Across the country, public higher education has often been the target of partisan interference. But North Carolina’s university system stands on its own, according to a new report released Thursday by the American Association of University Professors.
The report, written by a special committee, details a series of scandals that have plagued the University of North Carolina over the past decade or so. Some are namesake: Nikole Hannah-Jones. Confederate monument known as Silent Sam. Others are little known outside the state, such as the controversial selection of a former member of the system’s board of directors as the new president of Fayetteville State University.
After examining all of these scandals, the report argues that the UNC system has been substantially disrupted by partisan interference. One Appalachian State University professor interviewed by the committee put it succinctly: “The fish will rot from the head.”
There was “excessive interference by the Council and Board of Directors with specific campus operations,” “complete disregard for the academic governance principles of campus and system leadership,” as well as “institutional racism” and a “hostile climate of academic freedom overall.” system,” the report said. These problems exist elsewhere. However, the “frequency and intensity” of the controversy, combined with the “constant mismanagement” of the system and the campus board, is “unique to UNC.”
A former trustee of the flagship store in Chapel Hill told the committee that the system’s board of governors had received a marching order from the Republican legislature “to address Chapel Hill’s ‘madman.’ … Does the legislature care about institutional damage? Not at all. Do not.”
The system’s chief academic officer, Kimberly van Noort, strongly dismissed the committee’s description. “You relentlessly paint a picture of one of the strongest, most dynamic, and most productive university systems in the United States,” Van Nott said in a letter to the AAUP in March. (A system spokesperson provided van Noort’s comments on chronicle.)
She noted that the system has boosted graduation rates for low-income and minority students over the past few years and secured “substantial pay increases” for faculty and staff in the most recent state budget, among other improvements.
“Your report,” Van Notte wrote, “has no empirical data on the true health of the university system.”
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have often touted their investments in the UNC system, including increased funding for campus infrastructure and an $82.5 million program that would allow in-state students to pay $500 in tuition at the state’s four public universities .
Control the Liberal Party
The recent UNC storyline detailed in the AAUP report is familiar to many scholars: After 2010, when Republicans won majorities in both houses of the state legislature for the first time in more than 100 years, those , lawmakers see an opportunity to rein in “runaway liberalism” within the system.
Their main vehicle for doing this is the University Board of Regents. North Carolina’s legislature elects the 24 voting members of the System Committee, who elect the system president. The system committee, called the Council, also approves the principal of each school district, as well as 8 of each school district’s 13 trustees.
This 36-page AAUP report describes much of UNC’s boardroom drama that has captured national attention over the past decade. In 2015, the board closed three college centers, including the Center on Poverty, Jobs and Opportunity, led by an outspoken critic of the state’s Republican leadership. In 2017, the board barred the Civil Rights Center, which is affiliated with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, from filing lawsuits on behalf of its major low-income clients.
Then in 2021, the system’s board of trustees decided not to appoint another prestigious professor to the UNC Press board, despite having served as board chair for the past six years and has proposed in his favor. Suggest.
The board did not publicly explain why Eric L. Muller was not reappointed, but NC Policy Watch At least some members reportedly took issue with the professor’s public criticism of the board’s handling of issues such as Silent Sam.
Although Mueller told the committee during his tenure on the press committee that “there was never any pressure on the publication program,” he worried that his removal “was more than just shutting up a vocal law professor.”
Governance concerns extend beyond the system’s governing board, the report said. At Appalachian State University, instead of a nationwide search for a new provost, the university’s president appointed an interim provost over objection from faculty, the report said.
Perhaps “the best example of the authoritarian power of ASU is that the university’s general counsel has begun sending ‘cease and desist’ letters to faculty and staff critical of the administration,” the report said.
Spokesperson for Appalachia chronicle Some of the responses the university provided to the AAUP prior to the release of the report were included in the final report. Chancellor Sheri Everts appointed Heather Hulburt Norris as provost “exactly within her legal and policy authority,” the document said. Norris’ “no faculty support” is also “untrue.”
The general counsel’s office issued a cease and desist letter to a faculty member who “communicated threats” to Evertes and Norris, calling them “murderers” and writing “trial imminent.” “This faculty member’s communication goes well beyond simple ‘criticism’ management, even beyond the highly unprofessional.”
Meanwhile, at Fayetteville State, faculty and students were incensed when Darrell T. Allison, the system’s former board member, was elected president. When asked about the state of co-governance at Fayetteville State University, a faculty member retorted to the AAUP committee: “Co-governance? What is that?”
If anything, in order to avoid repetition, the report underestimates the extent to which professors believe the entire UNC system is currently problematic, said Henry Reichman, a member of the AAUP special committee and professor emeritus of history at Cal State East Bay. Overall, morale is low. Most believe the system “desperately needs strong leadership that it doesn’t get,” Reichman said.
Malaise among teachers
The picture painted by the Special Committee is not entirely dark. On the subject of academic freedom, faculty leaders at several campuses say the value of academic freedom is not under threat, at least locally. The chair of East Carolina University’s faculty said she “would wholeheartedly believe” that professors have academic freedom in research and advocacy. “You can have any freedom if you want to stand up,” said another Senate president.
Nonetheless, the committee heard “deep-rooted discomfort” among faculty members, which had “potential implications for academic freedom”.
It’s clear from the report that, as some professors have seen, the saga of Silent Sam and Nicole Hannah-Jones both left lasting bruises that haven’t healed. Faculty and staff from other campuses spoke to the committee citing the two incidents as “shaping their sense of belonging and safety,” the report said.
Almost all of the more than 50 people who spoke to the committee said they were concerned about the system’s ability to retain talented professors, especially those of color. According to Inside Higher Ed, data from the UNC System suggests that employee turnover rose last summer, although system officials have largely blamed the pandemic.
“Everyone I know will leave here at the first opportunity,” a black faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told the committee.
What struck Afshan Jafar, co-chair of the special committee and a professor of sociology at Connecticut College, was how issues of governance, political interference, academic freedom and institutional racism overlap. “Unless system management and leadership understand this and address it comprehensively,” Jafar said in an email, “no race or governance working group will be able to address UNC’s problems.”
Jafar also noted how “relentless” the scandal was. One faculty member interviewed by the committee called UNC a “universal crisis university.”
In his letter to the AAUP, Van Nott acknowledged that North Carolina’s public universities “have challenges and deficiencies.” University leaders don’t shy away from them, she wrote.
She pointed to the report’s assertion that the system “requires strong and independent leadership at all levels” — specifically, leaders who defend academic inquiry and “do more than rhetoric” about notions of fairness. “We fully agree,” Van Notte wrote, “and we believe that any honest examination of the UNC system will reveal many of these leaders.”
People must be free’ to argue for competing visions of the University’s mission, questioning leaders and policymakers. They deserve our attention and thoughtful engagement.
But our harshest critics,” Van Notte wrote, “should not be mistaken for consensus or anything like that. “