Exclusive Documents: UNC School of Medicine Creates and Hides Social Justice Plan

John D. Sailer

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Allied Health Sciences wants its students to engage in “social justice advocacy.” It has proposed making the use of “social justice content” a “core expectation” for all faculty members. And it has called for creating numerous social justice evaluations for department faculty, including one embedded in the promotion and tenure process.

Each of these policies was proposed by the department’s “Task Force to Integrate Social Justice into the Allied Health Curricula.” Through a public records request, I have acquired the task force’s 30-page report—along with emails showing that the department planned to implement many of the report’s recommendations. The emails show administrators from UNC expressing their intention to keep the plan hidden, without halting its implementation, all while the school of medicine faced scrutiny over its far-reaching social justice (DEI) policies.

The Department of Allied Health Sciences (DAHS)—which grants degrees in fields such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and physician assistant studies—is a part of the UNC School of Medicine. In the fall of 2020, the School of Medicine released a report from its “Task Force for Integrating Social Justice Into the Curriculum,” which in turn called on several departments within the school to create their own social justice task forces, including the DAHS. By December of 2021, the DAHS finished its social justice report. We list the report—a laundry list of far-reaching DEI policies—below.

The DAHS report calls for mandatory student social justice advocacy. Specifically, it calls for all students to “receive education and training in core advocacy skills, with consideration of the structural and social factors that affect health and health disparities.” It makes clear that this training should result in action. “Students,” it notes, “will provide effective social justice advocacy on behalf of their patients/clients within and beyond the clinical setting, as well as on behalf of marginalized communities, organizations, and other systems.” Elsewhere it adds: “All students will participate in advocacy activities, including policy/legislative, community, clinical and other healthcare settings, and within other contexts.”

The report likewise calls for faculty to integrate social justice concepts into their work. One goal in the report reads: “All DAHS faculty, as part of the core expectations of being a faculty member, will effectively integrate social justice content into their teaching, clinical services, and research endeavors and be able to effectively respond to feedback on those activities via a social justice lens.”

The task force, moreover, recommended measures that would ensure all faculty have a strong incentive to comply with all social justice edicts. It proposes using multiple mechanisms to assess and bolster faculty members’ commitment to social justice, including peer evaluations (“Update Peer Teaching Evaluation Form to include social justice components as part of the evaluation”), faculty annual reviews (“Update Annual Review Form to include key items on inclusion of social justice in faculty instructional material”), and promotion and tenure policies (“All faculty will include a separate section on their CV related to social justice as well as a specific DEI statement by 2022”).

These measures raise obvious concerns. Political advocacy is simply not an appropriate requirement for physician assistant and occupational therapy students. Moreover, given the political connotations of the term “social justice,” it’s hard to imagine the advocacy being anything other than one-sided, either by mandate or through social pressure. Likewise, in forcing faculty to “integrate social justice content” into their teaching, the department could easily end up enforcing a narrow orthodoxy on a whole host of controversial topics. The various social justice evaluations—including for promotion and tenure—present the most obvious issue. Many of these measures seem to run afoul of the UNC Board of Governor’s new policy prohibiting compelled speech. UNC leadership should take note.

For anyone who pays attention to ideological encroachments in medical education, the DAHS social justice task force might sound especially familiar. For more than a year, the UNC School of Medicine has received considerable pushback over its school-wide “Task Force For Integrating Social Justice Into the Curriculum.” The emails I’ve acquired show that the school’s administrators sought to keep information about the DAHS task force hidden, even while they created a detailed update on their social justice policies.

As I explained in a 2021 article, the school of medicine’s social justice task force was uniquely brazen. Its report not only recommended mandatory student advocacy, but also listed a set of political causes for students to embrace, which included “achieving radical reform of the US criminal justice system” and “ending policies of exclusion and achieving compassionate immigration reform.” Likewise, it not only called for faculty to adhere to “core concepts of anti-racism,” but also listed a set of required concepts, which included “race is not a set biological category” and “specific organs and cells do not belong to specific genders.” When I first reported on the task force, every single recommendation was listed as “On Time” on the school of medicine’s website.

After I wrote about the task force, the school of medicine quickly received pushback from other media outlets. Soon, the school’s dean, Wesley Burks, addressed the issue in presentations for both the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Board of Trustees. Notably, Burks promised to publish an update on the task force, which would explain what social justice recommendations were accepted and how they would be implemented.

It might be reasonable to expect that, if the school of medicine provided a report on its social justice task force, it would mention the policies proposed by the DAHS. After all, the DAHS’s task force was created as a direct follow-up to the school of medicine’s task force. Moreover, the same concerns could easily be raised regarding both documents. But according to the emails I acquired, the school’s internal response was the opposite: make sure no one knows about what the Department of Allied Health Sciences proposed.

In one email, the chair of the DAHS sent the department’s report to several administrators, noting “we are in the early phase of discussion for implementation, with the goal being July 1 for initiating many of these recommendations, so any feedback would be appreciated at this time as we can make any changes necessary.”

The next day, another administrator sent the report along to the school’s vice dean for DEI, asking whether the DAHS report was relevant to the social justice update document that dean Burks promised to publish. “Are you aware of this taskforce and working with AHS to make sure this doesn't conflict with our document or do I need to get involved?”

The vice dean for DEI responded to this question, noting:

Karlina asked me if I was concerned with your documents conflicting with our response to the medical education document. I told her no because your information wasn't posted on the web. She also asked about how much the document was shared with faculty, staff, and students. I shared that sharing the document was part of the process but wasn't exactly sure how broad the document was shared. She asked, in case we need to manage the communication so that the document isn't in the public domain, if possible. I believe we are OK because both of your docs are still internal... am I correct in thinking this? [Emphasis original]

The “Task Force to Integrate Social Justice into the Allied Health Curricula” itself raises concerns. The move to keep it secret does not inspire confidence.

Again, UNC leadership should take note. Recently, both the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Board of Trustees have been praised for a litany of policies designed to bolster free expression and academic freedom. These policies include banning compelled speech, adopting the Chicago Principles and Kalven Report, and creating a school devoted to open discourse and debate. Unfortunately, enforcing these policies won’t be easy, especially with an administration seemingly committed to undermining them.

And for anyone interested, you can read the documents below:

Download the Report Download the Emails

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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