Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Higher Ed

A letter to BIPOC faculty, staff and students

July 20, 2021 |11:10 min read

Reasons to stay at Gillings, as we strive for a more equitable school, state, country and world

I sent the message below to the Gillings School community on July 9, 2021. I am posting it here to encourage more people to engage with the topics of equity and inclusive excellence in schools of public health and beyond.

This version of the letter incorporates a few editorial changes based on feedback from members of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities at Gillings. I appreciate the people who took time to give feedback, especially on the language we use.

To Gillings BIPOC faculty, staff and students,

It has been a difficult 1.5 years for everyone, especially BIPOC faculty, staff and students, for whom the tragedies of the pandemic were exacerbated. Pandemic-related inequities were in addition to those that have existed for hundreds of years. The murders of George Floyd and many other Black and Brown people heightened the pain. Hate crimes against Asians also are on the rise. Events on our campus – most recently, issues around granting tenure to the outstanding journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones – have heightened anger, disappointment, fear and distrust. This was not an isolated event, but one that many experienced as another blow in a lifetime of unfair treatment, hostile environments and double standards. Some of you say you are exhausted by the disappointments, lost opportunities and struggles. According to a poll taken by the Carolina Black Caucus, some of you may be thinking about leaving the Gillings School and UNC-Chapel Hill. I understand why you would consider that, why external offers may be compelling now, and why you may be tempted to leave.

I hope you will say “no” to leaving and want to give you some reasons why. I also will highlight a few of the steps we are taking to create a more equitable and anti-racist Gillings School.

I debated whether to write since you might find it presumptuous of me to try to persuade you to remain at UNC-Chapel Hill and Gillings. Having spent 16 years working to achieve a more diverse and equitable school, and finally making some headway, I am heartsick that we could slide backwards. We need you. The question is: Do you need us? I want to work with you so that your answer is “yes.”

Context and background

The Nikole Hannah-Jones situation laid bare many threats and weaknesses within UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System of which we are part, including, frankly, a flawed governance model. (One could read the Declaration of Independence with university boards representing colonial England.) Still, many across the campus and an extended network of partners and supporters were outraged by what happened. More than 90 leaders, including deans, department chairs and center directors, and many others, wrote letters to the University’s Board of Trustees (BOT), called the UNC System office, and took other measures, demanding action. I was among those who spoke out. Donors and former board members wrote, and alumni voiced their opinions. People did not stand idly by, although it could be argued that some voices were too late or not sufficiently strong. Notably, this was not simply an inside-UNC issue. It became a national issue that galvanized many across the country. The mobilization of outrage was a good thing that offers hope for a better future. It will take time and work to repair damage to UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation, but there now is the potential for a more equitable future in which all will thrive.

It is only fair that Nikole Hannah-Jones was offered tenure (although far too late in the process), but on July 6, we learned that she was going to Howard University and not to UNC. We lost the opportunity to have an amazing journalist and thinker as a colleague, teacher and mentor. We, collectively, should have treated her better and had her back. The right decision about tenure eventually was made, but we lost the professor. Thus, we all lost.

We must stand up more often when campus and board decisions threaten academic freedom, devalue individuals and their scholarship, or micromanage operations (such as tenure) for which there are excellent checks and balances. We must be more vigilant about what can be done to us through processes now legitimized by the UNC System and by a legal system that favors the status quo, or even worse, a “back-to-the-past” yearning. What is happening at UNC is not an isolated occurrence. It is happening at many public universities in the United States, as described in the Chronicle of Higher Education (here and here). Encroachment into schools and universities is occurring across the U.S. in legislating what can and cannot be taught and discussed in classes.

Our commitment to inclusive excellence

Whatever limitations may be found in the university at large, we aim to make Gillings a place where BIPOC students, faculty and staff thrive. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ statement about why she chose Howard University offers a playbook for actions we, UNC-Chapel Hill, should take. At a press conference on July 7, UNC-Chapel Hill Black student leaders announced eight priority action items for university leadership to undertake “to protect the Black community at UNC, as well as to end the systemic oppression and exploitation of our community.” I empathize with their concerns, and we have been working on several of them, such as increasing the number of BIPOC faculty, staff and students.

At the Gillings School, thanks to Kauline Cipriani, PhD, associate dean for inclusive excellence (IE), her team, the IE Council and school leaders, we developed and are following an Inclusive Excellence Action Plan. This is a living document, purposely focused on anti-racism and improving the workplace and academic climates for Gillings BIPOC community members. It will be updated regularly. We are determined to be an anti-racist school, going beyond university requirements in our expectations for performance. That includes our requirement that all faculty and staff fulfill at least eight hours of IE training/year, some of it in anti-racism.

We are sad as we bid farewell to Dr. Cipriani, who is leaving Gillings to become vice president for diversity and inclusion at Colorado State University. We also are filled with gratitude for the groundbreaking work she and the IE Council have done during her time here, and we have great hope for a better future. We are blessed with a robust, actionable plan that is already fully in motion, and our path forward is well lit. We soon will begin a national search for a new associate dean for inclusive excellence of equally high caliber. We will inform you soon who will be interim associate dean. We will not rest on our laurels as we embark on the search.

Some steps we are taking to be more diverse and inclusive

  1. We will continue to recruit BIPOC faculty members and to ensure that they and our BIPOC staff are treated equitably and given sufficient resources to succeed. These are issues Nikole Hannah-Jones addressed in the statement she released about her decision. We will pay equal attention to on-boarding and retention. We can improve in both areas.
  2. We will continue to require eight hours of IE training each year for all faculty and staff.
  3. We have made IE an even stronger part of how we evaluate leaders at Gillings. We also have built IE activities and advances into all Appointments, Promotions and Tenure (APT) packages.
  4. We will take more aggressive action against faculty and staff members cited in student reports for racism, unwillingness to confront and discuss racist behavior in classrooms, and related issues when there is cause to do so. There are no free passes for bad behavior.
  5. With help from Vice Dean Taya Jackson Scott and Assistant Dean for Human Resources Gretchen Senez, we are examining a variety of metrics across the school, including salaries. We will address salary inequities as we have funds to do so; it is a high priority.
  6. We are working with recently recruited faculty and staff members, especially BIPOC faculty and staff, to learn from their experiences and improve our systems to make them more transparent, comprehensible and easier to navigate.
  7. We have stepped up the aggressiveness of fundraising for IE and are beginning to have success. That includes fundraising for BIPOC student scholarships.
  8. We are working with the chancellor, provost and others to restore the VITAE program and expand the number of available positions in the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. However, we will not rely on these mechanisms alone as the strategy for recruiting BIPOC faculty members. All faculty and staff searches will be conducted with inclusive processes that produce diverse sets of candidates.
  9. I am delighted that our Public Health Foundation Board is committed fully to our inclusive excellence vision and is providing extremely helpful support and feedback. Kudos to their leadership and membership. Several members recently have made generous gifts to further inclusive excellence.
  10. Our Alumni Association Advisory Board is an important partner in achieving inclusive excellence. A new Alumni Inclusive Excellence Committee already has more than 50 alumni excited about helping us achieve our inclusive excellence goals. They are making a difference. Many are willing to be mentors for students.

Especially for students

Why come to Gillings? Because we will give you the tools to change the world for the better, because our faculty and staff join students in their commitment to a more inclusive school and just world, and while we are not perfect, we are working to do the right things to fight racism in our midst and not stand idly by. You will succeed at Gillings and get good jobs where you can begin or continue making a difference in the world. We listen to students and change our policies and programs accordingly. For example, our MPH concentration in Health Equity, Social Justice and Human Rights was approved because students made a compelling case for it. A new elective course on public health history came about in a similar way. We may not always agree with you, but we will listen respectfully. Fundraising for students, including BIPOC students, is one of our highest priorities, and in the past few years, we have brought in several new scholarships especially for BIPOC students. I created one of them. We have worked collaboratively across the school in recent years to increase student diversity, and now, about 25% of our students are BIPOC. Our Office of Student Affairs is an important source of information and support. In fall 2021, we will welcome our most diverse incoming class ever, and we are elevating efforts to build and support BIPOC student community and retention. Also see list of ten items above.

Especially for faculty and staff

Consider not my words but the words of a physician, Anique Forrester, MD, at a historically white institution, who wrote “Why I Stay — The Other Side of Underrepresentation in Academia,” in the New England Journal of Medicine last year. (Thanks to Taya for pointing me to it.)

This is why I stay. I realize that the voice of the voiceless has no chance of being heard when there is no representation. Many times, I have felt frustration over not being able to act or not feeling supported or recognized for my contributions. I stay because I want to be an agent of change. I stay because I secretly hope my staying will somehow encourage others to review what my presence and experience bring to my workplace. I stay because I understand the importance of what I bring to the experience of the trainees, students, and colleagues with whom I work daily. I stay because I care deeply about making sure that my career is about transformation and demonstrating what commitment to representation can look like. I stay to silently hold vigil for all my colleagues who have left.

Our mission – a reason to remain at Gillings

In addition to what we are doing to be more diverse and inclusive, there are other reasons to stay. Most important is our mission and the work that motivates us. The people at Gillings are doing some of the most significant research, practice and teaching anywhere to understand and eliminate health inequities. Every day, Gillings faculty, staff and students have the potential to transform communities and the world for the better. That is a fundamental driver for why we are here. It is what excites me and keeps me going even when the world impinges, as it has recently. What we are doing at Gillings is life changing. It is a good part of the reason many of you came to Gillings and have remained here. It is our mission, and for many of us, our life’s work. It is a reason to remain.

Like all institutions, UNC-Chapel Hill is imperfect. I doubt there is a historically white institution without pockets of racism, if not more substantial, open racism, sexism and other isms. As a multiracial colleague said, “There is no Eden.” Some universities have done better than others in reckoning with their pasts. We have a way to go, and the specter of the past still looms over us. As a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Naming University Facilities and Units, I am one of many people working to achieve a reckoning. We can be a better, more welcoming, inclusive and equitable institution. That is what we are trying to achieve at Gillings. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me (brimer@unc.edu) or Taya Jackson Scott (ttjscott@email.unc.edu) if you want to share issues or concerns. We will make time to talk with you. Thank you for being part of the Gillings community. We will do everything possible to make this the place where you will want to remain and thrive.


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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.