Office of the Student Body President and Undergraduate President
Suite 3109 Frank Porter Graham Student Union
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Message from Student Body President Lamar Richards in Response to the June 30, 2021 Board of Trustees Meeting
July 1, 2021
Dear Carolina Community,
While raising me — a Black boy in the deep South — my grandmother would often tell me that “no power, no amount of money, fame, or recognition can serve as a substitute for doing what is right.” She would say this resolutely — as boldly and as powerfully as her 5’ 6” self would allow her to. I never realized that the reason she emphasized this so much was because she recognized the burden that is placed upon someone who relentlessly aspired to do and pursue the right thing — every chance they got — no matter the outcome. She was, in fact, well aware of the burden of good leadership and lifelong service.
Today, I pen this message with a mixture of feelings; however, one is louder than the rest – burdened. Yesterday, on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, as a result of a petitioning process that began last week, the Board of Trustees met at a Special Meeting, in accordance with board policy. In that meeting, a deep miscarriage of justice was corrected and Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones was granted the designation of tenured professor, a distinction that her hard work, life experiences, and scholarship has earned her. While I celebrate this honor alongside her closest friends, family, and colleagues, I am discouraged by the arduous process it took to get to this point.
The idea — the fact, rather — that students, faculty, staff, and alumni would have to come forward on behalf of a Black woman for simply pursuing recognition (via tenure) of her lifelong work makes clear to me one thing — racism is alive and kicking. The idea or notion that this was simply about freedom of speech or academic freedom is false; this, my friends, is about the freedom to be Black in America.
As I joined the Board of Trustees meeting virtually yesterday, while transitioning to closed session, those joining via Zoom could not hear nor see what was happening in the meeting space; the stream was muted and turned off while the space was cleared. I was informed that Black organizers, who are also students and my peers, were physically assaulted by officers of the UNC Police Department. As I went to social media, I saw footage, photographs, and first-hand accounts that made my heart sink, reinforcing my belief that our University is not prepared to “walk the walk” on behalf of students – especially not Black students and students from underrepresented communities.
This incident cannot go unaddressed, as others have in the past. These demonstrators joined the meeting yesterday not only in protest of the handling of Professor Hannah-Jones’ tenure case, but in protest of years of mistreatment, disrespect, and exploitation of Black students at UNC. Their outrage was justified and the way that they were treated in response was vile. What the demonstrators perceived to be a lack of transparency highlights a larger issue of how submissions of tenure are handled at Carolina — a problematic and oppressive structure allowing for very little, if any, public discussion and input — often resulting in few academics of color being promoted to tenured professors.
In the days ahead, I am meeting with faculty, student, and staff leaders of color from across campus to strategize and gather comprehensive insights on ways to support the entire Black community here at Carolina. Both the Chancellor and University administration are aware of this ongoing work and will have the chance for their words to match their actions by doing what is right and supporting the requests coming from these collective meetings.
And while I cannot speak to whether Professor Hannah-Jones will decide to join our Carolina community, I certainly hope that all of the academic units, university centers, alumni, donors, and allies that joined in this fight for her tenure will continue to support the ongoing efforts coming out of our work — because unless we change the system and rid it of oppression, this will happen again.
The days of me being able to call upon my grandmother for wisdom and insight have sadly passed, but her courage and strength remains in my heart. The courage that propelled her to walk to work for over 20 years — to hold multiple jobs at a time — is the kind of courage and strength, on behalf of justice, that is virtually absent in the ranks of leadership at this University: our University.
I can only hope that in the days ahead, our University administration’s “internal compass” will centralize the realization that it is only this form of courage that will make things better for students, faculty, and staff that have struggled so very much for only an ounce, if that, of respect and dignity.
Sending my best,
Student Body President
Trustee, UNC-CH Board of Trustees