Carolina at a Crossroads: Tenure equity and the path to racial progress at UNC-CH

ByJoel Brown and Jade Boone WTVD logo
Thursday, July 22, 2021
Carolina at a Crossroads: The path to racial progress at UNC-CH
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Before the headline-grabbing controversy over tenure for Hannah-Jones, there was an almost identical battle in 1979 when Carolina denied tenure to Dr. Sonja Haynes Stone.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- On campus in Chapel Hill, it is Dawna Jones' job to connect with and advocate for both students and faculty. She's assistant dean of students and chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, the school's black faculty and staff advocacy group, where the bitterness over the Nikole Hannah-Jones saga is still fresh.

"I heard from both faculty and staff that the entire situation was incredibly demoralizing," Jones said. "Just the spirit of what was going on; that another black woman was trying to be here and teach at her alma mater and was being thwarted at every turn was incredibly demoralizing for black faculty, especially."

Of the over 1,800 faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill, 118 are African American, just six percent. And, of the 998 UNC staffers with tenure -- 764 are white, 77 percent; 53 are African American, five percent.

Before the headline-grabbing controversy over tenure for Hannah-Jones, there was an almost identical battle in 1979 when Carolina denied tenure to Dr. Sonja Haynes Stone.

"Stone was an African American woman and a professor at the university. She also had to fight the university to grant her tenure," said Geeta Kapur, author of the upcoming book, To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation's Oldest Public Institution. "The Nikole Hannah-Jones story is tragic. But Stone's story ended even more tragically."

RELATED: Carolina at a Crossroads: A look back at UNC's rough path toward racial equity on campus

Stone won her appeal for tenure in 1980. But in 1991, the beloved professor died, suddenly, from a stroke. Her death became a catalyst for students to push UNC leaders to build a free-standing Black cultural center.

It spiraled into another years-long battle that made national headlines. Hollywood director Spike Lee even came to Chapel Hill in support of the student's cause as thousands flooded inside the Dean Smith Center for a rally.

"The students began protesting and mounting pressure on the university. In one protest, they went into Chancellor Paul Hardin's office in South Building. They sat down on the carpet and they refused to leave. He had those students arrested," Kapur said.

Asked if she ever reconsiders her choice to study at UNC, Tarheel rising junior Taliajah Vann says, "Yes, and I'd say especially so in the last couple of weeks."

The battles over Stone's tenure and the Black cultural center were settled long before Vann arrived on campus in 2019. The center was built in 2004. It now bears Sonja Haynes Stone's name. But, for Vann, she wants a renewed focus on current campus climate, a safe space for Black students.

That's not what Vann felt in early July, when Confederate flag-waving men came to campus and desecrated the memorial to the enslaved and free African Americans who helped build the university.

"Students said people who are white supremacists feel more comfortable on this campus than we do," said Jones. "That was really heartbreaking."

"Just being Black, your blackness is tolerated by university officials because there are so few people in leadership here who actually care about Black students and think you actually bring stuff to this university," Vann added.

Some of the potential solutions from UNC black faculty and students include creating a new university position that's solely focused on Black affairs; Altering the leadership structure inside UNC's Office of Diversity and Inclusion -- allowing the chief diversity officer to report directly to the chancellor; And of course, an overhaul of the school's system evaluating which faculty are granted tenure -- which is an issue at many schools, not just UNC.