Former UNC-CH Chancellor Thorp on the Tenure Process

The Nikole Hannah-Jones debacle at Carolina brought faculty tenure into the national spotlight last year. In this short video, former Chancellor Holden Thorp shares his thoughts on the historical role of the board of trustees in tenure decisions.

While the process for how tenure is awarded is important and has received much air time, there is so much more to know about faculty tenure.  

Join us next Wednesday April 27, 2022 at 3:30 pm for discussion about how and why faculty tenure was created and why it strengthens Carolina.

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Faculty Tenure, Sustainer of Free Speech and More

One of the best-known benefits of faculty tenure is that it protects academic freedom. 

There was a time in this country when educators were restricted in what they could cover in class, speech and writing.  (Think the 1850s when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned for pro-abolitionist views as one example of such a time.) As a result, and out of fear of retribution, faculty stayed away from controversial or questionable topics. Tenure, and the protections it provided, changed that. With tenure, professors could speak freely, write freely, and encourage debate on the controversial or questionable issues of the day.

While the concept of tenure has been around since the founding of Harvard in 1636, modern tenure began to develop in the early 20th century. Tenure especially gained ground in the period around World War I (in part because some professors who criticized that war, or the developments of modern economic systems, lost their jobs).  Over the past century, academic tenure has helped to protect free speech on college campuses, foster research on difficult or controversial subjects, enhance the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms, and strengthen enduring connections between professors and the universities they serve.

Join our discussion about how and why tenure benefits Carolina. Featured speakers are UNC Chapel Hill professors Dr. Karin Pfennig, Dr. Lloyd Kramer, Dr. Patricia Parker, and Dr. Mimi Chapman.

A Welcome Calm at Carolina, but also Evidence of More Political Retribution

The recent success of Carolina’s men’s and women’s basketball teams during March Madness and fewer embarrassing situations involving governance overreach and politicization have provided much needed calm.  We are thankful for this relative calm and hope it continues. But, even in the midst of this calm, we have clear and frequent reminders that we have work to do.  

As the excitement of March Madness took our attention, NC Policy watch published an investigative piece detailing what happened when Professor Eric Muller wasn’t reappointed to the UNC Press board. A member of the UNC Press board says; “We were put in a position where we basically had to accept them [the UNC Board of Governors (BOG)] rejecting the reappointment of our unanimously elected chairman”. The member asked not to be identified because they said they still fear political retribution by members of the conservative-dominated BOG and several Press board members believe that a “culture of intimidation” from the BOG continues to threaten academic freedom across the university system.  

With respect to Professor Muller, here is what the investigative report reveals: 

One member of the press board stated: 

“They never satisfactorily explained the rejection and they refused to publicly debate or vote on the reappointment,” the board member said. “I think everyone on our board knew it was wrong, but we also knew that the harder we fought this, the more damage the Board of Governors could do to the Press. There was a strong chance that other programs and projects we are involved with individually would be targeted in retribution. Eric’s own case proved that and they have shown a willingness to go after people who oppose them time and again for years now.”

Reporter Joe Killian continued:

 “Muller ultimately resigned from the UNC Press Board rather than drag the organization through a grueling public — and possibly legal — fight with the Board of Governors. Policy Watch reached out to Muller for comment for this story. He declined. But UNC Press Board members and academics across the system warned the incident set a worrisome precedent: Conservative political appointees on the system’s governing board could ignore established procedure and assert complete control over groups and processes with which they are meant to share governance with faculty, staff and students.”

Follow this link to read the full investigative report.

Professor Eric Muller has responded to the piece on Twitter with the following statements:

“I was invited to comment for this excellent article on revelations about the process by which the @UNC_System Bd of Governors slapped me down last summer for speaking publicly about the university, race, & law in ways they didn’t like. I declined. But … I’ll say two things here.

First, the professional script in these situations is for the bullied person to emerge saying they’re unfazed, A-OK, and more committed than ever to speaking out. That’s not my script. This episode fazed me. It was very hard & remains so.

This episode demonstrates two critical methods these boards are using to assert control.  One is inaction to the point that a part of the university or university system has no choice but to comply in order to fulfill its mission.  The BOG would not vote on Professor Muller. They simply insisted another name be sent.  When the Chancellor refused to do so, the UNC Press board was in a difficult position: nominate someone else or face the inability to continue with its work. Professor Muller chose to step down.  But he should not have had to make this choice. The BOG should have voted him down if they did not want him in the role in the same way they should’ve voted on Nikole Hannah Jones when her dossier was originally put forward. Yes or No. But don’t hide behind inaction.  

Likewise, these situations send a clear message to faculty not to speak out if you want to be left alone to do the scholarship and service to the University to which they have committed their professional lives. Go along to get along. It is ironic that these same people are worried about speech on campus when their actions squelch it.