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Former UNC-Chapel Hill student alleges racial discrimination in lawsuit

Rose Brown, 28, said she was pushed out of the business program after she reported discrimination by faculty members.
Rose Brown
Rose Brown.Peak City Headshots

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is under fire after a Black former graduate student sued, accusing faculty members at the university’s business school of racial discrimination and retaliation in her lawsuit. 

Rose Brown alleges in the lawsuit, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for North Carolina’s Middle District, that some faculty members at the university’s Kenan-Flagler Business School belittled her competence, scolded her after she was sexually assaulted, and encouraged her to underpay Black research participants, all before pushing her out of the school’s Ph.D. program, according to the lawsuit.

“It was torture in a lot of ways. I was ostracized from a faculty standpoint. I was continuously berated with various comments,” Brown, 28, told NBC News. “ It was humiliating. It was disheartening. It broke me down every day. I had panic attacks every time I went to school.” 

Brown was accepted into the school’s five-year organizational behavioral program in March 2020 and dismissed from the program in July 2021, the lawsuit alleges. 

Along with the university and its board of governors, the suit names professors Shimul Melwani, Sreedhari Desai and Michael Christian. Christian and Desai were Brown’s principal advisers, and Melwani, a coordinator of the Ph.D. program, was responsible for her annual student review, according to the suit. 

Page Sagester, a spokesperson for the university, said officials are unable to comment on the pending litigation but added that “UNC-Chapel Hill strives to provide a positive educational experience for all our students.” 

The university hasn’t responded to the lawsuit, Brown’s attorney Artur Davis said. And the UNC Board of Governors declined to comment on the matter. Christian and Desai did not respond to comment and Melwani declined to comment when reached by NBC News.

Brown said she was initially taken aback when faculty members failed to include a photo of her, the only Black woman in the Ph.D. program at the time, in the program’s portfolio of candidates, according to the lawsuit. She alleges in the suit that they singled her out in an email about advice for graduate students before the program began, saying such guidance could be helpful “especially for Rose.” But, she said, the alleged  “racism and sexism” became clear after she requested extensions to attend court hearings for her domestic violence protective orders, which were made after she alleged she was sexually assaulted twice by a male aquaintance, according to both Brown and the lawsuit.  

Rose Brown
Rose Brown.Courtesy Rose Brown

The lawsuit alleges that Brown ended up missing a seminar as a result of the hearings, and Melwani and Christian criticized her, with one of them calling her “disrespectful” for the absence. The lawsuit alleges that while Brown was admonished for requesting extensions, her white colleagues received “scheduling accommodations for reasons ranging from personal crises to writer’s block with no penalty or consequence.”

The lawsuit alleges that Brown informed Melwani and Christian of the court hearings and the assaults. “They knew why I was going to court. They knew everything. And that was held against me,” Brown said. 

The lawsuit says Brown consistently got good grades, even as she battled with her advisers about her work, the lawsuit states. According to the lawsuit, Brown, whose work focused mostly on Black people’s particular cultural experiences — like code-switching and colorism — said that for one project, Desai instructed her to pay the 300 Black research participants just a penny a minute, “roughly a tenth of the typical minimum rate paid for subject surveys of $1.50 — 2.00 per fifteen minutes,” the lawsuit says. When Brown reported the disparity, the lawsuit alleges, Desai told her, “You are not as competent as we thought you were.” Desai did not immediately respond to the allegation.

The lawsuit alleges that, fed up, Brown reported the professors’ “discriminatory pattern of conduct” to the school’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office in June 2021. She was dismissed from the program a month later, and the office’s investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, said Davis.

Brown alleges in the suit that one UNC program director, Matthew Pearsall, told her that although her grades were good, she had alienated faculty members and was “no longer a good fit for the program.” However, even though she was dismissed from the program, Brown was able to continue her employment as a graduate research assistant until this May, according to Brown and the lawsuit. Pearsall did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News. 

“I tried to talk to any and everybody who would listen to me who had power and some responsibility to do something. What’s truly unfortunate is that it wasn’t so much that some of these people in this role didn’t believe me as much as they did not care to do anything,” Brown said.

It isn’t the first time UNC Chapel Hill has been criticized for alleged racial discrimination. In the spring of last year, its journalism school faced criticism for not offering Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” a tenured professorship following pressure from conservatives. It eventually extended the offer.

“Ultimately, I am glad that the matter of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones has been resolved,” UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said at the time of the offer. “Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university. Our students are eager to learn from her, and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.”

Jones declined the tenureship and instead accepted a tenured position with Howard University.

Brown is seeking unspecified damages for the “mental anguish, severe emotional distress, financial loss, and pain and suffering she has endured,” the lawsuit states.

“Organizations like UNC pride themselves on being enlightened, being progressive and being diverse. But the question is not what values you stick on the website. It’s how you treat the people who are walking in the doors of your institution every day,” Davis said. “That’s one of the things this case is really about. Rose Brown, an incredibly dynamic and gifted woman … was making very good grades and excelling in her research. They told her at the end of her first year in the program: ‘Your grades are great. Your research is great. It’s not about that. We don’t think you fit in here.’”