House Democrats, business leaders condemn plan to repeal DEI initiatives at NC universities

Rep. Maria Cervania speaks at a podium.
Rep. Maria Cervania speaks at a podium.

Rep. Maria Cervania (D-Wake) and business leaders criticize effort to gut DEI programs across the UNC system. (Image: NCGA livestream)

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors could vote as early as Thursday to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs across its 17 campuses.

State Rep. Maria Cervania (D-Wake) says a hasty decision to end DEI offerings would be detrimental to attracting and retaining top talent in North Carolina.

“North Carolina has been Number One for the last two years when it comes to business. This is largely because of our talent pipeline and our human resources,” said Cervania. “We will not remain and maintain this title if we go further in divesting from important DEI programs.”

Cervania said critics who mislabel DEI as “divisiveness, exclusion, and indoctrination,” are simply attacking something that they don’t understand.

“Diversity encompasses the present of individuals from different backgrounds, identities and experience, including and not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, ability, and age,” Cervania said. “That encompasses everyone in North Carolina and everyone in this room, everyone in this building.”

Rep. Amos Quick
Rep. Amos Quick

Cervania said current DEI event offerings at UNC campuses include engineering summer camps for low-income children, mentorships with Black and LGBTQ business leaders, and residence halls in which aspiring women engineers learn from one another.

“I would like to ask if any critics out there have ever been or attended a DEI event, spoken to a DEI employee, or spent a day in the life of a college student using DEI services? If they ever have, they would not be doing the things that they’re doing,” Cervania admonished.

Rep. Amos Quick (D-Guilford) said it was “maddening” to again be at a place in our nation’s history where diversity, equity, and inclusion have become bad words.

Quick said diversity, equity, and inclusion are woven into the very fabric of the Declaration of Independence.

“The declaration says, ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men’, that’s diversity, ‘are created equal’ that’s equity and equality, and that ‘they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ that’s inclusion,” Quick said.

Reverend Dr. Rose Cornelious, president of the Morrisville Chamber of Commerce, said her community does not support the university system moving backward on DEI.

“I represent a town that is probably the most diverse and welcoming in North Carolina,” said Cornelious. “We have a population that is over 40% Asian. Morrisville has greatly benefited from this diversity, but it has called us to learn about our neighbors. It is required that we see them and respect them and include them.”

Reverend Dr. Rose Cornelious
Reverend Dr. Rose Cornelious

Cornelious believes DEI initiatives make communities richer and less divisive.

“They teach us how to see all people. They teach us how to value and respect all types of people. They teach us how to include all types of people.”

Deanna Jones, the vice president for Harmony, NC’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, said the DEI mission is critical to its business members.

“If we start eliminating programs and putting a straitjacket on colleges and universities that tell them what programs they can have or what fields of study, it does great damage to this wonderful state. And it sends the wrong message,” said Jones.

Jones said North Carolina legislative leaders who rushed ahead in passing House Bill 2 (the “bathroom bill”) in 2016 did the state a great financial disservice.

“North Carolina has been the beneficiary of many companies moving here. We’ve had headquarters, operations move here. We can’t risk losing this momentum because we’re fighting a ‘cancel culture’ war,” recalled Jones.

Nehemiah Stewart attended UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergrad and is currently an MD PhD candidate at Chapel Hill studying neuroscience.

He worries the policy shift that the Board of Governors is contemplating will not simply cost jobs, but opportunities that leads minority, low-income rural students to find success.

“Each of us in this community, this inclusive community, is needed for success,” said Stewart.

Stewart said a better approach would be to establish a new joint legislative committee on workforce development, allowing all voices including parents and students to be heard.

Cornelious said the move to gut DEI, in her opinion, was part of a broader agenda to marginalize people and take away rights from women, minorities and others.

“It is unfortunate, but I think we need to raise our voices. Contact your legislators, contact the people who are involved on the Board of Governors,” the Rev. Cornelious said. “Don’t be idle. You cannot afford to sit back.”

The full UNC Board of Governors meets on Thursday. Ahead of the meeting, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted last week to strip $2.3 million from next year’s budget allocated for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on the Chapel Hill campus. Those funds will be used for public safety.

North Carolina’s debate over DEI comes as a number of conservative states including Florida, Texas and Utah have already enacted outright bans on DEI initiatives in higher education.

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