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North Carolina public universities board repeals policy in vote that likely cuts diversity jobs

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees convenes for a regular meeting at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Thursday, May 16, 2024. The meeting came a few days after the board voted to cut $2.3 million of diversity spending to reallocate toward public safety. (AP Photo/Makiya Seminera)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s public university system board voted Thursday to repeal a nearly five-year-old diversity, equity and inclusion policy, meaning its 17 schools will likely join other major universities in cutting diversity programs and jobs.

The 24-member University of North Carolina Board of Governors approved its agenda, which included the diversity policy repeal, with two members voting against the repeal. Campus changes are expected to take place at the start of the next school year.

UNC System President Peter Hans said in his meeting remarks that students and faculty should be allowed to confront “competing ideas” but the role of public universities is to remain neutral on “political controversies.”

“No one can speak for the whole university community on contentious issues because the university is not of one mind about anything,” Hans said.

The system's policy change focuses on removing a 2019 regulation that outlines various DEI positions — such as diversity officers across the university system — and also defines officers’ duties, such as assisting with diversity programming and managing trainings for staff and students.

The new policy includes compliance with state and federal nondiscrimination laws, a commitment to free speech and academic freedom, and a requirement to adhere to institutional neutrality — which prevents the university system from taking a stance on debated political topics.

It does not include the outlined responsibilities of DEI officers and liaisons, suggesting they may be eliminated. A university system document about the policy said its goal is not to cut jobs, but some positions could be discontinued.

The policy will not impact classroom instruction or university research, nor will it dismantle student organizations or cultural centers, according to the university system. It initially passed through the board’s university governance committee last month in less than four minutes with no discussion.

Hans told reporters after the vote that the new policy likely meant DEI staff would change their titles and responsibilities to comply. He also anticipated legal guidelines to come out this summer to facilitate the transition.

Extra funding originally designated for DEI offices will go to “student success initiatives,” the system said. Hans said the board would trust university chancellors to reinvest the funds, but those initiatives wouldn’t include policing and public safety — a funding area that the board of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship university, decided to reallocate millions of DEI funds from next year's budget to.

That decision last week violated the Board of Governors budget policy, Hans said.

The system's legal counsel advised the university board that it could not make line-item changes such as the DEI cut to the university budget, but they “chose to disregard that advice,” he said.

The board’s budget chair, Dave Boliek, said in an interview last week that the budget cut had been under consideration for almost a year.

“There’s no reason why we can’t, as university trustees, signal that this is the direction the university needs to take. I feel good about it,” said Boliek, who also won the Republican primary for state auditor last week.

More definitive plans to cut DEI funding date back to at least late March, according to UNC public records obtained by The Associated Press. In an agenda sent to another administrator before last month’s Board of Governors meeting, university provost Chris Clemens wrote that a plan to remove at least $1 million from the university’s DEI budget was needed.

Public feedback to the UNC Board of Governors before the vote was largely limited to a submission form on its website, which closed Thursday. As of Monday, more than 250 people had submitted public comments — with most identifying as alumni, according to University of North Carolina system public records.

Just 13 people expressed support for the potential repeal while most others voiced opposition to it. Commenters included students who recounted how they benefited from university diversity programs and parents who said they wouldn't send their child to a UNC school if the policy changed.

About 35 protesters from schools across the system gathered outside of the UNC System Office in Raleigh to oppose the policy repeal — and at one point, attempted to enter the building. Two people were arrested, a UNC system spokesperson said.

“Despite their best efforts, we have not been silenced and we will not be silenced,” said Nathaniel Dibble, a member of Young Democratic Socialists of America at North Carolina State University, before the vote.

Sonja Phillips Nichols, one of four Black members on the board, told reporters she voted against the repeal because of people's concerns that they weren't heard by the governing body.

DEI has become one of the most contentious issues on college campuses in recent years as conservatives have claimed that the practices can lead to discrimination. Advocates, however, say diversity initiatives do the opposite by ensuring minority students' and faculty's inclusion in the university community.

Elsewhere, the University of Florida and the University of Texas at Austin both announced job cuts for diversity staff this year. More broadly, at least 20 states have seen Republican proposals seeking to limit public diversity and inclusion programs.

North Carolina's Senate leader Phil Berger, whose chamber along with the House elects the board’s voting members, said Thursday that DEI policies are “completely different from the average person’s understanding of the need for diversity, for equity, for inclusion.”

“The concerns that have been expressed about DEI — not just in North Carolina, not just in North Carolina universities — but across the nation are legitimate concerns," he told reporters before the vote.

House Speaker Tim Moore also told reporters Wednesday that he fully supported the repeal, but if there seemed to be “more work to be done” on DEI, the General Assembly could consider further action.


Associated Press writer Gary Robertson in Raleigh contributed to this report.

Makiya Seminera, The Associated Press