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‘Political meddling from on high’: AAUP, faculty condemn University of North Carolina System leadership

<p>The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.</p>

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The governing council of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization of professors and scholars, passed a resolution that condemns the University of North Carolina System’s Board of Governors and System Office on June 14. 

The vote came after a Special Committee report that the AAUP, which has over 500 campus chapters and 39 state-level organizations, released in April. The report detailed threats to faculty governance and academic freedom as well as the presence of institutional racism within the UNC System.

“The special committee’s documentation of instances of broken governance, severe violations of academic freedom and patterns of institutional racism caused by long-standing political interference and cowardly top-down administrations speaks volumes about the severity of the underlying problems within UNC,” AAUP President Irene Mulvey said in a statement.

The Chronicle reached out to Josh Ellis, associate vice president for media relations for the UNC System, for comment on claims made by specific faculty members. Ellis referred The Chronicle to a statement Kimberly van Noort, senior vice president for academic affairs of the UNC System, previously published responding to the AAUP report.

‘Political pawns of the legislature’: The UNC System’s structure leads to ‘erosion’ of faculty governance

Michael Behrent, associate professor of history at Appalachian State University and president of the North Carolina conference of the AAUP, said the insufficient academic freedom and institutional racism that the report highlights stems from the “foundational problem” of UNC faculty governance. 

The UNC System includes 16 public universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The North Carolina legislature, which has had a Republican majority in recent years, chooses the Board of Governors, the governing body of the UNC System. The Board elects the president of the UNC System who oversees the campus-level chancellors. The Board and the North Carolina legislature also play a role in selecting the campus-level boards of trustees.

Behrent does not believe the campus chancellors have much autonomy and are subject to political influence, leading to an “erosion” of shared faculty governance.

“I think that university chancellors in North Carolina are the political pawns of the legislature, by way of the Board of Governors…the chancellors are co-opted by the System office, the board and the legislature,” he said.

Jay Smith, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill who was mentioned in the report as a faculty member who has had his academic freedom violated, said that “problem number one” of the UNC System was “political meddling from on high.”

“And problem number two is that our campus administrators don't have the backbone or the will to stand up to it to fight it,” Smith said.

According to Behrent, campus chancellors’ compensation packages are directly tied to the achievement of the goals set by the legislature. 

“In terms of governance, what's happened is, you have a system in which the number one priority of campus chancellors is being in the good graces of the Board of Governors, the System office and all the political forces that are behind them,” Behrent said.

This structure leads to high-level leadership making politically motivated decisions, according to Behrent and Smith. As a result, faculty are left out of conversation in areas where they would be traditionally consulted, such as opening the universities for in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Generally speaking, the faculty [of a university] should be consulted on major matters affecting the university,” Behrent said.

According to the report, Republicans in the North Carolina legislature compelled the Board of Governors to re-open campuses in fall 2020 after “faculty representatives were not consulted at either the system or the campus level.”

“The rest of the academic infrastructure is left pretty vulnerable to political meddling, political interference and pressure of all sorts because we don't have chancellors advocating actively for us and acting as a buffer to protect the campus from these political headwinds,” Smith said. 

‘Ideological agenda’: NC legislature, upper-level leadership interferes with academic freedom

According to Behrent, an “ideological agenda” from the legislature has been imparted upon the UNC System’s academic and research enterprise. 

While the North Carolina legislature has not passed laws which dictate what topics can and cannot be taught in the classroom, Behrent said that it has interfered with scholarly activities on topics that it does not agree with by acting through the Board of Governors and high-level campus leadership.

“[The N.C. legislature gets] how you have to work with the accepted standards in academia, even as they're trying to undermine them,” Behrent said. 

He added that a common theme among these incidents was that the pressure was directed towards “penalizing people who are particularly outspoken” on controversial issues.

Smith, who was met with roadblocks from administrators after creating and attempting to teach a course on college sports history that included content related to UNC-Chapel Hill’s paper class cheating scandal, agreed with Behrent’s characterization of those affected.

“I do think I have a reputation for being one of the squeaky wheels on the campus,” Smith said. “I tend to be outspoken about most controversial issues … I know for a fact that many, many of my colleagues in history and elsewhere tend to think twice before they speak out.”

Smith developed his course because he said there was no academic conversation related to the scandal or “post hoc assessment of how this whole tragedy had happened.” He said that the goal of his class was to teach students about the history of big-time college athletics, and that the cheating scandal was to be taught in that context. His course passed through his department’s and college’s curriculum review committees and was placed on the course catalog. 

The trouble started when it was placed on the schedule for a summer session. 

“The senior associate dean for the social sciences, and then the dean himself … both of them contacted my chair and threatened him with loss of resources and a disinclination to advocate for the interests of the history department if the department scheduled this course,” Smith said. 

“That's mafia tactics,” he added.

Ultimately, Smith was able to teach his course through a combination of a faculty grievance process and going public with what happened to the press. He said that UNC-Chapel Hill administrators denied ever threatening his department chair with withholding of resources. 

“There was an amazing exercise of gaslighting… [We] were able to get this course on the books and I'm still teaching it on a regular basis,” Smith said. “But it came as a shock to many of us, that the administrators could be so brazenly dishonest and show such little integrity.”

The report further asserts that meddling with curricular choices has occurred on a scale beyond restricting specific professor’s courses. The Board of Governors has shut down three policy centers concerning topics such as the environment, poverty and social justice at institutions across the UNC. According to the report, a working group of the Board of Governors recommended these closures due to financial pressures—however, the three centers closed down are privately funded.

The Board of Governors also voted overwhelmingly to bar the Center for Civil Rights at UNC-Chapel Hill from representing new clients in court. The Center for Civil Rights “works to dismantle structural racism” and previously represented clients in civil rights issues. 

Board of Governors members who were opposed to the Center’s activities claimed that it was “improper for faculty members earning salaries from UNC-Chapel Hill to engage in legal

action against other state government entities.” However, the report stated that law schools frequently provide services such as “representing juvenile defendants, assisting low-income taxpayers in disputes with the IRS [and] handling immigration and asylum claims.”

Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill felt that this was a violation of their academic freedom. UNC-Chapel Hill faculty wrote in a resolution that “while it was appropriate” for the Board of Governors “to set general policies, matters of curriculum and student training should be left to faculty.” 

According to the report, some faculty also felt that the ban had racial intent because the Center frequently represented Black, indigenous and other people of color.

Academic interference however, was not limited to putting limits on curricular content. The claims made by the AAUP report cite Nikole-Hannah Jones’ initial denial of tenure by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees. Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, which has been met with criticism from conservatives for its aim to “reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the [United States'] national narrative.”

Generally, the faculty of a university decide who to award tenure to and not its administration, according to Behrent. 

However, in Jones’ case, the Board of Trustees of UNC-Chapel Hill initially stalled the vote to approve her tenure. Despite a majority vote in her favor by the tenure and promotion committee,  Jones was offered an untenured position. 

The AAUP report asserts that this was in part because “conservative groups with ties to the UNC Board of Governors called on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to block her appointment,” and that two state legislatures called on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus chancellor at the time to deny her tenure. 

Kimberly van Noort, senior vice president for academic affairs of the UNC System, wrote in a statement to the AAUP that the report offered a “relentlessly grim portrayal of one of the nation’s strongest, most vibrant and most productive university systems.”

The way forward

This summer, the AAUP will decide whether to impose sanctions against the UNC System for “infringement of governance standards.” A sanction would serve as a public notice that the UNC System has not taken action in response to the AAUP’s investigation. 

If sanctioned, the UNC System would be the only major public university system on the present list

While “change is possible,” Behrent said that it is “difficult for [him] to be optimistic about the situation.” 

According to Behrent, the way forward begins with focusing on what the UNC System has done for North Carolina throughout the years.

“We have to keep in mind that the very institution that so many politicians are intent on bashing has contributed enormously to this state, as similar institutions have throughout the country,” Behrent said. 

Smith offered a more concrete solution—he believes that the way forward is to turn back a law passed in 2016 that removed the governor’s power to appoint board members.

According to Smith, this would reintroduce partisan balance on the boards and ensure that “people are chosen for these positions because they've demonstrated a certain wisdom and knowledge about how universities are supposed to operate.” 

However, he is not optimistic that this will happen in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, Smith believes that persuading campus-level administration to defend the AAUP’s values from political influence would be a step in the right direction.

“Campus administrators in short, I think, need to do their jobs and instead of trying to please the boards. Instead of positioning themselves for mega-salaries, they should advocate for their campuses,” Smith said.

Behrent said that it is important for him and other professors to “listen to the criticism.” While he thinks that things like “ideological overreach” by faculty does sometimes happen, it has been exaggerated by politicians.

“We shouldn't let those criticisms become an excuse to get rid of a model of higher education that has generally worked extraordinarily well,” Behrent said.

He added that in order to keep such a system in place, it is important to stress the value of a “free and democratic educational system” to the political forces that are trying to undermine it.

“If you want a system based on petty self interest and petty authoritarianism, there's plenty of places in the world that you can go to to attend university, but that's not what the American education system is supposed to be about,” Beherent said. 


Adway S. Wadekar | University News Editor

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume. He has also contributed to the sports section.

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