What happens if UNC dismantles diversity programs?

Diamond Forde


Following the news last month that the Committee on University Governance took four minutes to repeal our DEI policy, students at UNC Asheville organized a rally. Banned from using microphones or megaphones, these students stood on the steps of Ramsey Library pitching their voices into the afternoon. Nearby, the weekly and well-microphoned Live at Lunch performance thrummed loud enough that, at times, the students’ voices were muffled under guitar chords. Ramsey Library’s banners (since removed) for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ Pride and the Cherokee Land Acknowledgement pulsed their ever-absent music around us.

“I didn’t even know Black people had history before slavery,” one student offered, his voice bottoming out under the jazz notes nearby. It was a distinctly American irony — an all-white jazz ensemble dampening the singular voice of a Black student in the Quad.

Woody White, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, claims to believe in equality but finds DEI “un-American.” In The Carolina Journal, White writes: “Within the context of America’s troubled past and the progress achieved due to the passage of the 14th Amendment; Supreme Court rulings, such as Brown v. Board of Education; and most notably, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings, the truth is that the enactment of DEI has severely damaged race relations.” What White misses, however, is that his aforementioned examples are DEI.

What DEI really means

DEI (sometimes written as DE&I) is used broadly to mean any policy, practice, discussion or action guided by the ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion, but can most easily be understood as a continuation and focusing of affirmative action, meant to ensure institutions engage in fair hiring practices and that they acknowledge or at least recognize their historic involvement in systemic oppression.

DEI has been around longer than its name. DEI was integral to the desegregation of Asheville public schools in the ’60s and ’70s, to the desegregation of UNC Asheville’s faculty in 1981 and the decadelong desegregation process that required (the North Carolina system received notification of its civil rights violation in 1970). When the first professors to desegregate UNC Asheville established collectives like the African-American Colloquium to retain students and faculty of color, that decision was rooted in DEI.

UNCA began offering diversity intensive courses in the early 2000s, classes such as Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Organizational Behavior and the Philosophy of Disability, to introduce students to a broad range of intellectual perspectives and prep them to grapple with global issues. When the university adopted the Racial Justice Roadmap in 2020 as a plan to dismantle racism on our campus, in community outreach and in our retention efforts, faculty of color made up about 13% of full-time faculty. Today, the university website no longer mentions that road map.

American ironies

White goes on to argue that our universities have strayed from the supposedly “colorblind” teachings of Dr. King; what suspicious luck, then, that the UNC Board of Governors has recently passed a curriculum change called the Foundations of American Democracy, which will assert our college’s collective focus on “educating for democracy.” Among the required reading is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

The American irony is that in that letter, King warned us about men like Woody White: “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” DEI affects all of us because it asks all of us to sit in the tension that justice requires. White says DEI silences students but says nothing about sexism and its silencing effect on women; says nothing about homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism — says nothing about the real students navigating these real problems on real colleges right now.

Critics like White are trying to redefine DEI. Now, DEI has become a pejorative shorthand for reactionaries where woke fell out of favor. They are ignoring DEI’s real and necessary applications — in our hiring practices, where racist and institutionally sanctioned practices have barred nonwhites from occupying certain positions — as well as the reasons we need it. Because to fix our institutional problems would mean those like White would need to acknowledge the ways that they contribute, even now, to a fundamentally broken system.

It is important to say, plainly, what DEI is. DEI is a framework that can apply to any policy or practice. Sometimes DEI manifests in job interviews or hiring practices, but it also encourages the intellectual, social and practical skills we need to address our community’s issues. In academia, DEI crosses multiple disciplines, and in the real world, as in our classrooms, DEI is about learning to pass the mic. To hear Woody White and the UNC Board of Governors — but also faculty, students and the staff whose livelihoods are in question. When the Committee of Governance voted to overturn our DEI policy in under four minutes, who was holding the mic in that room?

Who is being targeted?

Let’s pass the mic and be transparent about who is being targeted here:
• The UNCA Center for Diversity Education which has supported our local community since the early ’90s, when members of the Asheville Jewish Community Relations Council recognized a need to teach cultural diversity in K-12 institutions. The CDE still works with our regional K-12 systems and partners with the Center for Jewish Studies to organize relevant programs such as the Holocaust Remembrance event each year.

• The UNCA Office of Multicultural Affairs, which fosters campus community, offers trainings, workshops and graduation celebrations, and manages affinity groups; which facilitates the hard work of collecting and verifying bias reports; and which the students have said have “positively impacted” their college experience and helped them feel like they “belonged to the campus community.”

• Our students, who said in a campus survey that DEI enhances learning because “by having more diverse perspectives, the accuracy of history is greatly strengthened.” Our students who say DEI groups on campus provided them with “adequate access to mental health resources,” “a free-access food pantry” and “a venue for valuable student expression.” Our student who, after being called a racial slur in downtown Asheville, turned to the Office of Multicultural Affairs for support: “I could not imagine DEI offices being closed when things like this still happen regularly to students like myself. DEI offices and staff are not only helpful for fostering a better environment at the university, but are a necessity for it.”

Taking action

If you care about real people, with real voices, who need the real work our DEI organizations and initiatives do, the mic is yours. You can support the OMA and CDE through donations on the UNCA website. You can learn more about how DEI impacts the college experience. You can also voice your support for DEI on the UNC System Public Comment Submission Form or by writing, calling or emailing the UNC System Office.

You can also push your elected officials to put pressure on the Board of Governors. There are so many opportunities to act. No matter how you choose to support, we ask that you do so quickly and decisively. The violences of segregation and marginalization are often easiest to see in their consequences, but those consequences are undergirded by the inaction of those of conscience.

Diamond Forde is an assistant professor of English and the author of Mother Body (Saturnalia Books).


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8 thoughts on “What happens if UNC dismantles diversity programs?

  1. C-Law


    The last gasps of a dying, wicked empire…good riddance.

  2. North Asheville

    An articulate and forceful essay by Ms. Forde.

    Was too much emphasis on DEI, especially those banners in front of Ramsey Library, the reason for the downfall of Nancy Cable?

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    Relieving UNCA of DEI will be refreshing and will support more of a meritocracy within.

  4. Voirdire

    yes, a well written and posited piece. I can’t say I agree the DEI is more fact than fever ….but we’ll see how it all pans out going forward. I am somewhat put off by the anti-intellectual aspect of it …you know, we will broach no other viewpoint or consideration. This holds true for Woody White and his anti-woke MAGA folk as well. …true and then some in their case. Surely there’s a middle ground …or no one moves forward. Think about it.

  5. C-Law



    Just a tired rehash of the old racial quotas scam, nothing more, nothing less.

    Only the dumbest of the useful idiots and the grifters in on the scam promote this kind of ignorant, racist excrement.

    This ends only one way…and the endgame is in sight if you have eyes to see and ears to hear!


  6. Jack Bush

    The UNC Board of Trustees is bringing back institutional racism. Most of the commentators here would strongly approve of that. Soon they’ll be far fewer black and brown students, international students and other minority students. Most of the black and brown faces on campus will be athletes, if the UNC system can still recruit minority athletes into a deliberately hostile environment.

    • gapple

      It’s not institutional racism. Why are you saying that there will be fewer black and brown students? Are you saying that they aren’t as smart as white and asian students? Pretty racist comment to say that the only black and brown faces on campus will be athletes? Why is that? Do they excel in sports better than other races? What part of judging individuals based on character and ability versus color of one’s skin do you not understand?

    • Jt

      Nonsense. Obsession with race only leads to more racism toward AND by blacks. Your statement effectively says blacks are idiots with no agency over their own outcomes, purely everlasting victims. All fault for bad choices lies with amorphous monsters called white people. Why do blacks tolerate such garbage?

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