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UNCW settles federal discrimination lawsuit, but diversity is still a work in progress

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Benjamin Schachtman
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WHQR

The University of North Carolina Wilmington recently settled a federal discrimination lawsuit with an employee in the admissions department. But, while both UNCW and the employee are putting the legal battle behind them, the underlying issues remain a challenge.

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LaTasha Jones recently accepted the position of Senior Assistant Director of Diversity Initiatives while ending her lawsuit against UNCW over alleged discrimination.

LaTasha Jones describes herself as a “true Seahawk.” After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from UNCW, she went to work in the University’s admissions department. But after ten years, Jones — who is Black -- went to court with allegations that she was passed over for promotion in favor of white employees, despite her seniority and consistently high marks on evaluations.

Underlying Jones’ allegations were deeper concerns about the recruitment and retainment of Black faculty and students. In an interview, Jones said these numbers had troubled her for years.

“Numbers do not lie. People can make them look good or bad, positive or negative, but they do not lie. I did not like the numbers,” Jones said.

While UNCW denied discrimination before, during, and after the legal battle, the data on enrollment is incontrovertible: UNCW is one of the whitest schools in the state.

Across the UNC system, Black students make up an average of 21% of enrollment. According to UNC records over the last two decades, Black students historically have made up less than 5% of UNCW's population. Comparatively, in the 2014-2015 school year, N.C. State, N.C. School of the Arts, and UNC Chapel Hill all have more than double the percentage of Black students. Blacks are also underrepresented on the staff; just 12.3% percent of the UNCW faculty are minorities

[Note: You can find more on the data behind the issue of diversity in this report from the author's work at Port City Daily.]

Meanwhile, by 2018 Jones had been passed over twice for promotion, once in 2016 and again in 2017. Jones took up the issue with Human Resources to no avail; her supervisor told her there was “no place for her to grow with the University,” according to her civil complaint. 

Jones reached out to the New Hanover County NAACP, and President Deborah Dicks Maxwell agreed to assist her. Dicks-Maxwell says she found Jones’ case credible, well documented, and disturbing.

“I was concerned once we had our initial discussion, because she's a very thorough young lady, she had all of her documentation to support the claims she was making ... I just found it very hard to believe that such an institution would do something that would be so detrimental to not only an employee, but also a graduate of the program," Dicks-Maxwell said.

Aided by Dicks-Maxwell and Greensboro-based attorney Nancy Quinn, Jones contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the EEOC granted Jones what’s known as a ‘right to sue’ letter.

Lawsuit

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Credit Benjamin Schachtman
In the fall of 2019, LaTasha Jones filed suit against UNCW in New Hanover County Superior Court.

At the end of 2019, Jones filed a complaint in New Hanover County. The case was quickly moved to federal court where, in February of this year, a judge threw out UNCW’s attempt to have the complaint dismissed.

At that point, Jones was three years into her battle with UNCW. She was feeling the mental, physical, and financial stress of taking on her own employer --- and the Attorney General of North Carolina, whose office represented UNCW. But Jones was determined not to quit.

“And you know, I hear a lot of people say, ‘I'm just so tired. I'm just so tired,’” Jones said. “And I just think, well, what if Harriet Tubman got tired? You know, what about the little girl who, you know, broke segregation in integrated schools, who went to school every day with police escorts? How can we be tired?”

Both Jones and Dicks-Maxwell described how difficult it can be to fight discrimination cases; Dicks-Maxwell said she had been contacted at least once a year about a discrimination issue at UNCW, but that many people ultimately dropped their cases for fear of rocking the boat.

“This was not the first case, but this was the one with the most credence if someone had followed through, and I have to commend her on her follow-through because people have started paperwork or voiced concerns in the community, they came back to me and they said, 'Oh, no, I don't want to bother anyone,’” Dicks-Maxwell said.

Going public, settlement

Over the summer, Jones went public. While making it clear that she wasn’t asking for pity, or financial assistance, she hoped media attention could help spread her example.

Not long after Jones’ story hit the press, the Attorney General’s office came to her attorney with a settlement offer. After negotiating the details, Jones accepted a role in a newly created position, Senior Assistant Director of Diversity Initiatives. 

Stein’s office declined to comment on the case or the settlement. Asked for comment on the settlement, UNCW, which denied any wrongdoing in court, issued a statement touting new efforts to support diversity, including Jones’ new position and an initiative to raise $1 million in new diversity and inclusion scholarships. [Note: you can find the complete statement at the end of this article.]

UNCW would not go further to discuss the specifics of the court case. However, UNCW’s Interim Diversity Officer, Dr. Donyell Roseboro, agreed to discuss some of the concerns about campus culture that underpinned Jones’ complaint.

Racial diversity and equity on campus

According to Dr. Roseboro, the University is expanding its use of data from the National Survey on Student Engagement to explore the problem.

“We have just started purchasing that, the part of the survey that deals with diversity and inclusion, so we can try to measure what students feel about the campus and their sense of connectedness to it. And so yes, according to that, we have another piece of evidence that students, especially students of color, don't feel a sense of --- a strong sense of belonging. So what can we do about that? That's where we are,” Roseboro said.

Roseboro acknowledged the historically low rate of Black student enrollment, which does not mirror NC or NHC demographics. Part of the problem, she said, is a kind of inertia, making it hard to recruit Black students onto a campus where they’re underrepresented. Another issue has been inadequate financial aid packages. Both, Roseboro said, are being worked on; over the last year, UNC has actually increased the percentage of Black students from 5 to 6%.

When it comes to faculty, Roseboro said the University is also looking at strengthening its relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as post-doctoral research opportunities for graduate students from diverse backgrounds, both which can serve as pipelines for Black and minority faculty candidates.

Not everyone on campus, or faculty, agree that there are problems with the racial climate at UNCW, or that proactive recruitment of minorities is necessary. However, several who voiced this opinion to WHQR declined to go on the record, citing fears of being labeled as racists or bigots.

Asked about this, Roseboro said she had heard concerns about the expression of certain opinions.

“And what I did hear from some students was that they, they do want UNCW to be a place where there's diversity of thought, and that they can express a difference of opinion, and not feel as if they'll be immediately attacked about that opinion and that was a sincere concern from students --- all kinds of students, not just white students,” Roseboro said.

Roseboro emphasized that the whole point of a University was to accommodate divergent views --- but not at the expense of core beliefs, such as diversity and inclusion.

Still a Seahawk

So how does LaTasha Jones feel about things? Jones said she couldn’t speak for the University as a whole, but --- despite the difficult journey she’s taken to get here --- she said she’s upbeat about the future.

“I will say I'm optimistic and positive about the way the admissions office is going to move forward. And how the provost office is going to help connect the admissions office and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion so that we can become more unified.”

It would not be surprising to some if Jones’ experiences had soured her on UNCW. But asked if she’s still a ‘true Seahawk,’ Jones laughs and says “yes.”

"You know, UNCW, my experience at UNCW has not been all negative. And so I want the best for UNCW. I really do,” Jones said. “I just hope that I really hope that UNCW can be an example for other predominantly white institutions of what real restorative justice looks like, and what real racial reconciliation looks like. And I'm hoping it can start with the Office of Admissions and spread... So I do UNCW, I still love my black and African American people, but because I love UNCW. I love everybody on campus."

Statement from UNCW Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs James J. Winebrake:

Recruiting and retaining a diverse student population has been and will continue to be one of UNCW’s highest strategic priorities. The university recently added two new positions to our Admissions team to continue and improve UNCW’s focus on welcoming more diverse students to the Seahawk community. One of the positions, Senior Assistant Director for Diversity Initiatives, has been filled by LaTasha Jones. Her experience in Admissions and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion make her well-suited for this role.

UNCW is collaborating with faculty, staff, students and alumni to enact a purposeful approach to enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Our action steps include launching the Chancellor’s Renewal and Change Accountability Committee; establishing an initiative to raise $1 million in additional diversity and inclusion scholarship endowment support; and new fellowship programs for faculty and staff. We also are focused on faculty and staff search committee training, professional development for faculty and staff in diversity and inclusion, pipeline programs to recruit and retain diverse faculty, a new living and learning community focused on Black history and culture, 1898 research and archival efforts, and developing an Africana Studies major.

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You can find contact Ben Schachtman at bschachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman