable issue, where making an investment in this space would have an immediate impact on the experience of students, faculty, staff.”

The fifth priority was to evaluate campus police policies and incorporate alternative responders. In regard to this priority APCO Worldwide found that “offering alternatives (No. 2) and evaluating campus police practices (No. 4) both rank as top 5 priorities for students, all three BIPOC audiences share lack of trust in police and want alternatives to be considered and students, staff and faculty are looking for social work and mental health support to be primary responders for appropriate incidents.”

“So I know there’s been some really great discussions by the taskforce around ways that we can make sure to have more equitable campus police practices and certainly there’s a lot of data here to support the need for that and investment in that,” Compton said. “There’s also, I think, discussion to be had and continued around how do we improve partnerships with campus police and some of these other support services and organizations?”

The sixth priority was to enhance inclusion through representative spaces. Their findings showed that “1 in 5 BIPOC say they don’t feel part of a community on campus and many students, faculty and staff don’t feel there is equitable access to representative spaces.”

However, they did note a positive relating to things that are working within this area.

“Stakeholders, especially students, share what has worked well are spaces dedicated to marginalized communities such as diversity and inclusion or multicultural centers on their campuses and people caution these spaces need to be incorporated and can’t do it all.”

The final priority was to close any funding and access gaps between historically minority-serving institutions (HMSIs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs). The surveys and town halls found that a “majority from both HMSIs and PWIs believe institutions within the System are, at best, “only sometimes” treated equitably and HMSIs ranked this area as THE top priority for the Task Force.” 

Equitable in terms of having an “opportunity for [their] voice to be heard by system leadership on key decisions, grants, funding, and scholarships and access to UNC System leadership.”

“So, certainly there’s some things that probably could be done around improving transparency to help with that distrust, but also what actions can be taken to help review and address any gaps with access to UNC leadership to grant funding and scholarship to having a seat at the table within systems,” Compton said.

Courtney Crowder, another consultant from APCO Worldwide, then provided some next steps and how the task force could seize the opportunity from listening to action.

“It’s about moving quickly from listening and evaluating and reviewing phase into adoption and addressing the issues around some of the concerns that have been raised,” Crowder said. “Having the opportunity to be more consistent with communication, mobilize and continue to move forward on some of the recommendations is what we mean by seizing the opportunity. 

“The recommendation here is that there would be some sort of oversight established and maintained at the system level. There will be consistent engagement from the system through the individual campuses and that information would be consistently and transparently reviewed by the Board of Governors along the way, but that the opportunity to activate around these items lives at the system office and would be managed there.”

The third item on their agenda was for the task force to present their five draft recommendations and potential strategies for each that they will continue to review.

The five recommendations included data and accountability, representation and retention at all levels of the university, diversity and equity staffing to support inclusion and belonging, campus policing and programs and activities in support of racial equity and inclusion. 

Data and accountability meaning “establish reporting requirements, accountability mechanisms, and processes that support a sustainable procedure for collecting race and equity data and the implementation of strategies in support of a more equitable UNC System.” 

Recommendation number two will focus on “[examining] and [improving] recruitment, hiring, promotion and retention policies and practices to build a racially diverse and equitable University student body, faculty, staff and leadership.”

The third recommendation is related to “the System Office [establishing] an executive position that reports directly to the president to implement the recommendations of the Racial Equity Task Force and overse future equity initiatives. All faculty, staff and students should have access to a diversity, equity and inclusion representative and a safe space to talk confidentially about difficult situations.”

The campus policing recommendation will look to “build upon and make consistent across institutions training, procedures, and data collection practices that effectively support and promote racial equity in campus policing. Strengthen partnerships with other campus departments to facilitate alternative and/or shared responses to certain crises.”

The final recommendation relating to programs and activities in support of racial equity and inclusion will look to “develop and support programs that improve equitable outcomes.”

The task force’s final recommendations and strategies to achieve them will be presented by Dec. 16. A recording of this meeting and all past meetings can be viewed on UNC TV’s website.