Saturday, February 4, 2023

UNCW chancellor takes heat from faculty in contentious Zoom meeting

UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli has been embroiled with criticism lodged by both students and staff members related to his handling of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Port City Daily photo/File)
UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli has been embroiled with criticism lodged by both students and staff members related to his handling of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON — While gathered on a conference call with senior leadership, professors at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington heard from their chancellor they were to blame for under-representation of minorities within the faculty. Faculty leaders billed the meeting as a time for professors to voice questions and concerns to Chancellor Jose Sartarelli and other senior officials over UNCW’s approach to administrative handlings in recent weeks and months, but some faculty said discussions turned confrontational as disagreements between the chancellor and professors became apparent.

UNCW cancelled its public October meeting of the Faculty Senate — the university’s pre-eminent faculty governance group — and opted instead to hold an internal and informal question and answer session on Tuesday between faculty members and senior administrators. The purpose of the forum was to allow for discussion on a recent UNCW policy that outlawed the display of unapproved banners on campus

“We have heard from many of you with questions and concerns about the new policy, and we want to give the faculty an opportunity to express those concerns and to get questions answered,” Faculty Senate President Nathan Grove wrote in an email last week to faculty, in which he advertised the upcoming Oct. 13 forum. 

According to meeting materials and testimony from participants, many faculty members levied sharp criticisms toward administrators over the rollout of the banner policy. Faculty objected to the policy being concocted without their input, and some accuse Chancellor Jose Sartarelli of harboring personal political aims that guided his decision to bolster restrictions on campus banner display. The policy on banners is content-neutral, a requirement of First Amendment law. Banners and signage are limited under this policy via time, place and manner restrictions, regardless of their content. But in the university’s policy announcement, the Black Lives Matter banners recently displayed on campus were the only ones specifically mentioned. 

At the time of the announcement, a spokesperson for the university said, “The policy is consistent with similar policies at public universities across the country and the UNC system, and is fully compliant with federal and state law.”

Sartarelli fielded questions on the Zoom call from faculty who argued the university’s handling of the situation undermined the concerns of minority students. Despite UNCW’s legal justification, some faculty have said they believe the Black Lives Matter banners were singled out for reasons other than those the university publicly stated.

“The meeting ended rather contentiously,” Grove wrote in a text. “After I tried to wrap it up because we had gone over time, Chancellor Sartarelli made a comment that many faculty interpreted it as meaning that we were not committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion and that it was our fault that more faculty of color do not work at UNCW.”

In the final minutes of the meeting, a participant wrote in the Zoom chat: “dear chancellor…shhhh.”

Another wrote: “I cannot listen to this anymore.”

Grove said he then worked to get the last word. “I know many found that offensive,” he said, referring to the closing minutes, “and as such, I exercised my right as the organizer to make the final statement.”

“I reiterated our commitment as a faculty to these issues and made it clear that we are willing to do the hard work necessary to make positive changes at UNCW,” Grove continued. “I also made it clear that one of the major problems is that many faculty are not convinced that Chancellor Sartarelli feels the same way.” 

Diversity, inclusion and representation

When asked whether or not he sees a lack of minority representation in the university, Sartarelli, through a university spokesperson in an email, said he met alongside students and other administrators last summer to discuss “issues of diversity, equity, equality and inclusion” at UNCW. 

“This group challenged the university as a whole to make recruiting and retaining additional Black faculty and staff a priority, and we are committed to addressing the recommendations,” according to the email.

Action items have developed since, and the university confirmed it is following through with increased funding for disadvantaged and low-income student-recruitment efforts, increased funding for diversity scholarships, supporting staffing for three different cultural centers, and expanding university curricula by adding a new Africana Studies major, and other courses.

In an email to faculty, Grove wrote in June that a vote of no confidence against Sartarelli was “still on the table,” if positive steps toward these and other aims weren’t immediately made.

“The university remains committed to following through on these action items and improving the UNCW experience for all students, faculty and staff, particularly underrepresented minorities in our community,” the university spokesperson said. 

Wendy Brenner, an associate professor in the creative writing department, said that while on the Tuesday Zoom call, Sartarelli accused UNCW faculty of being at fault for any lack of minority faculty on campus. 

“He said, ‘Why aren’t you hiring more Black people? You’re the ones doing the searches,’” Brenner said. “I don’t know where he was going with that, but he seemed to be saying that it wasn’t his fault because we hired them, but Black people that we hired are quitting and leaving.”

A participant wrote in the chat: “It is our fault, not his. He is making that clear.”

Stephen Meinhold has been a faculty member at UNCW for 25 years, including four years as Faculty Senate President. Following the Zoom forum, he and his wife, also a faculty member, suspended their voluntary financial support for the university. 

“What I heard was a lack of leadership,” Meinhold said. “This is about the leadership of the university — and the statements the university makes publicly, and the statements the chancellor makes publicly and privately.”

Brenner said she and other faculty thought removing the Black Lives Matter banners was the central aim of the new banner policy. “There doesn’t seem to be any denial from the university that this policy was developed, specifically in response to faculty posting Black Lives Matter banners,” she said.  

After Sartarelli spoke, Grove said he distanced faculty from the chancellor’s position. Referring to how he followed up on Sartarelli’s comments, Grove said, “BLM is not a political statement; it is an acknowledgment of fundamental human rights, and we as an institution of higher education should be shouting that from the rooftops.” 

Brenner said some faculty found it off-putting for the chancellor to continue to refer to personal donations in discussions of UNCW’s diversity scholarship funding. In the Sept. 18 university email that announced the new banner policy, Sartarelli wrote, “Private support, including a gift from me, has reached $450,000 in new commitments as of Sept. 14.” 

“I believe faculty told him that this was not transactional,” Brenner said. 

The university holds the Faculty Senate transparently: Public and press are allowed to attend, official minutes are kept, and the calendar of meetings is available on the group’s website. Grove said the normally scheduled Senate meeting for October was canceled on Oct. 6. Since there were no agenda items requiring action, Grove and the steering committee — a branch of the Faculty Senate — decided to instead host an “open faculty forum” to address concerns over the banner policy. Grove noted in an email to faculty that all faculty were invited to attend, not just those on the Faculty Senate. Grove and UNCW officials said the faculty forum would not be conducted openly.

By publication time, requests for recordings of the call and other meeting materials have so far been unanswered.

Grove and other faculty have previously approached the university for what they say is a lack of transparency in internal deliberations. UNCW announced last month that first-year students in double-occupancy rooms would be required to separate — with one or both students exiting the dorm — in an effort to “de-densify” campus. He said faculty were caught off guard by the announcement, and they were not given a prior heads up. Many faculty have spoken out about how the decision would impact their ability to smoothly continue instruction in a semester that has already had so many shakeups. 

“I think the reality is they all recognize the fact that we could have done a better job and commitments were made to say that every effort would be made in the future to make sure that those sorts of things did not happen again,” Grove said in September, following the rollout of the de-densification policy. “So I think there was a recognition amongst the administration that was present that we probably could have handled it differently, and that in the future, efforts would be made to do so.”

Send tips and comments to Preston Lennon at or (910) 478-6511

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