WILMINGTON—An ideological protest has been simmering for months at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, pitting a fleet of professors against Chancellor Jose Sartarelli.
Tuesday afternoon, the discord approached what will likely be its climax, when the UNCW Faculty Senate — the collection of professors who advise the administration and participate in faculty governance — approved a motion that charged Sartarelli with an all-around failure to fulfill his obligation of promoting “diversity, community engagement, and integrity,” among other values, at UNCW.
Defiance against the chancellor became public and heated during the summer, as many professors urged the chancellor and senior leadership to terminate Mike Adams, the controversial professor who was accused of verbally abusing students on social media. Since Adams had tenure and previous legal history with the university, he could not be easily fired, and later in the summer, UNCW announced Adams would be retiring after reaching a settlement agreement. Weeks after arriving at the agreement, Adams was found dead in his home; police said it was a suicide.
After the death-by-police of George Floyd rallied people across the country to join protests in support of social justice issues, the chancellor convened a meeting with a group of Black student leaders. Reportedly, he told the group he would not make a public show of support to the Black Lives Matter movement and shared the criticized retort, “all lives matter.”
This decision irked a sizable wing of students and professors. The rift deepened in September when UNCW announced a new policy limiting the ability of individuals to hang signage on campus — a policy that, although was compliant with existing state law and UNC System regulations, still caused an uproar because the only specific signs and banners mentioned in the policy rollout were the existing Black Lives Matter displays around campus.
In a Zoom forum that included professors and Sartarelli, the chancellor reportedly accused professors of being at fault for UNCW’s inability to consistently recruit and retain Black faculty members, according to professors on the call.
So in late October, a group of professors assembled. They used an outlet built into the bylaws of the UNCW Faculty Senate to convene a special meeting of the body with the purpose of introducing a vote of no-confidence against Sartarelli.
When the meeting eventually convened in November, the response from many professors was more dovish than those who sponsored the no-confidence might have hoped. Sartarelli watched silently on the Zoom call as professors across the university debated the pros and cons of committing to the condemnation, which would have likely forced certain authorities — like the UNCW Board of Trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors — to combat the gesture with a rebuttal of their own that publicly affirmed Sartarelli.
While the board of trustees avoided speaking out prior to the most recent faculty senate meeting, members are discussing a response, which will likely include a show of support to the chancellor.
Though the motion passed Tuesday includes scathing language, it is less powerful in practice than a vote of no-confidence would have been, according to faculty senate president Nathan Grove.
“I think the vote of no confidence would have been a sign that, not only did we condemn what had happened, but we had lost faith in the ability to work with the administration,” Grove said. “This is sort of a step down from that.”
In lieu of voting on the original no-confidence motion at the November meeting, professors opted instead to summon Sartarelli to a meeting in March, in which the chancellor will update faculty on his progress in promoting diversity and inclusion at the university. Further, two professors put forth the censure motion — the one that was approved Tuesday.
Grove said professors were mindful of how their public airing of grievances might appear to the senior leadership watching on the Zoom calls, which could have led to a softer tone, especially in the November meeting that included debate of the no-confidence motion.
“We did see several departments substitute more vulnerable faculty members — so faculty members that might not have tenure, or faculty members that might be instructors in their contracts, having to be reviewed every year or couple of years — with more senior members of their departments,” Grove said. “So that did happen a bit with the no-confidence vote, but not quite as much this time around.”
A week ago, Sartarelli emailed members of the faculty senate to offer a preemptive update on the matters he will be expected to delve into in March.
“I look forward to giving that presentation, but these issues are so important, and our timely action as a university is so critical, that I wanted to share with you the steps we have taken over the past six months,” he wrote on Dec. 2.
A powerpoint attached to his email shows that, while the non-white student population at UNCW grew from 6% to 23% between 1976 and 2020, the Black student population has been mostly static. It has accounted for 4-to-6 percent of the total student population during the past 44 years.
Throughout the fall semester, Sartarelli sent numerous updates to the UNCW community on his efforts to promote the values that some professors say he has failed to uphold. The university previously confirmed the administration is following through with a series of action items: 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.
“People are going to be watching very carefully to make sure that these issues don’t fall by the wayside,” Grove said. “Because if they do, and if we start moving backwards, I think it’s completely legitimate for the senate to move back toward considering some motion of no confidence.”
Update: On Wednesday, a university spokesperson emailed a statement to Port City Daily attributed to Chancellor Jose Sartarelli.
As Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, my focus is centered on our students and advancing our mission, vision and values in partnership with all faculty and staff. Establishing a campus commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is a continual process. How we learn from and live with our history matters. I understand the urgency required and hope all of us (Chancellor, administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni and the community) can build a better Seahawk future together. At their previous meeting, the Faculty Senate requested a Chancellor’s report in March 2021 about the university’s efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. I am proud of the progress we have been making over the past five years, especially since June, and shared an advanced copy of such a report the first week of December. I look forward to leading UNCW as we continue to pursue this important work in the new year.
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