UNCA applies institutional neutrality to Gaza protests, social justice displays

REMOVED: Banners in support of Black Lives Matter, Cherokee land acknowledgement, and the LGBTQ+ community were displayed on the front of the Ramsey Library until they were removed in 2023. // Watchdog file photo by Starr Sariego


Since University of North Carolina Asheville students began protesting against the war in Gaza in early May, Chancellor Kimberly van Noort has maintained that the university should avoid an official stance on the matter.

“Neither the University nor I, the chancellor, should interfere by taking an official stance,” van Noort wrote in a public update to students and faculty earlier this month. “Institutional neutrality promotes the open exchange of ideas and avoids inhibiting scholarship, creativity, and expression. Compromising this position carries great risks.”

Her adherence to institutional neutrality mirrors other universities’ stances across the country, which have experienced growing protests in the past few weeks. Institutional neutrality also has been applied to other cultural issues on campus, including the Ramsey Library display of Black Lives Matter, Cherokee land acknowledgement, and LGBTQ+ banners – and comes at a time when the university system’s Board of Governors is considering removing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion positions and offices across the system.

In spring 2023, the banners were removed to allow repainting of the library and were not replaced. At the time, van Noort reported in public updates that the banners suffered from “expected wear and tear” from “time and the elements.”

Van Noort told Asheville Watchdog recently that the decision to not reinstate the banners hinged on institutional neutrality.

“For us to make a decision of privileging some over others is really problematic for a university, where we strive to have this neutral state so students can express themselves,” she said in an interview. “They can express opposition. They can express conflict. They can express disagreement in a peaceful, non-violent, respectful manner, but it’s not the place of the university to take a stance in those conversations.”

Senior Allie Daum said the university’s approach to the protests and removal of the banners  “speaks to a very much larger issue going on with the anti-DEI policies that we’re seeing getting pushed and general changes to our institution that I find concerning because this has been a safe space for me as a queer person.”

“And now it feels like that’s getting deliberately pushed out and that we’re not as protected here anymore,” Daum said.

Institutional neutrality’s origins

Student protesters who met with van Noort on May 8 said they are unsure what she means by institutional neutrality.

“I tried to push intentional neutrality in the meeting, to have a simple definition of what that meant, and she said it came from the state and that it’s a legal issue,” senior Tess Parker said.

NEUTRAL STATE: “For us to make a decision of privileging some over others is really problematic for a university, where we strive to have this neutral state so students can express themselves,” said University of North Carolina Asheville Chancellor Kimberly van Noort. // Photo credit: UNCA

The idea of institutional neutrality dates back to the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee Report, which argues that university neutrality is important in fostering a diversity of viewpoints. The idea caught steam in 2021 when Vanderbilt’s chancellor Daniel Diermeier advocated for it in pieces for USA TodayInside Higher Ed, and ForbesUNCA’s chief university communication and marketing officer Michael Strysick said.

Strysick said it was a 2017 state law involving campus free speech – and UNC policy – that brought institutional neutrality to the UNC system. The law, born from HB 527, stated “the constituent institution may not take action, as an institution, on public policy controversies of the day.”

The law did not include the term “neutrality” until it was amended by SB 195 last summer. SB 195 requires all North Carolina colleges and universities to remain neutral on “political controversies of the day.”

Last summer, the General Assembly passed another bill, SB 364, using language mirroring the Kalven Report, prohibiting UNC institutions from asking employment applicants to describe beliefs around “contemporary political debate or social action.” A few weeks ago, a UNC System committee approved a policy that would remove Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion positions and offices across the system, if approved by the full Board of Governors on May 23. The committee’s decision sparked a student protest in front of the Ramsey Library.

“A big part of the DEI policy is recruiting and retaining students. The system is shooting itself in the foot if we do this because we are not going to be able to recruit,” said Kelly Biers, associate professor of French. “It’s going to drive away high quality faculty and students.”

Alondra Barrera-Hernandez, student government president and protest organizer added, “It’s important to advocate for this (DEI) on our campus especially because UNC Asheville is a very diverse campus, especially for DEI. It can impact a lot of marginalized students.”

‘Deep conversations’ about institutional neutrality

The banners were hung in fall 2020 as a part of the university’s commitment to its racial justice roadmap. UNCA called them “visual reminders of the work to be done” in a news release at the time. 

“After the removal of the banners for cleaning and painting of the library facade, significant weather and insect damage was discovered,” van Noort said. “Subsequently, we began considering how and whether the banners would be replaced.”

At the time, the chancellor and administration were having “deep conversations” about institutional neutrality, van Noort said, adding, “It was decided that hanging banners from the central building on our quad would be problematic.”

In spring 2021, the Student Government Association hired local artists to paint a Black Lives Matter mural on University Heights, the main university road. That was removed last spring during construction on 50-year-old sewer and water lines around the time the banners were removed.

“There was a reaction of why did these both happen within a very short span of time? Because they both came down pretty much around the exact same time,” said Liv Barefoot, incoming president of the Student Government Association.

Alumna Lauren Brasswell was the student government president at the time.

“By choosing not to take a stance, the institution is taking a stance on ignoring the historical significance of the harsh realities that marginalized individuals face,” said Brasswell. “This reality does not and should not go against any universities’ mission or values. And, if it does, that institution is and will be a hostile, discriminatory and unsafe environment for any black or brown student, faculty, or staff.”

Van Noort said that under the same state law and UNC System policy that Strysick cited, no similar statements to the Black Lives Matter mural may be displayed on a university road.

Van Noort’s approach to public political and cultural stances differs from that of her predecessor. Two years ago, Chancellor Nancy Cable took a public stance on the war in Ukraine.

MURAL: An aerial view of the Black Lives Matter mural that was constructed in spring 2021. The Student Government Association hired local artists to paint the mural. // Photo credit: University of North Carolina Asheville

“For so many of us, there is an extraordinary amount to process right now,” Cable wrote in an email to students. “In addition to the continued uncertainties regarding Covid, the highly visible and devastating War in Ukraine and its impacts on the people of that region, and a persistent reckoning on issues of race in this country, we have events that for some, we know, are painful, sorrowful, angering, or even surreal.”

Brasswell said during her time on the UNCA Board of Trustees in 2023, she was promised support for voices of the marginalized community and the mural.

“They assured me that post construction, [the mural] will be organized, recreated, and the work of our community would not be erased,” Brasswell said. “Administration is hiding behind policy, stating that it is against state law to have a mural on university roads.”

Barefoot says the mural’s removal affected several SGA senators because they worked on its installation in 2020, and many were present when the university went on a campus-wide lockdown following an emailed threat in October 2020 that there would be a bombing if the university did not remove the mural.

“We’ve all come together and noticed that this isn’t something that should just go away,” said Carlton Smith, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. “This was a massive undertaking that the students did with threats on their life.”

Instead of reinstating the mural, students are partnering with the Steam Studio, a UNCA-affiliated art and  educational studio, to construct a bench that will honor the first Black students who came to UNCA. The bench will be placed in Governors Village, where those students lived.

Smith is unsure on the future of the banners, and Barefoot says students would like to see them hung in the Highsmith Student Union. The chancellor would like to see a local art piece instead of the banners and clarified that UNCA has “no intention of lessening or eliminating the University’s commitment to the [Cherokee] land acknowledgement, but to the contrary exploring ways to more permanently honor it.”

Student movement continues

Despite UNCA’s shift toward institutional neutrality, the students protesting the Gaza war say they expect their movement to continue into the fall.

“I know a lot of people are leaving for the summer,” said Parker, the senior and protester who pressed van Noort on the definition of institutional neutrality. “But we absolutely have plans to continue this behind the scenes over the summer from people that are not able to mobilize and be together. And when the fall comes around, I’m assuming not all things will be solved. So we’ll be back here to continue our work.”

Protesters and van Noort met again May 16 and agreed to discuss the establishment of a working group for further discussion. Van Noort said she wants to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. The organizers of the group will meet for the first time in June to focus on assembling members.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Addison Wright graduated this month from UNCA, where she majored in mass communications and political science. She served as news editor for The Blue Banner, UNCA’s school newspaper. The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.


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