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Women write letter of support for UNC-Chapel Hill amid racial discrimination lawsuit

Four former graduate students say they've had nothing but positive experiences with professors accused of racial discrimination at UNC's business school.
A pedestrian walks through campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., on March 18, 2020.
A pedestrian walks through campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in March 2020.Gerry Broome / AP file

Recent graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s business school are showing their support for their alma mater in an open letter after another former grad student, Rose Brown, filed a lawsuit against faculty and university, claiming she was kicked out of the program after reporting alleged racial discrimination.

In the letter, obtained exclusively by NBC News, Angelica Leigh, Ayana Younge, Chaitali Kapadia and Erin Long said they don’t want to “diminish” Brown’s claims, but simply want to highlight their positive experience in the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s organizational behavior doctoral program. The women praised the business school’s commitment to diversity and wrote that the three professors named in Brown’s lawsuit — Shimul Melwani, Sreedhari Desai and Michael Christian — were “supportive” and did all they could to help the women complete the program. 

“We are writing this letter because we are concerned with the characterization of the department that has been reported in the media,” the letter read. “We cannot speak to everyone’s views about UNC or Kenan-Flagler, nor do we seek to diminish the experiences of others, but we can share our perspective and experience of the culture of the OB department’s Ph.D. program.”

The letter comes weeks after Brown filed the lawsuit in late August against the professors, the university and its board of governors. The lawsuit alleges that Melwani, Desai or Christian belittled her competence, scolded her after she was sexually assaulted, instructed her to underpay Black research participants, and encouraged her to promote stereotypes about “Black-on-Black” mistreatment in her research. Brown alleged she was dismissed from the organizational behavior program after she reported to the university’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance office that she’d experienced racial discrimination for the entirety of her first year of the five-year program.

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

A spokesperson for the UNC Board of Governors declined to comment on the lawsuit. And a spokesperson for the university said in a statement that "UNC-Chapel Hill strives to provide a positive educational experience for all our students.” 

Desai did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News about the lawsuit or letter. In a statement, Christian said, “The Organizational Behavior Area is very proud of our progress on DEI and strives to be the most inclusive management department in the U.S. Student inclusion and support has long been a cornerstone of our PhD program in OB.”

Melwani shared Christian’s sentiments and added, “As a woman of color and immigrant who has had the opportunity to lead in this predominantly white space, I have aimed to dedicate my career to mentoring all students, but especially those with marginalized voices.”

Angelica Leigh.
Angelica Leigh.Justin Cook

Leigh, Younge, Kapadia and Long painted a different picture from Brown’s of the professors in their open letter. Leigh, a Black woman, said, “I was free to be myself and the faculty in the department remained supportive of me and my research ideas, which allowed me to become the scholar that I am today.” Leigh said Melwani encouraged her research on race and racism in the workplace and even helped her create the #BlackEmployeesMatter hashtag, which was used to spark a conversation about Black people’s experiences in the workplace on social media. Younge, who is biracial, said Desai offered to pay for multiple research studies for Younge’s work, which is not common practice for the university. Neither Leigh nor Younge, who were both at the university during Brown’s time there, reported having negative interactions with Brown, they said.

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

Ayana Younge.
Ayana Younge.Ali Johnson

“Seeing individuals that we’ve personally had experiences with as advisees, as mentees, as co-authors, as collaborators, as colleagues, it saddened us to see some of the things that were said in the media because those haven’t been our experiences with” the faculty, Younge said in an interview.

“We acknowledge the fact that our experiences are unique to ourselves and not everybody shares those same experiences,” Younge added. “And that’s fine. People in the public eye that read this can make their own claims. But we’re just trying to provide what we feel is our own truth about our interactions, and we’re not being coerced to do this. We’re proud graduates of this department.”

Kapadia, who is Indian American, credited Melwani with her completion of the program, writing: “To this day, I go to her regularly for guidance about research, personal struggles, and everything in between. She is always there for me.” Long, who is white, wrote that Christian pours his “heart and energy into his students' careers," adding: “My experience is that Mike is kind. He is humble. He is ethical. He is an advocate. He is an ally.” 

Chaitali Kapadia.
Chaitali Kapadia.Courtesy Chaitali Kapadia

The lawsuit is the latest controversy for UNC-Chapel Hill, which drew criticism last year for not initially 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. Jones declined the tenureship and instead accepted a tenured position with Howard University.

“UNC along with a lot of higher education institutions and Fortune 500 companies don’t have the best track record when it comes to treating their marginalized, whether that’s Black employees, women, employees of other racial minority groups, students, in an equitable manner,” Leigh said in an interview. “It’s not just UNC itself; none of this is happening in a vacuum. Along with that, there have always been people who have worked within the systems and have tried to make them equitable, and have done things that they could to support employees or students to make things better.” 

Erin Long.
Erin Long.Courtesy Erin Long

A university spokesperson confirmed that 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 be publishing a letter regarding the matter, they did not seek any guidance from or share its contents with 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 raised complaints of discrimination in the summer of 2021 her advisors trotted out the ‘phone a black friend’ strategy.”