UNC System Board of Governors votes to repeal DEI policy

The Board of Governors for the University of North Carolina System voted Thursday to repeal and replace its existing diversity and inclusion policy that applies to the 17 schools the board oversees.

The new policy reverses one that was adopted in 2019 that sought to “foster an inclusive environment” and required each school to submit diversity and inclusion reports to the board of trustees every year.

The new policy now requires UNC schools to “ensure equality of all persons & viewpoints,” and promote “nondiscrimination in employment practices.”

It also mandates that all UNC schools comply with a series of amendments passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in the past year that limit what can be discussed or taught about race, racism and sex in government institutions.

The policy passed with two board members – Joel Ford and Sonja Phillips Nichols – voting no. Both Ford and Nichols are Black.

As the meeting convened, dozens of protestors gathered outside to rally against the proposed changes to the DEI policy. Andy Wallace, director of media relations for the UNC system, confirmed to CNN that two people were arrested outside the meeting Thursday morning.

Ahead of the vote, board secretary Pearl Burris-Floyd and board member Gene Davis discussed their support for the new policy.

Burris-Floyd said she retired from the field of DEI and believes there have been flaws in the way DEI has been taught.

“And that has hurt the fabric and ability to carry things forward, but it does not mean that we stop,” Burris-Floyd said.

The new policy, she said, will “make that path forward clearer for all people.”

Davis acknowledged that DEI has helped marginalized groups feel more welcomed on campus and ensures that schools are reflection of the state’s diversity.

Still, Davis said he had concerns.

“I have been made aware of things that have been done in the name of DEI that make me uncomfortable and that I believe actually result in our university communities being less welcoming to all,” Davis said.

He did not provide examples of the instances that made him “uncomfortable.”

Davis said the commitments in the new policy are “heartfelt by the members of this board and by the university leadership.”

But some students felt outraged over the board’s decision, and what it signals for the future of diversity and inclusion in the UNC system.

Pragya Upreti, a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill, told CNN she attended the student press conference, as well as the protest outside the UNC Board of Governors meeting on Thursday morning.

She told CNN she believes the decision to repeal the DEI policy sends a message that the board doesn’t value Black and brown students.

“Truly this administration has failed us, and it will continue to fail generations of students who saw opportunity in diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Upreti said.

Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, called the Board’s vote “deeply troubling” in a statement and she asked the board to reconsider.

“Our university campuses must be environments where students feel included and are able to fully engage academically, and DEI programs serve an important role in achieving this,” Stevens wrote in the statement.

“Pulling funding from these programs undermines these efforts and sends a worrying message about how committed our universities are to protecting the rights of students to be free from discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, disability, or other protected classes.”

The vote by the 24-member UNC System Board Thursday comes as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at public universities and corporations across the country are facing a string of attacks from critics and conservative lawmakers. The new policy follows similar moves by state governments in Florida and Texas to ban DEI efforts from public colleges and universities.

Schools in the UNC System are required to comply with the new policy by September 1. The proposal does not indicate how many DEI jobs might be impacted.

Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees for the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill passed a separate proposal to divert $2.3 million from DEI programs to public safety.

One trustee pointed to recent protests on campus as part of the reason the Board voted to advance the proposal to shift funding to public safety measures.

“We talk about peaceful protest, but when you destroy property, or you take down the US flag, and you have to put up gates around it costs money, or deploy officers to do that,” Marty Kotis the vice chair of the board’s budget and finance committee said.

“North Carolinians are watching all of this and they are not happy. And [I] think it’s imperative that we have the proper resources for our law enforcement to protect the campus, and that means our property and that means our flag as well.”

Major universities including the University of Florida and University of Texas at Austin have been forced to dismantle their DEI offices and programs and cut jobs to comply with state laws and regulations.

Since 2023, 14 anti-DEI bills that target programs at colleges have been signed into law, according to a tally by the Chronicle of Higher Education. North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill last year that bans diversity statements from state agencies, the University of North Carolina system, and community colleges.

The UNC System Board will vote on a proposal to repeal the system's DEI policy Thursday. - Eros Hoagland/Getty Images /File
The UNC System Board will vote on a proposal to repeal the system's DEI policy Thursday. - Eros Hoagland/Getty Images /File

‘You will be able to feel the difference’

The anti-DEI proposals at both the system-wide level and UNC at Chapel Hill’s campus have left students worried about the future of diversity programs on campus if they are enacted.

Ahead of the meeting, UNC System students gathered in Raleigh to speak out against the proposed changes.

“To gut the DEI policy is to deny students both present and future of their right to a high-quality education,” one student said, according to CNN affiliate WRAL. “Diversity and equity and inclusion are foundational to education.”

Another student said she attends UNC Ashville and is concerned that enrollment will decline at UNC System schools because DEI programs are banned.

“Passing this anti-DEI policy will be a kiss of death for some of these systems and institutions,” she said. “And will be monumentally detrimental to future student interest to apply for and much less attend these UNC System Schools…. We will all suffer.”

Toby Posel, co-policy chair for UNC Chapel Hill’s Affirmative Action Coalition and a co-founder of the student organization TransparUNCy, said he was “extremely disgusted and disappointed” at both the UNC System and UNC board members for going against DEI.

Posel said he is concerned that the UNC system’s anti-DEI policy leaves room for interpretation and it is unknown how jobs, programs and offices might be impacted.

But regardless, Posel said the absence of DEI will make the campuses unwelcoming for people of color, LGBTQ+ students and first-generation college students.

“You will be able to feel the difference,” Posel said. “It will be significantly less welcoming, less safe, less supportive. Their academic lives are going to suffer, social lives are going suffer. This is a very clear statement from the highest level of university governance in North Carolina that (they) don’t care about those students.”

Julian Taylor, executive board member of the Affirmative Action Coalition and a co-founder of TransparUNCy, said he believes both boards are taking a political stance against DEI that aligns with a conservative movement instead of being neutral.

The UNC Board of Governors is made up of 24 members who are elected by the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly. The UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees has 15 members, including eight elected by the Board of Governors, six appointed by the General Assembly and one spot for the president of student government.

Taylor said DEI initiatives have allowed UNC Chapel Hill to reckon with its history of slavery on campus. He worries that cutting DEI programs will impact curriculum and prevent this history from being taught.

“DEI is a small step in serving racial justice,” Taylor said. “But a lot of this is about the larger, overarching debate about what we do to try to rectify past injustices. And this is a pretty clear answer from UNC and the UNC Board of Trustees saying that the answer to that question is ‘absolutely nothing.’”

CNN’s Devon M. Sayers and Dianne Gallagher contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com