Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Federal lawsuit alleges racial discrimination at UNCW, points to broader issues

University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
University of North Carolina Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — The University of North Carolina Wilmington is one of the least diverse schools in the state, with a lower percentage of both Black students and faculty than the general population and other Universities and colleges. According to one long-time employee, who is filing a discrimination suit in federal court, that’s not an accident — nor is it due to a lack of qualified people.

The primary complaint in LaTasha Jones’ lawsuit is racial discrimination: despite working for UNCW for nearly 14 years, earning an advanced degree related to her job, receiving high marks on her evaluations, and serving on multiple UNCW committees, Jones has been repeatedly denied promotions. During the same time period, other employees — notably white women — have been advanced.

But it’s not simply that Jones is a Black woman. According to Jones, her advancement has been blocked because she has vocally advocated for more diversity at UNCW, primarily in its student enrollment but also in its faculty and staff.

It’s Jones’ opinion that this lack of diversity stems in part from a failure to recruit Black students, including the underfunding and eventual shuttering of a pre-college admissions outreach program. The lack of diversity itself is not Jones’ opinion — demographic statistics from the last twenty years show that UNCW has remained less diverse than many other schools for years.

Lack of diversity isn’t the only problem, Jones said. There’s also a toxic climate of indifference and muted hostility, in the form of microaggressions, towards Blacks. Jones said that while her lawsuit concerns her own experience, she hopes it will be a blueprint for others in her situation.

While it is UNCW’s policy not to comment on pending litigation, it did respond to a request for comment, asking if the University is concerned about its disproportionately low percentages of Black students and faculty. UNCW stated that it deeply values “the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive campus community, a commitment that includes actively support the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff.” The University touted its high graduation rates for Black students.

UNCW also acknowledged there was “more work to be done,” and promised an ‘equity in action’ plan, spearheaded by Chancellor Jose V. Sartarelli, in the coming weeks. [Note: You can find the full statement at the end of this article.]

UNCW is one of the whitest schools in the state

Demographic statistics for both faculty and students show that UNCW has significantly lower rates of Black employees and enrollment, compared to both the general population, the college population, and other universities and colleges.

Across the UNC system, Black students make up around 21% of enrollment. Black residents make up about 14% of New Hanover County’s population and about 22% of North Carolina’s population.

At UNCW, Black students have historically made up less than 5% of the population. On the faculty side, all minorities combined make up less than 13%.

Student enrollment

According to data compiled from the annual Statistical Abstract of Higher Education in North Carolina, from 1999 to 2015, the University had a Black student population making up between 4.5% and 5% of the total student body. Despite attempts to diversify the campus and increase the Black student population, the numbers haven’t budged. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population has slowly but steadily increased from just over 1% to 6%.

Comparatively, in the 2014-2015 school year, N.C. State, N.C. School of the Arts, and UNC Chapel Hill all have more than double the percentage of Black students. Cape Fear and Brunswick community colleges have 10% and 14% respectively. Only UNC Asheville and Appalachian State had lower rates of Black enrollment.

The point? The lack of black students at UNCW doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of qualified applicants, who are finding homes at other good schools around the state.

[Editor’s note: Shortly after the UNC system was asked for the most recent statistical abstracts, including those from 2016 through 2020, all of the abstracts were removed from their previous online sites. UNC has not responded to questions about why this was done. Port City Daily has already downloaded the abstracts from 1999-2000, 2004-2005, 2009-2010, and 2014-2015, which you can find at the end of this article.]

‘Set up for failure’

UNCW’s pre-college admission program, where Jones worked for around a year, was supposed to address this issue. In theory, the program sought to reach minority students early on — Kindergarten, First Grade, and up — to introduce them to the idea of college in general. As students rose through the grades, the program would introduce the facets of a college application: from standardized testing to extracurriculars to ways to fund tuition.

But the program was poorly staffed and underfunded — “set up for failure,” Jones said. A three-person staff was quickly cut down to two.

“If it was not set up for failure, it most certainly was not set up for success. Not having adequate resources or support for diversity programs and initiatives is a common occurrence around campus. These inadequate conditions cause division amongst black faculty, staff, students, and alumni. When there is division, it becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to challenge a campus culture, such as UNCW’s,” Jones said.

In the summer of 2009, the program was shuttered altogether. For the brief duration of the program, Jones said there was “never any cross-communication with Admissions.” [Editor’s note: UNCW did not comment on a request for more information about the shuttering of the pre-college admissions program.]

Jones said she raised concerns about all of these issues but to no avail. The program could have perhaps done more, with more staff and funding, Jones said, but in her opinion moved the ball very little. The statistics from 2005 to 2010 bear that out, the percentage of Black students at UNCW barely changed at all.

“It was not a productive program, I can say that,” Jones said.

Limited faculty diversity

While UNCW’s 2019-2020 ‘common data set’ (a snapshot of campus demographics), tracked ‘minority’ faculty as opposed to more specific ethnic information, the combined numbers are still, as with minority enrollment, lower than other universities.

At UNCW, just 12.3% percent of the faculty were minorities. For the 2019-2020 year, UNCW had 1,110 instructional faculty employees, 137 of whom were minorities (including those who identified as Black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, or Hispanic).

UNC Chapel Hill’s rate of minority employment is over 50% higher, which has 2,314 instructional faculty members, of which 439 are minorities, making up 19% of the faculty (and 22% of the full-time faculty).

An ‘indifferent, and sometimes hostile, workplace’

Jones filed last year in New Hanover County Superior Court and in December the case was moved to Federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Prior to filing suit, Jones said she tried for years to work within the system. But when Jones confronted her supervisors and said she felt like she was being discriminated against she said she was told, “no, it’s not that, you’re just too passionate” about student diversity.

Here, Jones said, she ran into a combination of racial discrimination — being passed over for a promotion because of her race — and the more subtle impact of racial stereotypes — namely, the ‘angry Black woman’ trope. Jones said she frequently saw advocacy from staff written off in this way when it came from a Black woman.

“It was definitely racially-based — it was also based on stereotypes. Being deemed an angry Black woman is a concept that is too familiar among Black women on campus. If you’re passionate about anything, if you have the slightest bit of emotion or anything in your voice, then you’re an angry black woman, then you’re too assertive,” Jones said.

This, Jones said, would often lead to microaggressions — remarks that seemed conciliatory on the surface but stung of racial stereotypes or backhanded insults.

“One example I heard all the time — if you can speak well, or you use correct grammar or you use, you know, a transitional sentence, then the reaction is ‘Oh, you’re so well-spoken,'” Jones said. “As if it was almost a surprise.”

The implication, Jones said, was clear: Blacks in general weren’t expected to be articulate, so it was surprising that she was.

This, Jones said, was all part of what made UNCW an ‘indifferent, and sometimes hostile’ workplace. In general, there seemed to Jones to be no interest in the idea of diversity — or simply token gestures at diversity programs that “pretty much just did it to say, ‘okay, we did it,'” according to Jones. But for those who actively tired to push the idea of diversity, Jones said the “retaliation was real.”

“The problem is when you do have staff who are trying to diversify it, you get pushback. You get retaliated against either in the form of not getting a promotion or getting sat down and talked to… or it ends up on your evaluation,” Jones said. Jones noted that she isn’t an at-will employee, but many staff workers are — so speaking up also carries with it the real threat of losing their jobs.

After being repeatedly passed over for a promotion and dealing with microaggressions, Jones went to HR. She was told to hang in there, that corrective actions would be taken.

“HR told me that I was going to get a promotion and the title changed and that my superiors would have to go undergo diversity training for a month,” Jones said. When those things didn’t happen, Jones was told the offer was only an “informal suggestion.”

After exhausting her options with HR, Jones said she tried the University’s Title IX office, filing a grievance through the NAACP, and contacting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which granted her a ‘right to sue’ letter last year.

Why go public?

Jones said part the reason for going public with her story was to show other people, in particular Blacks who feel discriminated against, that there are avenues — although they are not easy.

“I’m not putting out a GoFund me, I’m not asking people for money or anything like that,” Jones said. “I’m doing this to show people that unless you go through this two or three years, nothing is going to happen. It might be hard, you might lose your mind a few times, but just complaining about it, just going to news about it, isn’t going to change it.”

While Jones’ suit does ask for a promotion and back pay, she said the reason she’s filing suit is that, first, nothing else has worked and, second, she wants to push the University to be a “better, more inclusive” place.

“I’m a true Seahawk, I want people to know that,” Jones said. “I want them to learn, I want them to flourish…I’m also an advocate for my people. I love UNCW and I love Black people — they’re not mutually exclusive.”

Statement from UNCW

UNCW issued the following comment in response to four questions: (1) what happened to the pre-college admissions program, (2) are there any concerns about the disproportionately low rates of Black student enrollment, (3) are there any concerns about the disproportionately lower rates of Black faculty and staff employment, and (4) are there any plans to help diversify the campus?

UNCW deeply values the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive campus community, a commitment that includes actively supporting the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty and staff. Based on the university’s current data, about 850 African American students are enrolled at UNCW, and our faculty and staff includes 211 African Americans, representing about 10 percent of our employees. We are proud of the important contributions that these Seahawks make to our campus, and we are working diligently to create an even more inclusive and diverse campus community. Our university already excels at supporting African American students on their journey to graduation. Generally, UNCW’s graduation rates for African Americans rank among the 3rd highest in the UNC System. There is more work to be done, though, and in the coming weeks, UNCW will outline an equity in action plan to enhance academic offerings, increase resources for our cultural centers and programming, and focus specifically on the recruitment of students and the hiring of employees. This effort, spearheaded by Chancellor Sartarelli, will include opportunities for dialogue among faculty, staff, students, and alumni. 

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

Below: Find North Carolina Higher Education Statistical Abstracts, with demographic statistics on enrollment, from 1999-2000, 2004-2005, 2009-2010, and 2014-2015.

NC Higher Education Statistical Abstract 1999-2000 by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

NC Higher Education Statist… by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

NC Higher Education Statist… by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

NC Higher Education Statist… by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

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