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A former UNC graduate student says her professors forced her out of her PhD program. Now she is filing a discrimination lawsuit

<i>Courtesy Angelica Rose Brown</i><br/>Former UNC graduate student Angelica Rose Brown says her professors forced her out of her PhD program.
Courtesy Angelica Rose Brown
Former UNC graduate student Angelica Rose Brown says her professors forced her out of her PhD program.

By Nicquel Terry Ellis

When Angelica Rose Brown was accepted into the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler Business School PhD. Program in 2020, she said it brought her one step closer to her career aspirations.

Brown entered the program that year with high hopes: she wanted to do extensive research on code switching and diversity and inclusion issues, earn her PhD, and become a college professor teaching organizational behavior.

But one year into the five-year program, Brown said her plans were derailed when professors forced her out of the PhD program, saying she was no longer a good fit.

“Initially I experienced disbelief and then from there it was just immense psychological and emotional distress,” Brown told CNN. “It was heartbreaking.”

Brown is now suing the university, three of her former professors and the UNC Board of Governors in federal court under claims that some faculty and school officials discriminated against her because she is Black and a woman.

In the lawsuit, filed August 30, Brown also accuses three professors of retaliating against her after she reported the discrimination to the business school’s Diversity and Inclusion Program and Equal Opportunity Compliance Office.

UNC officials declined to comment on Brown’s lawsuit.

“We are aware of these allegations but unable to comment on the pending litigation at this time,” UNC spokesperson Pace Sagester said in an email. “UNC-Chapel Hill strives to provide a positive educational experience for all our students.”

Brown said her forced removal reflects a pattern of systemic racism at the school. She wants the professors named in the lawsuit to be held accountable for their actions and receive more training in diversity and inclusion.

‘This is very egregious,’ Brown says

Brown’s lawsuit outlines a chain of events that led to her reporting the alleged discrimination to university officials and being forced out of the PhD program.

According to the complaint, Brown asked her professors for “periodic scheduling accommodations including potential extensions on research projects” after she says she was raped and sexually assaulted twice by a male acquaintance in 2020. Brown claims she also shared with professors that she suffered a preexisting condition of post-traumatic stress disorder and that she documented it in her enrollment file. The PTSD was exacerbated by the alleged sexual violence, the lawsuit says. Brown said she was granted the extensions, but professors named in the suit admonished her for missing what Brown characterizes as a non-mandatory program seminar because she had a court hearing to get a protective order against the man who she says raped her.

Brown attempted to file criminal charges against her rapist but Durham officials declined because it was a “non-stranger” case, according to her lawyer. CNN has reached out to Durham police for comment.

The lawsuit also claims Brown had several disagreements with professors, including on her approach to research topics such as code switching with African- Americans; the person they would recruit to their research team; and funding sources for research projects. The complaint also says that at the end of Brown’s first semester at UNC, she received a “Pass” grade in an introductory course while her classmates received a “High Pass.” Brown says she was the only Black woman in the class.

In June 2021, Brown reported “what she believed to be a pattern of discriminatory behavior within her program” to the business school’s Diversity and Inclusion program, the lawsuit says. That same month, she also filed a discrimination complaint with the university’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office.

During an academic review held on Zoom in July 2021, Brown said her professors indicated that multiple professors had complained about her frequent requests for deadline extensions, that she was not making progress academically and that she burned bridges with faculty, according to the lawsuit. Brown’s professors said she did not have a path forward in the PhD program and could exit in May 2022 with a master’s degree, the lawsuit says, which Brown ultimately did.

The lawsuit alleges that Brown’s unfavorable review was “retaliation” for the discrimination reports she filed the month prior.

Brown’s attorney Artur Davis told CNN that his client had good grades, stellar research and was “succeeding by every measure” but the university still forced her out of the PhD program.

Davis said the lawsuit is necessary so there can be more accountability for institutions that treat Black people unfairly.

“Discrimination goes on in this world because people think they can get away with it,” Davis said. “It says to this institution which thinks it’s untouchable that the world is watching, people are watching and there is scrutiny to your behavior.”

“UNC needs some self-examination,” he added.

Brown said in addition to accountability for the professors named in the lawsuit, she is seeking monetary damages for emotional distress, mental anguish and lost earning potential.

“This is bigger than gross negligence, this is very egregious,” Brown said. “Being complicit in these behaviors by these faculty sends a message that any and all faculty can treat students this way and it still be OK.”

Brown, 28, said her removal from UNC has been a setback for her career. “I’ve lost two years on the job market,” she said.

She was able to enroll in another PhD program at Cornell University this year and says she is set to graduate in 2027.

The university has faced criticism in recent years for its record on diversity and inclusion

Brown’s lawsuit came weeks after UNC reached a settlement with award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose tenure as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism was initially denied by the board of trustees despite a recommendation by the tenure committee. The board later granted Hannah-Jones tenure after facing backlash from faculty and staff. But Hannah-Jones declined the tenure offer and instead joined Howard University’s faculty.

The settlement requires the university to train 20 UNC faculty and staff as search and selection advisers through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; increase the number of trauma-informed therapists on staff; and allocate $5,000 each fiscal year to the Carolina Black Caucus, a group that advocates for Black UNC faculty and staff. The settlement does not include an admission of liability for the parties involved.

Earlier this year, the American Association of University Professors released a report outlining longstanding patterns of institutional racism in the UNC system. The report accused Republican lawmakers of interfering within the university system by influencing chancellor appointments and shuttering academic centers focused on fighting poverty, social injustice and pollution.

In response, Kimberly van Noort, Sr. Vice President for Academic Affairs for the UNC system, called the report “disheartening.” “During the last six years, we have lowered tuition for nearly all of our students; improved graduation rates among low-income and minority students; and made historic investments in growing and supporting our system’s six historically minority-serving institutions,” she said in a letter. “We continue to recruit and support world-class faculty, and we secured substantial raises for faculty and staff in the most recent (bipartisan) state budget, as well as more than $2 billion in capital funding for our campuses.”

Julia Clark, president of the Black Student Movement at UNC, said some Black students don’t feel supported when it comes to support services and tools needed to succeed in class. She wants to see more Black people appointed to work in the university’s Women’s Center and the Equal Opportunity Compliance Office to help address situations involving racial discrimination. CNN reached out to UNC regarding Clark’s concerns about diversity in university offices and has not heard back.

Clark called Brown “brave” for filing the lawsuit and advocating for herself.

“We are constantly faced with having to be the voice for equity on campus and we don’t necessarily see that reflected within our administration or within our campus systems,” Clark said. “I hope (Brown’s lawsuit) forces both the administration and specifically the business school and other schools at this university to not only reflect how they are treating their Black students but what they can do better.”

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