Supporting Institutional Neutrality and Student Success

On Thursday 23 May, the UNC Board of Governors voted 22-2 to replace the Regulation on Diversity and Inclusion (§300.8.5) of the UNC System Policy Manual and Code.  The new Regulation aims to strike a balance between what is referred to—in this Regulation and in contemporary discussions—as institutional neutrality, on one hand, and academic freedom and freedom of speech on the other.  The need to achieve a reasonable and proper balance between these principles is not new.  The new Regulation has been drafted in response to G.S.§116-300, which is new.  Indeed, G.S.§116-300 reaffirms statutes and freedoms already enshrined in state and federal law, including the Constitution of the United States.  One novel departure is clause (3a), which states: “The constituent institution shall remain neutral, as an institution, on the political controversies of the day.”

Institutional neutrality is championed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which offers this definition: “Institutional Neutrality is the idea that colleges and universities should not, as institutions, take positions on social and political issues unless those issues ‘threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.’ ”  FIRE’s definition is grounded in the Kalven Report, which states: “These extraordinary instances apart [identified just below], there emerges, as we see it, a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.”

Understood properly, institutional neutrality is sensible, especially for public institutions such as those comprising the UNC System.  However, clause (3a) omits crucial circumstances where a university may take a position on social or political issues.  Indeed, the Kalven Report states that the university has an obligation to do so: “From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.  In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.”  These cases are rare, but not singular.  The very topic of the limits or restrictions of speech on campus is both a political controversy of the day and one whose outcome substantially impacts the functioning of the UNC institutions.  Note that FIRE recognizes the same exception where “those issues ‘threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.’ ” 

For G.S.§116-300 to respect these established facts and parameters about freedom of speech, clause (3a) should state, “The constituent institution shall remain neutral, as an institution, on the political controversies of the day, except where it is necessary to protect the functioning or mission of the constituent institution or the values of free inquiry” or words having those effects.  While it is not the purview of the Board of Governors to amend legislation enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly, the Board is in a position to communicate the omission in clause (3a) to the North Carolina General Assembly for a friendly amendment.  In anticipation of that friendly amendment, the Board of Governors should swiftly amend §300.8.5 of the UNC System Policy Manual to reflect the exception recognized by FIRE and in the Kalven Report.

This omission has one other consequence.  Section VII of the newly adopted §300.8.5 overlooks the important exception of protecting or fulfilling the mission of the university.  As stated in G.S.§116-1, the mission of the UNC System “is to discover, create, transmit, and apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society.”  G.S.§116-1 also states that “Teaching and learning constitute the primary service that the university renders to society.”  Student success—that is, successful teaching and learning—depends on students feeling that they belong at the institution they attend.  One component is the assurance that their persons and viewpoints will be treated equally.  Sections I–V of the newly adopted §300.8.5 encode that.  Another component is the assurance that the constituent institution they attend is a supportive and welcoming place for all learners.  That assurance is accomplished through various expertly led programs at constituent institutions.  While it may be that certain changes will be necessary in order for UNC institutions to maintain institutional neutrality, these activities are overlooked in Section VII of the newly adopted §300.8.5 of the UNC System Policy Manual, which should also be swiftly amended accordingly. 

Division Over UNC Protest Reflects Damage from Legislative Interference

The UNC campus and the larger Carolina community are deeply divided over the pro-Palestinian protests on campus and the administration’s response.

This is a time when our university needs experienced leadership, constructive dialogue and a free exchange of ideas and information. It is a time when North Carolina needs UNC to provide education, promote understanding and bring people together – not drive them farther apart.

But sadly, UNC cannot do that today in the way it has throughout our history. That is the direct result of years of legislative interference in campus operations.

The Coalition for Carolina was formed two years ago to push back against that interference. Events of recent days tell us that we’re right. And that we must keep working.

We are well aware that members of our coalition have divergent opinions about what has happened. Many sympathize with the protesters’ concern over civilian deaths in Gaza. Many others are deeply offended by reports of antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric. Many, maybe most, share both sentiments.

Many are disappointed by Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts’ decision to call in armed police who, according to media on the scene, used force and pepper spray to disperse the protesters.

Many applaud Roberts for that action and for lowering the Palestinian flag and raising the American flag.

The top leaders of the state legislature – Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore – said afterward that Roberts should be appointed permanent chancellor.

After the flag incident, Roberts said UNC belongs to “every citizen of North Carolina.”

To us, that is precisely the point. The current UNC Board of Trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors don’t represent all the people of North Carolina. They are appointed by a legislature which stripped the governor of the other party of any appointments.

We believe that – especially in a state as closely divided along partisan and ideological lines as North Carolina – a broad range of viewpoints should be represented on universities’ governing boards.

As former UNC System President Tom Ross said recently, “a lack of diversity among university leadership and governance boards is both a disservice to students across the UNC System and leads to the controversy and volatility that we are seeing threaten our public universities.”

The Problems of Politics  

Three realities that relate to political interference shape the current campus situation:

Administrative Churn

We have a relatively new provost, a huge percentage of deans who have been in role less than three years, with two more experienced deans on their way out the door, and now an interim chancellor who has had little time to build up relationships across campus that can help in times of crisis.

Indeed, we are hearing that next to no consultation with faculty occurred before police were called to campus and that trustees were in South Building urging Roberts to call in the police.

Chilled Faculty Speech

Even before the Silent Sam debacle, faculty have been punished for speaking out on issues. Remember, people can be punished without losing their professorships. Leadership positions can be taken away or withheld and, indeed they have been. We’ve reported on several such instances, as have other outlets. In a situation as difficult as this current crisis, faculty, staff, and students need to know they can speak, teach, and discuss without fear of reprisal.

Neutered institutional speech

With the adoption of the Kalven report a little over a year ago, leaders including chancellors, provosts, and deans are prevented from speaking out on “the issues of the day.” This report, created by seven professors at the University of Chicago in 1967 and not seen again until a year ago when it was resurrected by right-wing think tanks, effectively makes leaders into managers, keeping them from providing moral leadership to a campus and setting a tone for how an institution will approach difficult national or international events.

Of course, all issues of discourse were to be solved by the much-hyped and politically motivated School of Civic Life and Leadership. We’ve seen hide nor hair of them in the current crisis. 

Reporting From the Scene

Student journalists at The Daily Tar Heel were at the protesters’ encampment and during the police action. Two DTH editors talked about what they saw and heard in this segment of WUNC Radio’s “Due South” program: https://www.wunc.org/show/due-south/2024-05-01/unc-chapel-hill-pro-palestinian-protests-student-journalists

We believe it’s important for all of us to seek objective, first-hand information, rather than depending on hearsay and second- or third-hand reports that might reflect biases one way or the other.

UNC’s Voices Are Needed Today

To be sure, educational conversations that engage people’s strongly held beliefs and identities will ever be easy. But our campus has so much expertise both in the substantive issues related to the war in Gaza and in adjacent issues such as diplomacy, international law, Middle Eastern history and politics…the list is endless.

We need a larger effort to engage our campus around the educational aspects of this terrible crisis in the Middle East.

Today we see too much darkness and division, not Lux Libertas – light and liberty.

We hope the experience of recent days will awaken more people to the need for governance reform – and an end to interference.

The future of UNC depends on it.

We will keep working toward that goal.

Gratitude

Dear Coalition of Carolina Supporters,


We hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits.

On behalf of entire Coalition, we want to express our deepest gratitude for your steadfast support of our mission to defend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from partisan interference. Your commitment to the principles of Lux Libertas, open inquiry, free speech, equity, and inclusion is truly commendable. Thanks to your generosity, we have expanded our reach and influence, growing our community to over 25,000 dedicated supporters.

Over the past two years, our online initiatives have resonated with a wide audience, reaching more than 2.6 million individuals who engaged with our messaging and content over 625,000 times. The impact of our efforts has only intensified in the past 10.5 months. So far this year, our content has reached an impressive 1,228,930 people, resulting in 459,711 engagements. This significant increase has driven our engagement rate from 24% on average to an outstanding 38% year-to-date.

These statistics underscore the vital importance of our collective endeavors to shine a light on partisan interference and governance overreach that has detrimentally affected our beloved Carolina. Your financial support, outreach to legislators, trustees, and members of the Board of Governors have played a pivotal role in our ability to champion the University’s promise.

As we reflect on the past year, we recognize that none of our achievements would have been possible without your continued support. Your dedication fuels our advocacy, and we are truly grateful for the impact we’ve been able to make together.

In this Thanksgiving season, we want to take this opportunity to express our heartfelt thanks for your ongoing commitment to Carolina. Your belief in our cause is instrumental, and we are fortunate to have you as a vital member of our community.

We wish you and your loved ones a joyous Thanksgiving filled with warmth and gratitude.

Hark the Sound!

With sincere appreciation,

Roger Perry, Mimi Chapman, and Joyce Fitzpatrick

Other Important News: While much has been written about Chancellor Guskiewicz’s potential departure from Carolina, we share the following two pieces with you as must reads:

A New Assault on Carolina is Happening

We are seeing signs of a more extreme political assault against UNC – and indeed all of higher education.


Trustees Welcome a Harsh Critic

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow from the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, spoke last week to the external affairs committee of the UNC Board of Trustees. She told the trustees that eliminating affirmative action “will greatly improve the ability of UNC to fulfill its mission of knowledge. What you must understand, if I may be so bold as to say so, is that racial preferences harm their alleged beneficiaries.”

She claimed that affirmative action had led universities to admit unqualified and ill-prepared students – a charge that was immediately countered by a trustee, the Chancellor and the student body president.

Here is a fact check about the most recent UNC-CH 4-year and 6-year graduation rates:

  • Overall student body: 83% (4-year); and 92% (6-year); 
  • Underrepresented students: 77% (4-year); and 90% (6-year);
  • First generation college students: 77% (4-year); and 89% (6-year).

Most institutions would be thrilled to have our 4-year graduation rates as their 6-year rates. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told Mac Donald, “There’s one thing I just want to be clear about, and that is that every student at Carolina has earned their way to Carolina.”

Trustee Ralph Meekins said, “UNC was not admitting students that were not qualified.”

Student body President Christopher Everett, an ex-officio member of the Board of Trustees, responded to Mac Donald at the full board meeting the next day.

He showed slides highlighting several campus leaders and successful students who are students of color.

“The individuals that I just shared with you all are nothing less than extraordinary, and we earned our spots at Carolina, not because of the color of our skin, but because of the contents of our hearts and the will to make our university a better place,” Everett said. “We are not average. We don’t need handouts. And we definitely did not flunk out when we came to Carolina.”

Korie Dean reported in The News & Observer, “Everett said he hoped the board, when making decisions about guest speakers in the future, would see him and the other students he presented and choose speakers who did not ‘question our worth.’ Everett’s remarks were met with hefty applause from meeting attendees.”

We at the Coalition for Carolina whole-heartedly agree.

Read Dean’s story here: https://www.newsobserver.com/article281684893.html#storylink=cpy

Watch Mac Donald’s presentation to the trustees here: https://www.youtube.com/live/ichgkU_a4Bw?si=hvlVy4v8zWTiCzsV

We don’t know who invited Mac Donald to the committee, but Ramsey White is the committee chair. Mac Donald was introduced by Doug Monroe, acting president of the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance.

The Alliance had hosted Mac Donald the night before, where she delivered a wide-ranging and free-wheeling attack on higher education. We respect her right to speak, even as we disagree. Here are highlights from her speech:

  • Many Black students are not up to the challenge, but universities are so “desperate to get their numbers of Black students up, even if doing so imposed a terrible handicap on those students”.
  • Admissions screening for resilience, leadership and community involvement is “preposterous and condescending” and that “no admissions officer has the capacity to evaluate.”
  • University leaders “are committed to a victimhood narrative.”
  • She attacked what she labeled as “the diversity/DEI bureaucracy” on campuses.
  • She attacked female campus leadership because “females way, way outscore on the trait of neuroticism”.
  • She says that not everyone needs to go to a four-year college and proposed that colleges may be able to cut enrollment by as much as 90%.
  • She mocked majors such as marketing. “Are you kidding? You should be reading Aeschylus, you idiot.” (Note: We are all for Aeschylus, but the University is a big tent able to accommodate study of ancient Greece and modern business.)
  • She concluded with her wish that UNC be reformed to conform to her ideology, but believes today’s universities are “irredeemable.” “It is hard to start a new institution that has that prestige…that’s why I like the re-founding idea of UPenn so much because you’ve got the legacy prestige, but you’re starting out on better principles… maybe UNC will give me reason for hope.” We certainly hope not.

Watch her talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twexKz0fT-s


The National Right-Wing Attack

In an article posted Thursday by Inside Higher Ed, “The Right-Wing Attack on Academia, With a Totalitarian Twist,” John K. Wilson writes:

“Today, conservative activists will launch a public campaign to enact new model legislation called the General Education Act. Behind this bland name is a proposal for the most radical assault on faculty and academic freedom in American history. If the model legislation were to be enacted, lawmakers would force public colleges to adopt a uniform general education curriculum devoted to conservative values, give a new dean near-total power to hire all faculty to teach these classes and then require the firing of many existing faculty members in the humanities and social sciences, including tenured professors.

“The GEA’s extreme ideas are not the babblings of some obscure blogger. They are a joint proposal from three leading conservative groups—the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and the National Association of Scholars.”

Read Wilson’s article here: https://www.insidehighered.com/opinion/views/2023/11/16/new-front-right-wing-attack-academia-opinion


Where We Stand

At the Coalition for Carolina we believe a diverse Carolina is a strong Carolina and that all students, faculty, and staff from all background belong here. Our mission is to monitor these continued attacks, get out the facts and mobilize our 25,000-plus followers to support the University.

We’ll keep doing that.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Educate yourself. Watch Mac Donald’s presentations and read Wilson’s article.
  • Share your concerns with friends, colleagues and leaders.
  • Email, write and call UNC trustees and legislators.

Tell them to keep Carolina a place where discovery and education are paramount and political agendas are left at the door.

No Joking Matter, Mr. Speaker

As UNC students were being removed from the North Carolina House gallery last week for protesting against gun violence, Speaker Tim Moore laughed, joked that the protesters must secretly be Duke students and quipped; “This is not a pep rally.”  

They know that, Mr. Speaker.

The next day, the campus was on lockdown again. Another man with a gun was on campus. Students hid under desks, and faculty and staff sequestered in dark offices to the sound of sirens and helicopters.  

Speaker Moore’s response? He questioned why the campus is a gun-free zone.

“You’re not just going to snap your fingers and get rid of guns,” he said. “That’s not reality; criminals are going to have guns. And the best deterrent against a criminal with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

More guns and more jokes are not what we need, Mr. Speaker.

As we went on lockdown for the second time this month, we wondered: Would another member of the Carolina family be dead? Should we expect copycats or clusters? Are we doing better in our preparation than we were two weeks ago? Is this how we live on this campus?

Some of us have been with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz during these terrible and terrifying moments. He feels the impact deeply. He knows how these incidents compromise the work of this institution and the well-being of those who work, live and study here.

He takes calls from worried parents, provides counseling resources for the campus and sits with grieving families.

Speaker Moore, you are supposed to represent every North Carolinian, not just those who agree with you on policy issues. Students were asking for action that ensures their safety on campus. That is no joking matter.

The Chancellor met the test of leadership. Speaker Moore failed it.

Texas A&M Shares UNC’s Shame

Dr. Mimi Chapman is a professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. She joined the faculty in 2001 and was Chair of the Faculty from 2020 to 2023. She is a co-founder of the Coalition for Carolina.

As a frequent flyer, I’m well-versed in the virtues of various airlines. I’m an expert packer, ready to fly on a dime. Before the pandemic, I was on a plane twice a month or more, sometimes heading a few states over and sometimes to the other side of the world. Our family portfolio includes airline stock, so I keep up with the industry’s ups and downs. 

But never, even if I flew my own plane, would I call the airlines and tell them how to hire, fire, recruit, promote, assign and evaluate their pilots.

Yet, that is exactly what is happening in public higher education. Now, Texas A&M has joined UNC in the academic hall of shame. Just like here two years ago, a Black female journalist was recruited, then given the bait-and-switch to a much less stable employment status.

In the summer of 2021, I was finishing the first year of a three-year term as Chair of the Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill.  Pockets of post-pandemic normalcy were springing up: small indoor dinner parties, an occasional in-person meeting.

As someone who read The 1619 Project cover to cover when it first appeared in The New York Times Magazine, I was delighted to learn that Nikole Hannah-Jones would be joining our faculty.

In April, we heard that she would join us on a five-year, fixed-term contract. But in May, I learned that the situation was more complicated; she’d been approved by the faculty for tenure, but she couldn’t get a vote from our Board of Trustees, and therefore her offer had been changed from tenured to fixed-term.

Kathleen O. McElroy’s situation at Texas A&M is all too similar. A Black woman, a thought leader, a professor of journalism and media, writing in national publications about her views and scholarship, receives an offer inviting her to contribute to a program where she had come of age and launched her own career.

Student makes good, wants to give back to the place that gave them their start. An advancement officer’s dream. A feel-good story all around. Indeed, all of us get excited when thought leaders such as Hannah-Jones or Frank Bruni – who joined the university-that-shall-not-be-named down the road – join the academy.

I was more than a little starstruck thinking Hannah-Jones would be a colleague. Maybe we’d get to be friends? Gossip over drinks at the Carolina Inn? Would some stardust rub off?

But, behind the scenes, other actors were at work. Our trustees took the heat, but pressures came from interest groups, legislators and donors – all of whom believed they should have a say in how our campus does its work.

As I told our trustees at the time, the processes by which tenured or tenure-track faculty are hired are rigorous. They take hours of painstaking work. I calculated 170 hours for any one tenure decision, and that’s likely an undercount.

Reading of the trials of Professor McElroy, that difficult summer floods back: the hope, frustration and then disappointment. Students and faculty alike mobilized. The campus spoke with one voice. We moved the needle, and we were able to get Ms. Hannah-Jones the positive tenure vote she deserved. She chose not to accept it.

Seeing this again at Texas A&M fills me with sorrow. These women made plans. Resigned other positions. Prepared their homes for sale. Looked for new places to live. They were considering schools for children, saying good-bye to colleagues and friends in places they’d called home. They were excited about a new venture, a chance for a new kind of creativity in their work. Their partners or spouses were reorienting, supporting these smart, powerful women they love.

I wonder about people who demand that someone not be tenured or hired because their scholarship makes someone else uncomfortable. Do they stop to think of the human toll? Do they recognize that these women are not objects to grace the conference room table, but are accomplished people, with lives to manage and contributions to make?

Professor McElroy decided to return to her work at UT-Austin. She’s grateful, I’m sure, but perhaps also awkward. Do her colleagues at UT believe she no longer wants to be there? Will she feel at home again? What if UT hadn’t welcomed her back?

If the individuals who treated these women this way were treated the same way, I’ll bet that a river of grievance and head-rolling would roar down like a waterfall.

At UNC, the Hannah-Jones situation was not our first or last rodeo with outside political interference. They come fast and furious, sometimes bursting onto public view and always eroding campus morale.

We are hardly alone. Texas, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee: the list of public higher education institutions under fire becomes longer by the day. But these controversies are not just headlines. The costs to the individuals involved – and to all of us – are steep.

The United States has the greatest university system in the world, responsible for scientific, artistic and economic advancement across generations. We know how to fly the plane, thank you. If you’re unhappy, let’s talk about it. If you don’t like the airline, choose a different one.

But unless you want me to pick your pilots, let faculty and administrators hire professors.

Dr. Mimi Chapman

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Related News:

In alarming and related news, Joy Alonzo, an expert on the opioid epidemic and a professor in Texas A&M University’s Department of Pharmacy Practice, was recently placed on administrative leave and investigated simply for raising questions about the political interference in higher education. 

Follow this link to read more about this incredibly chilling and horrific situation.

Defending Carolina’s priceless gem, Part 3 of 3

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third installment of a three-part essay by Lloyd Kramer, a professor of history and former Chair of the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he has been a faculty member since 1986. You can access parts 1 and 2 at the links below:

Affirming Academic Freedom at the Nation’s First Public University

Some academic colleagues and some critics outside the university argue that professors would be more respected or supported in the wider society if they remained silent or simply spoke quietly to members of the legislature and governing Boards.

Critics of the recent UNC faculty letter, for example, argue that legislative and Board interventions are mainly taking place because our university’s governing officials believe that institutional neutrality has given way to liberal ideological conformity. The outside interventions, in this view, would mostly disappear if the faculty adhered more closely to what key state leaders envision as the educational purpose of the university.

The Justification for Faculty Action

People within universities have obligations to look for the truth and to teach accurate information, yet they also have the right to interpret that information in new ways.  This search for knowledge inevitably reveals complex information and creates debates about disconcerting truths that some powerful people dislike (the realities of climate change, for example, or the effectiveness of vaccines or the history of systemic racism or the anti-democratic meanings of election denialism).

Our knowledge is always moving in new directions, and people on all sides of the political spectrum are tempted to denounce scholars as “ideological” whenever they describe new knowledge that challenges widespread beliefs. There would be no reason for outside interventions if academic institutions could assure state leaders that the ideas of their faculty and students generally converged with the main beliefs of governing officials.

In the real world of academic life, however, professors and students often express ideas or pursue actions that some influential officeholders view as objectionable or one-sided, so critics of the university have decided that outside interventions are needed to correct academic imbalances and fix political problems.

Has the faculty letter therefore exacerbated a conflict that would go away if professors would stop speaking out or if they would change their behavior? This is the kind of question that Martin Luther King, Jr., eloquently addressed in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after he was arrested in April 1963 for leading Civil Rights protests in Alabama.

Blaming People Who Protest for Causing the Actions They Dislike 

Birmingham’s city government and police forces were violently repressing the advocates for racial equality, and some local clergymen stated publicly that while the police interventions were regrettable, they would likely cease if the protestors reduced their public marching and stopped speaking in such challenging language.

The pastors suggested, in other words, that the protestors contributed to repressive public actions because they were pursuing actions that most of the state’s governing leaders disliked.

The significance of a faculty statement about academic freedom is by no means equivalent to King’s “Birmingham Letter,” but King responded to the pastors with insights that might offer useful perspectives for those who question the UNC faculty’s critical response to the legislative and Board divergence from the modern university principles of shared governance.

“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension,” King wrote to his critics. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with…. In your statement” King continued, “you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion?…  Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?”

Every strategic action carries risks.  But I think that almost 700 UNC faculty signed a recent letter opposing legislative and BOG/BOT campaigns to reshape their university because they see that the interventions continue to expand.

If silence is the only way to reduce or stop these interventions, then we need to ask if this strategy could become the faculty’s own version of academic hemlock.

Although no public statement can include all the nuances that may be needed to explain complex issues, I joined numerous UNC colleagues in signing the recent faculty letter because such statements offer an important (though modest) strategic action for defending the public value and cultural traditions of academic freedom.

By Lloyd Kramer

OTHER NEWS

Higher Ed Works:

Charlotte Observer:

Daily Tar Heel

Defending Carolina’s Priceless Gem – Part 1 of 3

Part 1 – Academic Freedom is the Foundation for Great Universities

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first installment of a three-part essay by Lloyd Kramer, a professor of history and former Chair of the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he has been a faculty member since 1986. This piece was first published by Higher Ed Works.  We have been granted permission to republish it in entirety.

Almost 700 faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill signed a statement in late April to express their opposition to recent actions of UNC’s governing boards and to recent legislative proposals in the North Carolina General Assembly. 

Some skeptical colleagues have questioned the rationale for this statement, and critics outside the university have asked why professors in Chapel Hill are so concerned about policies that seek to reshape the culture and faculty influence within a public university that serves people throughout our state and far beyond North Carolina. 

Are close-minded professors simply refusing to listen to North Carolinians whose beliefs may differ from their own ideas? 

Why did UNC Faculty Write and Sign a Letter?

I am one of the professors who signed the statement, so I would like to offer my perspectives in a three-part discussion of why the letter became timely and important for many of my colleagues who work and teach at our state’s outstanding public university.

As a longtime faculty member and a former chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council, I have often gained valuable insights from my conversations with members of our Board of Trustees, so my concerns about the actions of UNC’s governing boards and legislative leaders do not come from personal conflicts with any specific individuals. 

I nevertheless disagree with evolving structural changes in the traditions of shared governance at the University, and my critiques of recent interventions reflect my belief that the UNC faculty must expand our dialogue with both our own Board of Trustees (BOT) and with the Board of Governors (BOG). 

The recent faculty statement is thus part of an ongoing effort to sustain this dialogue, to affirm the value of academic freedom, to protect UNC’s national stature, and to continue the best possible institutional service to North Carolinians.

Faculty members from every school of the university (including more than 220 from the Schools of Medicine and Public Health) signed this public letter, which expressed broad concerns about threats to the principle of academic freedom. 

More specifically, the letter (1) opposed a legislative bill that would eliminate tenure in state universities; (2) criticized another bill that would create a state-mandated graduation requirement for a course on American history/government (with a list of required readings); (3) challenged the BOG’s restrictions on various strategies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion; and (4) stressed that BOT and legislative interventions to establish a School of Civic Life and Leadership violate long-established academic traditions of faculty governance. 

In the view of most faculty who signed the letter, such interventions in the university’s internal management of academic affairs have become part of an ongoing transformation of academic freedom that seeks to limit the faculty’s control over decisions about professional expertise, academic curricula, hiring processes, and the creation of academic departments or teaching-research programs.

The Mission and Achievements of the Nation’s First Public University

Like most of my colleagues across the whole university, I am deeply committed to the mission and achievements of UNC as key components of education and democracy in our state. 

I have therefore always appreciated the statewide support for our excellent university system as well as the opportunity to serve on UNC’s faculty for more than 35 years. But I also appreciate how the struggle to establish and protect academic freedom has required a long-developing, endless campaign in our state and university.

The current faculty continue to build on (and benefit from) 20th-century efforts to establish tenure and academic freedom, so I signed the letter because of the past history of attacks on academic freedom, the present-day attacks which are linked to that history, and the responsibility we have to pass these freedoms on to future faculty and students at UNC.

As 21st-century faculty members, we are like runners in a long academic race, who have been given the vulnerable baton of academic freedom by our predecessors and who must carry this baton toward the next generation in the ongoing campaign for a democratic society. 

It is not simply a historical coincidence that authoritarian regimes always deny academic freedom and remove dissenting faculty from their universities.  Academic freedom is one of the foundations of a democratic society. 

In our state and elsewhere, the legislative campaign to control what can or should be taught about history or gender or racial identities is now spreading from K-12 education into the governance of our public universities. There is a long history of such interventions, however, and the troubling legacy of that history remains important for every teacher who seeks to defend public education in our own era. 

By Lloyd Kramer – Professor of History, UNC Chapel Hill


In other news, The Assembly reports on what might be a case of right-wing retribution at UNC Wilmington for someone who told the truth.

“Van Dempsey knew that talking to the press about what he described as a directive from his chancellor to give a big university award for education to a conservative could cost him.

The Dean of the Watson College of Education at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) put both the school leadership and a member of the Board of Governors on blast earlier this month for both the award and the response to protests over it. 

He was right. Dempsey was removed as dean Monday.”

Follow this link to read more.

Coalition Survey Results

We wanted to know what you think about what’s going on at the University of North Carolina. So, we asked you.

Almost 500 of you – 486, to be exact – responded to our online survey last month. Here is what you told us:

  • You see an inherent value in pursuing higher education, and you are extremely positive toward UNC.
  • You have deep-seated belief that the state legislature is having a negative impact on the UNC system.
  • You believe that professors, faculty, and administration – not politicians – should have the greater role in deciding public university curriculum.
  • You are paying attention to recent debates involving UNC, and you recognize the importance of our coalition.
  • A significant number of you are willing to take action in support of our university and our coalition.

We were struck by your high degree of interest and concern. The poll was lengthy – 33 questions, many with multiple parts. Despite the length, nearly every person who started the survey completed all the questions.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll share more insights from the survey with you.

The Truth Matters

Once again, some members of the UNC Board of Trustees aren’t shooting straight with the University community.

This time, it’s about origins of the ideologically driven “School of Civic Life and Leadership” that the trustees rammed through – with the support of politicians in the state legislature – without informing and adequately consulting the University’s faculty and administration.

Trustee Perrin W. Jones from Greenville has twice written articles, the latest on May 22, claiming that the idea for the new school “goes back years—and has involved faculty input from the beginning.” (Link below.)

That is what Abraham Lincoln once called “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse.”

Here is what really happened.

Beginning in 2017, then-Chancellor Carol Folt and others at the University initiated discussions about a proposed “Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse.”

But early conversations suggested that the goal was to create a new, donor-funded center that would explicitly embrace political, right wing ideas. Many faculty members strongly and vocally opposed that.

In 2019, Interim Dean Terry Ellen Rhodes announced the establishment of the Program for Public Discourse in the College of Arts & Sciences, to bring in various speakers and offer students a forum for debate.

Some faculty members still had questions and concerns, and a resolution to delay implementation of the program was presented to the Faculty Council.

The resolution failed, but that vote certainly didn’t represent faculty endorsement of the program. And the faculty clearly never endorsed creating a course-offering, degree-granting entity like the School of Civic Life and Leadership.

It certainly isn’t right to claim that what the faculty did then is an endorsement of what the trustees are doing now.

David Boliek, chair of the trustees, made clear the political purpose of the School of Civic Life and Leadership when he was interviewed on Fox News in February, introduced as someone “who helped create the school.”

He acknowledged “we have world-class faculty” at Carolina, but added, “We however have no shortage of left-of-center or progressive views on campus, like many campuses across the nation. But the same really can’t be said about right-of-center views. So this is an effort to try to remedy that.”

Now, legislators want to spend $2 million in taxpayer money on the school in each of the next two years – to promote “right-of-center” viewpoints.

Trustees and legislators shouldn’t be creating new degree programs and deciding what is taught at public universities like UNC, especially if the motivation is purely political. Whatever motivated the board of trustees, the process they deployed wound up shutting out the faculty and administration.

Further, we don’t know if a Faculty and Administration designed and implemented School of Civic Life and Leadership is a good idea or not.  Certainly, if its purpose is to promote a particular political agenda and viewpoint it is not.

Faculty members are reliable, professional and have been proven leaders for decades.  That is a major reason that Carolina is great. Any new program must include the faculty and administration from the beginning.

That didn’t happen here.

No “specious and fantastic arrangement of words” can prove this horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse.

Jones article: https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2023/05/the-true-story-of-unc-chapel-hills-new-school/

Watch the Boliek interview on our March 2 post: https://coalitionforcarolinafoundation.org/the-gop-playbook-for-intervening-in-higher-education/