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UNCW tensions come to a head; Faculty Senate censures Chancellor Sartarelli

Tensions between the UNCW chancellor and the greater UNCW community have been boiling for months. This week, things came to a head as the Faculty Senate voted on a motion to censure Chancellor Sartarelli.

Update: This report has been updated with a statement from Chancellor Sartarelli, which you can find at the conclusion of the article.

While the power to hire (and fire) chancellors technically rests with UNC System President Peter Hans --- and politically, with the UNC System Board of Governors --- a vote of censure is the one of the strongest condemnations faculty have available to express their dissatisfaction with Sartarelli (a vote of no-confidence is often considered stronger, but both send a similar message to the powers that be).  The gesture publicly declares faculty disapproval of their chancellor --- and the language doesn’t hold back.

The motion to censure Sartarelli lays serious charges at his feet, including an initial refusal to support the Black Lives Matter movement, a lack of leadership on the fronts of inclusivity and diversity, and "a lack of empathy" with student, faculty, and staff concerns about racial justice. 

Tensions between the university’s chancellor and the greater UNCW community increased dramatically in the summer of 2020. Controversial professor Mike Adams again garnered national attention for his long history of social media posts decried as racist, sexist, and otherwise disparaging. Tens of thousands of peoplesigned petitions to fire the tenured professor, but the university ultimately opted to settle with Adams for just over half a million dollars. Sartarelli called the resolution “less damaging to UNCW than leaving the situation unresolved,” and highlighted the cost-saving nature of settling rather than face a drawn-out lawsuit. Several weeks later, Adams apparently took his own life at his residence.

Around the same time, Black Lives Matter banners hung by faculty started popping up on campus in response to the national unrest following the killing of George Floyd. When leaders of UNCW’s Black Student Union asked the chancellor in June to have the university publicly show that black lives matter, the chancellor responded: “It’s going to be hard for me to do that because I believe all lives matter.”

UNCW Faculty Senate Nathan Grove emphasized to the Chancellor in June that a vote of no-confidence was “still on the table” if the Faculty Senate did not see him taking “positive steps forward” following the chancellor’s ill-received “all lives matter” comment.

In September a new sign policy, considered by many to be more restrictive, was rolled out in an email that began by lauding diversity-focused initiatives. Banners and signs would now require pre-approval, even if hung by faculty. The university removed all Black Lives Matter banners, storing them in a warehouse with plans to display the signs in an indoor/outdoor art exhibit in the center of campus--an exhibit which has yet to come to fruition, although UNCW’s Office of the Arts did create an online gallery of some of the signs.

In the Fall of 2020, UNCW announced a number of action items related to diversity and inclusion--including more funding for diversity scholarships and adding an Africana Studies major to the curriculum. But divisions between the Chancellor and faculty grew when Sartarelli reportedly blamed faculty for the university’s failings in diverse recruitment.

In late October, Sartarelli attempted to course correct,issuing a statement that read, in part:

"To clarify where I stand, let me state again, Black lives matter to me, both as a person and as Chancellor of this great university. I fully understand this fundamental human rights issue must be acknowledged as we grapple with our complex history and present reality as a nation and a city. It has always been my hope to work together, with you, in building a more substantial and inclusive community of scholars at UNCW."

For some faculty, it was cleary too little, too late and the Faculty Senate moved forward with considering a no-confidence or censure vote.

When it came time to consider the vote of censure at the faculty senate’s December meeting, Senate President Nathan Grove called on Senator Kate Nooner (UNCW Psychology Department) to speak first. She stressed that faculty not get hung up on the wording or language, lest the body risk delaying the motion further. She called the motion to question, which passed, and from there faculty moved to vote.

The censure vote passed with a vote of 51-20.

The vote of censure is about as far as faculty can go in publicly expressing their frustration with Sartarelli. From here, it’s up to the UNC System Board of Governors to respond if they choose to do so. 

Statement from Chancellor 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.

Katelyn Freund is a nonfiction student at UNCW's MFA Creative Writing program. She holds degrees in Spanish and English. In her time not spent working as WHQR's CoastLine Producer, she enjoys shooting pool, humor writing, and snacking.