Saturday, April 1, 2023

With chancellor watching, UNCW professors debate launching no-confidence vote against him

A group of UNCW professors aired out their dissatisfaction with Chancellor Jose Sartarelli in a special Zoom meeting Tuesday in which they postponed taking action on a vote of no confidence. (Port City Daily photo/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON —Professors at the University of North Carolina deliberated on Tuesday whether to collectively and formally declare that faculty are dissatisfied with the leadership of Chancellor Jose Sartarelli. After more than two hours of discussion, professors decided to delay voting on such a condemnation until December.

Two weeks ago, 23 professors asked to hold a special meeting of the UNCW Faculty Senate — the group that acts as a governance body for university professors — to introduce a motion that expressed a “lack of confidence in Chancellor Sartarelli and his leadership of UNCW.” 

Related: UNCW Faculty Senate to consider no confidence vote against chancellor

In the time since, professors within UNCW’s different academic departments brainstormed on how to proceed if the opportunity to vote on the motion was presented.

In the special meeting, held over a Zoom call that garnered up to 300 participants, Professor Marta Sánchez raised concerns that have been simmering in faculty circles for months. She said the chancellor mishandled the announcement of a policy that restricted individual’s rights to place banners on campus, which was perceived to specifically target Black Lives Matter. She accused the chancellor of approaching an ongoing conversation of diversity at UNCW with a “transactional” mindset, and she criticized him for reportedly refusing to indicate support for the Black Lives Matter movement, when he was asked to clarify his stance in a meeting with Black student leaders last summer. 

In recent weeks Sartarelli’s office has released messages that hone in on UNCW’s efforts to address inclusion and diversity efforts, like increased diversity scholarship funding and curricula expansions.

Many professors have publicly indicated displeasure with the chancellor during the fall semester, and this no-confidence vote — which was brought forth by Sánchez and another professor, Stephen Meinhold — was intended to place these grievances on the record. Meinhold said those who attached their names to his email were not necessarily indicating a willingness to follow through with the vote, but were stressing a desire to have the discussion aired out in a formal meeting.

Many of those on the Zoom call, who represented various departments within the university, professed a hesitancy to move forward voting on a resolution of no-confidence in the chancellor. Some said, while they supported the spirit of the declaration, they would be reluctant to adopt the stance, since it did not put forth solutions to the grievances stemming from Sartarelli’s alleged leadership issues.

A representative for the psychology department said the motion would not lead to any specific changes. A professor speaking for the marine biology department said it was ambiguously written. Todd Berliner, a professor of film studies, argued the group might be overplaying its hand by following through with the no-confidence motion. 

“It doesn’t articulate any specific failures of the chancellor,” he said. “It doesn’t name incidents, or dates or quotations, or actions he should have taken, but didn’t. If we pass a vote of no-confidence, we as a body have spent our most powerful leverage to obtain changes in that office.”

Berliner added that if it came down to a vote, his department would support the motion. Though, he joined others in calling to return at a later date with more details. 

“It’s not just that our diversity numbers are bad, they were bad long before chancellor Sartarelli got here,” Berliner said. “It’s that the chancellor is not leading the community with regard to these issues. He’s reacting, and every statement that comes out of the chancellor’s office sounds like corporate marketing, and there’s no sort of human voice there, no energy behind it.”

Sarah Hallenbeck, of the English department, pushed back on calls to table the motion.

“We were opposed to postponing because, as several of us discussed, this has been an ongoing conversation at the university, and we had, back in the spring, suggested that we needed to wait until the fall,” Hallenbeck said. “So I’m just concerned that some of the alarming things that we’ve already seen happening, if they’re not enough, then at what point do we decide to act on this?” 

History professor Mark Spaulding said, though the motion appeared to satisfy some internal concerns of the faculty, it might not be perceived glowingly outside professor circles.

“We need a postponement because this motion — it might make a lot of sense to us internally — but this motion is not really going to stay internal,” he said. “This statement has only one passing reference to students. We can’t sign off on a statement to the outside world about what’s going on here that does not have students at the very center of it.” 

Spaulding also cautioned other professors that, if formal disapproval of Sartarelli was made public, groups in power, like the UNCW Board of Trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors — which oversees all 16 public universities in the state — might not share their stance. 

“We have no allies in the trustees, we have no allies in the board of governors. Did you know that our own staff senate wouldn’t endorse this statement? We’re out there totally on our own,” Spaulding said. “If we want to go forward in this manner, we would have to totally build this case up over a much longer period of time.”

Sánchez, who introduced the motion, returned to the discussion after hearing extensive messages of caution and hesitancy from other professors.

“I do wonder why my colleagues, in speaking to their departments, did not come with alternative motions, rather than just opting for postponement,” she said. “The motion that I presented on the floor today was about the chancellor’s leadership, and yet I have heard no discussion about that.”

As dozens of professors spoke, Sartarelli listened. He was present for the entire meeting, with his webcam activated and microphone muted. 

The original motion was not acted on. In its place, professors put forth new language that called for a re-examination of the university’s progress on its diversity and inclusion initiatives in March 2021. In the same breath, they asked Sartarelli to update the faculty senate on his handling of a number of requests made to him by UNCW’s Black Student Union and other groups. 

Emmanuel Harris of World Languages and Culture said the new motion was a far cry from what was originally proposed.

“I just wanted to wholeheartedly support Marta Sánchez’s ideas and suggestions that The motion as it states now, goes against the spirit of what was originally set forth for not supporting the chancellor,” he said. “I’m not sure what this motion hopes to achieve, given the fact that the chancellor has already made statements about the students’ demands.”

Instead of voting on a resolution of no-confidence in the chancellor, UNCW professors, led by faculty senate President Nathan Grove, worked up new language that asks the chancellor to report to the senate in March with an update on his progress on diversity initiatives.

As the Zoom call drew to a close, Phillip Gerard of creative writing sent a message into the chat: “Just a reminder to all that this meeting is happening on the anniversary of a racial massacre in Wilmington that was the founding event of our modern-day community. This is urgent.” 

Nathan Grove, the president of the faculty senate who was moderating the meeting, then said, “I’d like to remind everyone that the chat should not be used for anything other than senators communicating with me, or to indicate technical issues.”

Two professors additionally crafted a document they hoped would recapture the motivations of the original motion, which stated: “Chancellor Sartarelli by his conduct has brought upon himself and fully deserves the censure and condemnation of the Faculty Senate acting on behalf of the Faculty of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.” 

After talking it through, the group decided to revisit this additional resolution in its December meeting.

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