The toll of political push at UNC continues to mount
In exclusive interview, distinguished Lumbee historian explains her decision to leave UNC-Chapel Hill
When famous historian Malinda Maynor Lowery heard that acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones couldn’t get a vote on the UNC-Chapel Hill board tenure, she felt sad and angry. But she was no longer surprised.
A member of the Lumbee tribe and director of the school’s Center for the Study of the American South, Lowery said she had watched weak leadership and the politicization of the university damaging the school’s reputation for years. and demoralize its students and teachers of color.
By the time the school’s failure to grant permanence to Hannah-Jones made international headlines, Lowery had already made up his mind. She was leaving UNC-Chapel Hill for Emory University in Atlanta.
“If someone is as accomplished as she is and so deserving of a tenure, especially compared to the relative mediocrity of what has happened before, and they won’t recognize it… I just had to cry “Lowery said. “In fact, I cried over the depth of injustice and the hurt our decision-makers were compounding with this decision.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, Lowery said. She has deep ties to North Carolina and Chapel Hill, from where she earned her masters and doctorate degrees. But like much of the faculty, she said, she saw a glaring model in the school’s decision-making.
An illegal behind-the-scenes deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the Silent Sam Confederate monument. the disastrous decision to return students to dormitories at full capacity amid COVID-19 pandemic against the advice of the Orange County Health Department. Private communications with wealthy Tory donors regarding the hiring of Hannah-Jones and the decision to avoid a mandate vote given to his white predecessors.
The model for these actions: leadership that valued the political concerns of the conservative-dominated UNC board of governors, those nominated by the GOP majority policy of the North Carolina General Assembly, above all.
These decisions endangered the health and safety of students and faculty, Lowery said, damaged their confidence in the university and cost the campus millions in lost court battles and withdrawn grants by financial partners who say that the school betrays its own declared values.
“There’s just a variety of things that in this pattern are going to follow,” Lowery said. “It’s totally predictable and totally preventable. But they continue to ignore the expertise of those around them in order to support the decision-making of people who have no expertise.
With the Hannah-Jones decision, heading to federal discrimination lawsuitLowery said the school now appears to be hesitant about the fundamental principle of academic freedom in the face of political concerns.
“I don’t have the bandwidth to spend the next 15 years of my career wondering if my campus leaders support academic freedom and the tenure that comes with it,” Lowery said. “We absolutely depend on it to teach our courses. We absolutely depend on it to produce knowledge that benefits society. If UNC-Chapel Hill does not support it, then UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation will decline.
There were many factors in Lowery’s decision to leave.
School divestment in Indigenous studies. His refusal to offer competitive salaries to get the best academics in their fields. According to Lowery, a “do more with less” philosophy has been evident since 2010, when Republicans took control of state government.
“Still, I felt like I could adjust to it all as long as the college leadership didn’t do other harmful things as well,” Lowery said.
But it became clear that it was and would continue to be, Lowery said.
The school’s refusal to act in the face of the overwhelming feeling among its students and faculty that the Silent Sam Confederate monument should be removed from campus was baffling and hurtful, Lowery said. When protesters did bring down the statue in 2018, she noted, members of the UNC Board of Governors called for its re-building. School management, from the chancellor to the school board, were slow to “take sides” on the issue, as was the importance of renaming campus buildings that honored Ku leaders. Klux Klan, Slavers and Outspoken Racists.
“These are symbols not only of a racist past, but of a refusal to now embrace a way of life where we are responsible to each other,” Lowery said.
As the director of a center at UNC, Lowery said, she knows what it’s like to be in tough political positions and make tough decisions that won’t please everyone.
“But when you make a decision, like settling with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that causes real harm, you have to apologize,” Lowery said. “Even if you can’t prevent the evil or it wasn’t in your hands – although, of course, we now know the directors were directly involved – you owe an apology. And no one did that. Not only was this not explained transparently, but no one said, “I’m sorry for the harm this has caused.”
Instead, Lowery said, the school administration relied on a brand of “toxic positivity”: asking students and faculty to focus on removing the statue from campus, but not compromise with the white nationalist groups through which the school attempted to achieve this.
It didn’t just insult the students and faculty, especially those of color. It also compromised the school’s relationship with the Mellon Foundation, who received a grant of $ 1.5 million at school about a legal settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which was later legally struck down by an Orange County Superior Court judge.
“For people working in the qualitative social sciences and humanities, there aren’t many big funders we can turn to to develop innovative ideas,” Lowery said. “It’s not just the decision, but the lack of action on the impact of the decision.”
There is a direct line between this leadership failure and its aftermath and the decision to leave UNC-Chapel Hill for Emory University, Lowery said.
“I can go to Emory and apply for Mellon funds,” Lowery said. “I can’t do this at UNC.”
That same “toxic positivity” was on display last summer, Lowery said, as the school debated whether to hold classes in person or remotely. The debate over COVID-19 was already highly politicized, and the UNC system’s board of governors warned of heavy revenue losses and deep financial cuts to remote schools.
One of Lowery’s uncles died of COVID just as it became apparent that the school administration – including the board of trustees and campus chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz – was going to ignore the feelings of the faculty, student groups and the Orange County Health Department to refer students to full capacity dormitories. UNC-Chapel Hill Marshal Guskiewicz and Bob Blouin have been on television preaching positivity and assuring people that the school could safely return to life and teaching on campus.
Within a week, however, clusters of infections overwhelmed the campus. The comeback plan had to be scrapped at Chapel-Hill and most of the larger campuses in the UNC system.
Again, no one apologized, Lowery said. In fact, Blouin told the professor he had no intention of “apologizing for trying.”
“That’s when I knew I had to start looking for other opportunities,” Lowery said.
It was a moment that epitomized the dominance of politics over reason, Lowery said – and showed how unappreciated faculty expertise was.
“Not valuing the faculty’s expertise around some of these fundamental questions was a mistake,” Lowery said. “We spoke passionately about the ethics of this – people in public health, humanities, colleges of the arts and sciences. And none of these skills have been exploited. This was communicated and rejected in public forums.
With the controversy over Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure, Lowery said, it’s happening again.
“We’re not being told what’s happened here, we’re not being told what’s going on now,” Lowery said. “And we have teachers in our school, in schools across the country, telling leaders what a mistake it was and how it should be handled. And once again, this expertise is not valued.
As Policy Watch has reported, the costs are already apparent.
Lisa Jones, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Maryland in Baltimore that the chemistry department at UNC Chapel Hill had aggressively recruited, decided not to come to school earlier this month. In a letter to the school, Jones, who is black, called Hannah-Jones’ treatment “very disheartening.”
“It doesn’t seem consistent with a school that says it’s interested in diversity,” Jones wrote to the school. “While I know that this decision may not reflect the perspective of the faculty at the school, I will say that I do not see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision is made. I appreciate all the effort you put into trying to recruit me, but for me it’s hard to ignore.
Lowery said she could sympathize.
“Of course, all of this comes at a cost to damage the school’s reputation and we are seeing it,” Lowery said.
With the release of Lowery, the loss of UNC is the gain of Emory. It’s not a decision she would have made years ago, Lowery said, but it’s obvious UNC is becoming a different university.
“I don’t want to be at this college,” Lowery said. “I’m not going to stay here. “