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Ex UNC Kenan Flagler PhD student sues school alleging racism

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Angelica Rose Brown, a former graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, in a photo provided by her attorney’s office.

Angelica Rose Brown, a former graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, in a photo provided by her attorney’s office.

A former graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill alleges racial discrimination and retaliation at the university’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in a federal lawsuit against the university, three of its professors and the UNC Board of Governors.

In 2020, Angelica Rose Brown — an African American woman — enrolled in the organizational behavioral Ph.D. program at the business school. But her time there was short: One year into the five-year program, Brown was told she could transfer to another program or exit with a master’s degree instead of a doctorate.

According to a news release issued by her attorney’s office, Brown was the only Black female in the Ph.D. program and was forced out of the program despite strong grades and high-quality research.

“It’s one thing to fail and to turn around and say I was discriminated against,” Artur Davis, one of Brown’s lead attorneys, told The News & Observer in an interview. “It’s another thing to succeed and be asked to leave.”

Davis said it’s similar to how “many young African American professionals, whether they’re in academia, whether they are in the corporate world, in the nonprofit world, they run into these subtle stereotypes and they run into these subtle glass ceilings, and sometimes not subtle, but very hard glass ceilings.”

Brown was forced out roughly a month after reporting allegations of discrimination and hostile treatment in a complaint to UNC’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office, her attorneys said. The lawsuit says the dismissal was retaliation for her complaints to the EOC office as well as the business school’s diversity and inclusion program.

The lawsuit says officials also retaliated by disseminating negative information about Brown to institutions to which she subsequently applied.

Following a request for comment, the university’s media relations office said in an email response that it was “unable to comment on the pending litigation at this time” and that “UNC-Chapel Hill strives to provide a positive educational experience for all our students.”

Brown received the results of the EOC office’s investigation. The lawsuit says the office’s findings “adopted the factual representations of faculty members over Ms. Brown’s versions of events” and “ignored the initial focus of Ms. Brown’s complaints of racial insensitivity and discriminatory conduct in favor of a narrow inquiry into whether the review process was influenced by knowledge of the EOC investigation.”

Brown did not obtain the doctorate from UNC, but she did obtain a master’s degree in management.

Allegations of racism

The lawsuit alleges that the school terminated her despite her high levels of academic performance and achievement and that the professors named in the lawsuit provided false and misleading information about her academic performance and collegiality during her academic review process.

“The vague reasons cited for UNC’s dissatisfaction with Ms. Brown are a thinly veiled veneer for entrenched stereotypes about individuals who are Black and Female,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit recounts situations that it says are examples of unequal treatment motivated by race. According to the lawsuit:

Brown, a survivor of post-traumatic stress disorder, reported to the three professors named in the case that she had been raped and sexually assaulted on two occasions. (The N&O typically does not name victims of sexual assault, but is doing so in this case because Brown detailed the allegations in her lawsuit.) For reasons related to these assaults, which occurred during her time enrolled in the school, Brown asked for limited and infrequent delays in course deadlines. While these were granted, the professors later described a pattern of extensions as a performance issue during her academic review process. “The Ph.D. Program has a settled practice of permitting both white and male students long extensions and scheduling accommodations for reasons ranging from personal crises to writer’s block with no penalty or consequence,” according to the lawsuit.

Following the assaults, Brown was unable to attend a seminar because she was preparing to attend a court hearing regarding a domestic violence protection order she had filed. Two of the professors named in the lawsuit were aware of this but admonished her for not attending the seminar, even though it was not mandatory.

Brown was not permitted the usual latitude in research direction extended to non-African American students. She was directed to shift the subject of a journal article to examine intra-racial conflicts in the African American community, instead of her preferred emphasis on the subversive effects of the power dynamic between white and Black people in the professional world.

Brown was directed to administer a field survey that paid Black research participants one-tenth the compensation rate UNC ordinarily paid for participation in such surveys.

Federal court cases have a long timeline and there is no guarantee cases will make it to a jury.

“It will be a long case,” said Davis. “But Ms. Brown understands that.”

The lawsuit requests that a court award Brown enough money to punish each defendant and “deter others from like misconduct,” in addition to other factors.

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