Women support UNC amid racial discrimination lawsuit

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New graduates of the University of North Carolina business school at Chapel Hill show their support for their alma mater in an open letter after another former graduate student, Rose Brown, filed a lawsuit against the faculty and university, claiming she was off been thrown from the program after allegations of racial discrimination.

In the letter, which NBC News received exclusively, Angelica Leigh, Ayana Younge, Chaitali Kapadia and Erin Long said they didn’t want to “diminish” Brown’s claims, but simply wanted to highlight her positive experiences organizing the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s conduct PhD program. The women praised the business school’s commitment to diversity, writing that the three professors named in Brown’s lawsuit — Shimul Melwani, Sreedhari Desai and Michael Christian — were “supportive” and did everything possible to help the women complete the program.

“We are writing this letter because we are dealing with the characterization of the department that has been covered in the media,” the letter reads. “We cannot speak with everyone’s views on UNC or Kenan-Flagler, nor do we seek to belittle the experiences of others, but we can share our perspective and experience of the culture of the Obstetrics Department’s Ph.D. department. Program.”

The letter comes weeks after Brown filed the lawsuit against the professors, the university and their board of governors in late August. The lawsuit alleges that Melwani, Desai or Christian belittled her competence, verbally abused her after she was sexually assaulted, instructed her to underpay black research participants, and encouraged her to break stereotypes about “black-on-black” encourage abuse in their research. Brown claimed she was released from the organizational behavior program after reporting to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance that she had experienced racial discrimination throughout her first year of the five-year program.

“It was torture in a lot of ways,” Brown told NBC News. “I was ostracized from the faculty standpoint. I was constantly insulted with various comments.”

A spokesman for the UNC Board of Governors declined to comment on the lawsuit. And a university spokesman said in a statement that “UNC-Chapel Hill is committed to providing all of our students with a positive educational experience.”

Desai did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News about the lawsuit or the letter. In a statement, Christian said, “Organizational Behavior is very proud of our progress at DEI and strives to be the most comprehensive management division in the United States. Student involvement and support has long been a cornerstone of our PhD program in OB.”

Sharing Christian’s feelings, Melwani added, “As a woman of color and an immigrant who has had the opportunity to be a leader in this predominantly white space, I have made it my goal to dedicate my career to mentoring all students, but especially those with marginalized voices.”

Angelica Leigh.Justin Cook

In their open letter, Leigh, Younge, Kapadia and Long painted a different picture of the professors than Brown did. Leigh, a black woman, said, “I was free to be myself and the department’s faculty continued to support me and my research ideas, which enabled me to become the scholar I am today.” Leigh said, Melwani have funded her research on race and racism in the workplace and even helped her create the hashtag #BlackEmployeesMatter, which has been used to spark conversation on social media about Black people’s experiences in the workplace. Younge, who is multiracial, said Desai offered to pay for several research studies for Younge’s work, which is not usual for the university. Neither Leigh nor Younge, both of whom were at the university during Brown’s time there, reported having had any negative interactions with Brown, they said.

Younge said the group was forced to write the letter after reading an NBC News report about the lawsuit.

Ayana boy.
Ayana boy.Ali Johnson

“When we see people that we have had personal experience with as advisors, as mentees, as co-authors, as collaborators, as colleagues, it saddens us to see some of the things that have been said in the media because that wasn’t our experience with the faculty,” Younge said in an interview.

“We recognize the fact that our experiences are unique to us and not everyone shares the same experiences,” Younge added. “And that’s okay. People in the public reading this can make their own claims. But we’re only trying to provide what we believe to be our own truth about our interactions, and we’re not being coerced into doing so. We are proud graduates of this department.”

Kapadia, a Native American, credited Melwani with completing the program, writing, “To this day, I go to her regularly for guidance on research, personal struggles, and everything in between.” She’s always there for me.” Long, who is white, wrote that Christian poured his “heart and energy” into her career, adding, “My experience is that Mike is nice. He’s humble. He is ethical. He is an advocate. He is an ally.”

Chaitali Kapadia.
Chaitali Kapadia.Courtesy of Chaitali Kapadia

The lawsuit is the latest controversy for UNC-Chapel Hill, which was criticized last year for not allowing Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” after pressure from conservatives offered a permanent professorship. Finally, the offer was expanded. Jones declined the appointment and instead accepted an appointment at Howard University.

“UNC, along with many higher education institutions and Fortune 500 companies, does not have the best track record of treating their marginalized fairly, whether they are black employees, women, employees of other ethnic minorities, or students,” Leigh said in an interview . “It’s not just UNC itself; None of this happens in a vacuum. Alongside this, there have always been people working within the systems, trying to make them fair and doing the things they could to help staff or students to make things better.”

Erin Lang.
Erin Lang.Courtesy of Erin Lang

A university spokesman confirmed the women were part of the doctoral program, with Long and Kapadia graduating in 2017 and Leigh and Younge in 2020. Long said the women wrote the letter of their own volition and although they informed university officials they would publish a letter regarding the matter, they did not seek guidance from the faculty or share its contents with the faculty.

In response to the letter on Brown’s behalf, Brown’s attorney, Artur Davis, said, “While we respect the experiences of these individuals, two things come to mind. As the lawsuit describes, when Rose Brown filed discrimination complaints in the summer of 2021, her advisers implemented the “phone a black friend” strategy.”

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