AAUP report shows politics threatens academic freedom at UNC

A national organization of university faculty members released a report Thursday criticizing the UNC System, saying it violates standards of shared governance, threatens academic freedom and fosters institutional racism.

“The University of North Carolina system is in trouble, and not the kind of trouble that record enrollments or good rankings can fix,” the report from the American Association of University Professors says. “It is the kind of trouble that festers and spreads.”

The special committee outlined examples of how it says the system is operating under ”pervasive and overtly partisan political control,” with the state legislature “meddling in academic matters for political reasons” through the UNC System Board of Governors.

From the selection of chancellors to decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic to the tenure case for Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC-Chapel Hill, the group cites what it calls the damaging effects of subtle and overt political pressures that faculty have been wary of for years. The report could also have lasting impacts on recruitment and retention of faculty if the AAUP decides to sanction the UNC System in light of this investigation.

In response to the release of this report, the North Carolina Conference of the AAUP held a news conference Thursday at UNC-Chapel Hill to discuss the “mounting political interference at UNC” and what the system can do to address problems.

“The report deals at length with alarming standards of institutional governance, egregious political interference in the university’s mission and troubling threats to academic freedom,” said Michael Behrent, the North Carolina AAUP conference chair.

Professors are particularly concerned by the way in which these problems “undermine the essence of the American ideal of higher education” and exacerbate the problem of institutional racism, Behrent said.

The investigation, which launched in September, was triggered by the hiring and tenure case for Hannah-Jones at UNC-CH, which thrust the university into a national debate about race, politics and academic freedom. However, that problem was “tied to much deeper governance and political issues in the UNC System,” Behrent said.

The AAUP sets national standards and procedures for colleges and universities aimed at maintaining quality in education and academic freedom. It enforces those standards through investigations by special committees.

“The very fact the UNC System came under investigation is a problem,” Behrent said. “What they found, I think, is something that should be a concern to everyone who cares about higher education in North Carolina and beyond.”

UNC Charlotte professor and AAUP leader Nicole Peterson speaks at a press conference highlighting issues of academic freedom and racism at UNC System universities. Kate Murphy kamurphy@newsobserver.com

‘Falling woefully short’

The three main issues are best understood against “the background of political interference that has recently characterized the entire UNC System,” the report says.

Through its interviews, the group says, it found that a new era of the system began in 2010 when Republicans took over the state legislature and sought power through the system’s Board of Governors. State political leaders have historically made board appointments. But after 2010, those appointees were “more uniformly Republican, more interested in the political ideologies of campus actors, and less experienced with higher education than their predecessors,” according to the report.

Governance problems combined with long-standing patterns of institutional racism make the UNC System a “hostile environment for faculty, staff and students of color,” particularly at UNC-CH, according to the report.

“We hope that this report may spur university leadership to action: our interviews suggest that any steps they may currently be taking to address institutional racism are falling woefully short.”

The report was produced by a special committee of AAUP members, led by Nicholas Fleisher, an associate professor of linguistics at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Afshan Jafar, a sociology professor at Connecticut College. Monica Black (University of Tennessee-Knoxville), Emily Houh (University of Cincinnati), Henry Reichman (California State University, East Bay), Charles Toombs (San Diego State University) and Brian Turner (Randolph-Macon College) also served on the committee.

They interviewed more than 50 individuals across the UNC System, including faculty, former campus trustees, administrators and system staff members.

UNC System President Peter Hans, Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC-CH Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek declined to be interviewed for the report.

UNC System response

Kimberly van Noort, UNC System senior vice president for academic affairs, responded to the report on behalf of Ramsey and the system in a letter to the committee Thursday.

Van Noort called the report “disheartening” because it offers a “relentlessly grim portrayal of one of the nation’s strongest, most vibrant, and most productive university systems.”

She acknowledged the system’s challenges and shortcomings, while arguing that the report dismisses the “enormous commitment of public dollars, faculty and staff dedication, and policymaker support for the bipartisan mission of making higher education more widely available in our state.”

Van Noort pointed out how the system has lowered and frozen tuition for students, improved graduation rates among low-income and minority students and made historic investments in its historically minority-serving institutions, with the support of the state legislature. She also mentioned the recruitment of faculty, raises in the recent state budget and securing $2 billion in capital funding for campuses.

Each of those things set North Carolina apart in maintaining “steady, bipartisan support of higher education,” she wrote.

While she said she welcomes criticism and dissenting voices, she argues that these “harshest critics should not be mistaken for anything like a consensus” among the hundreds of thousands of students, faculty and staff in the system.

The UNC-CH campus declined to comment on the report.

University governance issues

The report says the Board of Governors and other administrative bodies are “exerting undue pressure and influence on those below them, often in reports to, or in anticipation of, political interference from the legislature.” And it argues that administrators are intruding into faculty responsibilities.

The report offers examples of how at Appalachian State University, the chancellor took “unilateral action” to appoint the provost, increased enrollment and chose not to attend faculty senate meetings after the group took a vote of no confidence in her.

The report also pointed out the controversial appointment of Fayetteville State University chancellor Darrell Allison, a former member of the Board of Governors who reportedly lacked support from the search committee. It mentions the lack of transparency in the vote to hire Chris Clemens as UNC-CH provost that followed concerns about pressures to appoint the conservative faculty member to the role. And it criticizes the previous East Carolina University and Western Carolina University chancellor searches, particularly referencing interference on campus by former Board of Governors members.

In 2020, the board gave the system president the power to select finalists for chancellor positions over the objections of search committees, which faculty called a “power-grab” at the time.

The “degradation of shared governance” across the UNC System also heightened conflicts between faculty and administration over university responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report says. Faculty and student bodies at universities across the system were consistently at odds with university leaders over policies related to COVID, including vaccinations, testing and in-person classes each semester.

Behrent, the NC AAUP conference chair, told the committee that the “onset of the pandemic precipitated a further loss of campus autonomy and accentuated a trend toward centralized and opaque decision-making by the UNC System and Board of Ggovernors.”

Reluctance to criticize

Faculty leaders at several campuses said professors’ academic freedom for research or advocacy is not at risk. But some faculty members interviewed complained about low morale and a reluctance to publicly criticize their university.

“Where academic freedom has been threatened, the pressure has often been indirect — but chilling nonetheless,” the report says.

In 2015, the Board of Governors closed three university-based centers focused on poverty, the environment and voter engagement. The centers at UNC-CH and N.C. Central University were headed by faculty members who had been vocal critics of state leadership, according to the report. The review for those centers came from the legislature to find cost savings, but the centers were largely privately funded and there was no academic assessment before they were closed, according to the report.

The board also voted to bar campus centers from engaging in litigation, which was targeted at the UNC-CH law school’s center for civil rights, according to the report.

Those actions “not only reinforced institutional racism by denying legitimacy and status to certain kinds of scholars and scholarship but also reinforced structural racism and classism within the state of North Carolina by denying valuable resources to its underserved, underprivileged, and marginalized populations,” the report says.

The report also highlights the board’s refusal to reappoint law professor Eric Muller to the UNC Press Board, which faculty feared was retaliation for him speaking out about issues of race and law within the system and at UNC-CH.

The committee found that while most faculty members enjoy academic freedom, actions by the board and campus administration puts that in “growing jeopardy.”

Institutional racism at UNC

The report points to three key cultural and structural issues in the UNC System related to race:

The racial climate, which the report detailed through the recent controversies of the Silent Sam Confederate statue and tenure case for Hannah-Jones at UNC-CH.

The committee found that a secret $2.5 million deal to give the statue to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which was later overturned by a judge, may have caused irreparable damage to the sense of trust and belonging for people of color.

The tenure case for Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer prize-winning Black journalist, also shed light on political and racial issues on campus. The UNC-CH trustees’ delayed vote on her tenure, the interference by mega-donor Walter Hussman and the way student protesters were treated on campus eventually led her to to turn down the position.

Lack of racial diversity in system and campus leadership because those in power are mostly white and mostly male. The report noted that faculty say there is not equitable access to leadership and promotion opportunities, which limits professional advancement for faculty of color.

The system’s inability to retain talented faculty and staff of color. The report mentioned several examples of actively engaged professors in leadership positions who left UNC-CH and App State.

Those departures are in part fueled by a “culture of exclusion, a lack of transparency and inclusion in decision-making, the chilling of academic freedom, discounting certain kinds of scholarship and teaching and the constant threat of political interference,” according to the report.

At the press conference, Nicole Peterson, associate professor of anthropology at UNC Charlotte, shared how her colleagues have experienced “deferential treatment” because of the color of their skin.

“They see fewer opportunities to advance in their careers, weaker support for their research and teaching, less recognition for their expertise and lower salaries,” Peterson said.

The silence of leaders around racist behaviors, including the Hannah-Jones tenure case, condones racism, Peterson said. And it has led many exceptional people to leave UNC System campuses, she said.

Institutions across the nation are confronting similar issues, but the committee found the UNC System leadership’s “consistent mishandling — and exacerbation of — race-related issues” alarming.

The system is working toward acknowledging and fixing some of these issues through its Racial Equity Task Force, which was created in 2020. The task force has published two reports with recommendations and 28 action steps that campuses are implementing.

The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. LEONARD ORTIZ KRT

UNC could be sanctioned

This investigative report will now go to the governing body of the AAUP, which will take action.

The group could recommend that the UNC System be sanctioned, joining a list of other mostly small, private institutions.

Behrent said this is a rare occurrence, but likely in this case.

There is already concern about an exodus of faculty and this sanction could pose recruitment challenges for the system that could negatively impact not only reputation but also the quality of its degrees, he said.

Behrent offered a solution that he says would make things better in the long term: organizing workers.

While professors and other public workers in North Carolina workers cannot legally sign an enforceable collective bargaining agreement, they can unionize and negotiate with their employer for fair wages, benefits and working conditions. The AAUP can help them do that, Behrent said.

Leadership can change things

The report detailed “patterns of political interference by the North Carolina legislature into the administration of the UNC system, overreach by the board of governors and boards of trustees into specific campus operations, outright disregard for principles of academic governance by campus and system leadership, institutional racism, and a hostile climate for academic freedom across the system.”

While some of these issues reflect national trends, the mismanagement and “frequency and intensity of controversies” is unique to UNC, according to the report.

The AAUP proposed a solution that involves “strong and independent leadership at all levels” that respects and defers to the faculty, protects and defends academic freedom through political pressure and embraces equity beyond lip service.

The report suggests looking at the recommendations, like those from the system’s Racial Equity Task Force, and following through on suggested actions that have not been taken. But, for Peterson, it comes down to understanding who represents the students and faculty in positions of power.

W need to have a “group of people making those decisions” who look like those they are serving and can represent all the interests of the state, she said.

This story was originally published April 28, 2022 9:56 AM.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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