There's something VERY troubling in the UNC System

Published May 26, 2022

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael C. Behrent, Appalachian State University, is President, North Carolina American Association of University Professors Conference. Jay M. Smith of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, is Vice President of the UNC-CH AAUP Chapter.

The word is out: There’s a truly troubling situation in the University of North Carolina System. This isn’t just the view of a few whiny professors and student radicals.

The trouble is the subject of a major report, just released by the academic profession’s national organization. It calls attention to alarming trends in the UNC System relating to governance and academic freedom, as well as to a toxic climate of institutional racism.

Because of this report, the UNC System may well face a national sanction. This would tarnish the reputation of the system, its 17 campuses and the degrees it offers.   For this distinction, North Carolinians can thank years of mismanagement by the General Assembly, the Board of Governors, campus boards of trustees and dozens of spineless university administrators.

The report, written by an investigating committee of the American Association of University Professors, calls attention to a pattern of political interference that has affected all levels of the UNC System.

The core problem is that the General Assembly has given itself exclusive power to choose the System’s main governing body, the Board of Governors, allowing it to micromanage the constituent institutions. In particular, the report cites troubling governance patterns at Appalachian State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University and Western Carolina University.  The report cites several instances in which significant appointments (with lucrative, taxpayer funded salaries) were made without national searches and awarded to individuals with few qualifications besides partisan loyalty. An institution dedicated to education and the pursuit of knowledge is being undermined by willful partisanship.

The report also found that actions by the UNC System’s governing boards and campus administrations have placed academic freedom in “growing jeopardy.” But perhaps the report’s key finding was that institutional racism is alive and well at the University of North Carolina — and promoted by its leadership.

The report details the way in which UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees interfered with the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a prominent journalist associated with the 1619 Project. The ham-fisted way in which the board undermined her appointment made it clear that it was prepared to apply ideological litmus tests to faculty appointments. The world is full of undemocratic regimes that use education to inculcate ideology rather than learning.  Thanks to the UNC System’s leadership, North Carolina has moved in that direction.

The AAUP helped establish the model of higher education that has made American universities the envy of the world. The principle of shared governance does not mean that professors run universities. Rather, it means that the professionals upon whom the university depends should be consulted in major decisions to ensure that institutions remain focused on their academic mission.  Without shared governance, universities can be manipulated to serve narrow partisan interests.

Similarly, academic freedom ensures that faculty cannot be punished for teaching and researching controversial topics or for criticizing state or university leaders.

These are not radical ideas. These are the principles that the modern American university were founded on. They were once integral to the UNC System, contributing to its global reputation. But as the AAUP report documents (you can read it here), these principles are being abandoned in North Carolina.

The AAUP will next decide whether the UNC System deserves a national sanction . To preserve higher education’s reputation in our state, the system’s leadership needs to get its house in order — immediately.