Commentary

In Wall Street Journal op-ed, UNC prof says big-time sports are undermining academic freedom

The following is from a press release distributed this morning by the North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP):

UNC Professor’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Tells “How Sports Ate Academic Freedom”

Years after the University of North Carolina’s academic-athletics scandal, the state’s flagship university continues to let big sports interfere with the curriculum, academic freedom, and institutional integrity. In an important op-ed appearing in this morning’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, Professor Jay Smith of UNC-Chapel Hill, a history professor and co-author of an important book on the scandal, explains how university administrators attempted to quash a course he teaches on college athletics, and then tried to cover up their actions.

Smith’s op-ed, entitled “How Sports Ate Academic Freedom,” is available here (it is located on p. A15 of the print edition of the Wall Street Journal dated May 1, 2018).

In his op-ed, Smith, a North Carolina AAUP member, explains how he developed and taught a course on athletics that was partially based on a book he co-authored on the scandal (Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports, Potomac, 2015, with Mary Willingham). Once administrators became aware of this course in 2017, they attempted to suppress it. Smith writes: The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a longtime friend to athletics, pressured the chairman of the history department to yank my course from the schedule. He made ominous noises about the history department being ‘over-resourced.’ … He ended by saying, ‘This is not a threat’—but it would be a bad idea for the department to schedule the course in 2017. The department chairman told me to find something else to teach.”

Though the course was eventually reinstated, Smith initiated a grievance through the appropriate university channels. He believed that the attempt to suppress his course was an affront to academic freedom and to the integrity of the university’s educational mission. “The faculty committee charged with enforcing the rules of faculty governance,” Smith writes, “decided unambiguously in [his] favor, scolding the dean for interfering in the scheduling of a course that happened to cover controversial issues. They called on administrators to reaffirm their support for academic freedom.”

Yet UNC-Chapel Hill’s administration simply rejected the faculty committee’s findings. Smith writes: “Exercising their prerogative to override any faculty decision, the administrators simply rejected the recommendations. In the face of a report that highlighted administrative bullying…, the chancellor wrote, ‘I do not believe that the Dean . . . violated existing tenets for providing proper administration’ of curricular programs.”

The lessons of Smith’s experiences are sobering. He concludes: “At UNC, the power of big-money sports led administrators to defend the legitimacy of fake classes that had no professor. It then led them to wage an all-out war against a real class that asked common-sense questions about sports in institutions of higher learning.”

The North Carolina Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) supports Smith’s position. This incident is troubling for three reasons:

  1. Significant evidence (corroborated by the faculty grievance committee) suggests that university administrators intervened specifically for the purpose of quashing a class that had been approved according to regular university procedures. The fact that the class was reinstated when these administrative actions were exposed does nothing to alter this disturbing fact.
  2. The university administration rejected the findings of the faculty grievance committee. While they were within their rights to do so, this dismissive attitude undermines due process and administrative accountability.
  3. Lucrative athletic programs and the university administrators who support them have become such powerful forces on university campuses that they are in a position to undermine the academic integrity of university programs.

The North Carolina State Conference of the AAUP wrote a letter to UNC-Chapel Hill’s administrators on June 7, 2017, expressing its objections to Smith’s treatment (the letter is included at the end of attached PDF version of this press release). Smith presented his story in an article in the September-October 2017 issue of Academe (“Academic Freedom, Meet Big-Time College Sports,” available here) and in an interview on AAUP’s Academe Blog (available here).

Founded in 1915, the AAUP is a national organization of American college and university professors which has chapters on over 450 campuses. According to its website, the AAUP’s mission is to “to advance academic freedom and shared governance; to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education; to promote the economic security of faculty, academic professionals, graduate students, post?doctoral fellows, and all those engaged in teaching and research in higher education; to help the higher education community organize to make our goals a reality; and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good.” Prominent members have included John Dewey and Albert Einstein.

 

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