Questions continue to mount over UNC Press board appointment

Last week Policy Watch reported on the case of Eric Muller, the renowned UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who was denied a reappointment to the UNC Press Board of Governors, despite recently being unanimously re-elected as its chairman.

As reported, the UNC Board of Governors’ refusal to accept Muller for reappointment appears to be unprecedented. Sources on the board and at the UNC System told Policy Watch Muller’s comments about the university system’s handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument and race-related issues at UNC-Chapel Hill had led conservative board members to disqualify him for reappointment.

From that story:

The UNC Board of Governors approves all appointments to the UNC Press Board of Governors. But until now, the board has followed the recommendations of the campus level nominating committee and the chancellor.

On March 24, UNC Chapel-Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a letter to UNC System President Peter Hans approving the nominating committee’s recommendation for the reappointment of Eric Muller, Linda Hanley-Bowdoin and Elizabeth Engelhardt.

But on May 19 the UNC System office informed Guskiewicz and UNC Press Director John Sherer the University Governance Committee would only consider Engelhardt and Hanley-Bowdoin.

[David] Powers, chair of the committee, said the board wanted to “change the membership onsome of these boards more frequently,” according to a system email obtained by Policy Watch.

That explanation didn’t make sense to UNC Press board members or others directly involved in the appointment process. Muller was being appointed to a third term on the UNC Press board, but so was Hanley-Bowdoin. Englehardt was being appointed to a second full term. The committee expressed no problem with either of their appointments.

“It’s an explanation that makes no sense on its face,” a UNC System source close to the process told Policy Watch. “It is completely illogical. You cannot appoint one person to a third term and not another and then argue people shouldn’t be serving three terms.”

The University Governance Committee asked Guskiewicz to advance another name for the board, but not Muller. Guskiewicz declined to do so, but did not tell the UNC Press board or the director of the UNC press that he’d gotten this request.

The UNC Board of Governors and its committees met on May 26 and 27, approving Hanley-Bowdoin and Engelhardt but not taking up Muller’s appointment. That led Lisa Levenstein, vice chair of the UNC Press board, to write to Powers and UNC System President Peter Hans on June 2 to ask why Muller was not considered and suggest his reappointment be considered at the University Governance Committee’s next meeting.

Hans and Powers didn’t respond personally. Instead, UNC System General Counsel Andrew Tripp wrote a reply on Hans’s behalf in which he declined to “speculate” on the motives for the board approving two of the names forwarded for consideration but not Muller. The UNC System President’s role in the process is simply to forward names to the board of governors, Tripp wrote in an email obtained by Policy Watch.


Policy Watch has requested e-mails related to the decision and is still waiting for some of its requests to be fulfilled. Hans, Guskiewicz and Powers have been silent on the issue.

But this week Policy Watch interviewed Marty Kotis, whose second term on the UNC Board of Governors is coming to a close as he prepares to join the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Kotis, one of the more outspoken of the board’s members, waved away the idea that the board’s failure to reappoint Muller was political.

“He’s served two terms on the board,” Kotis said. “That’s ten years. He was chair of the board his last term. It seems like that’s long enough to serve on a board. These aren’t lifetime appointments.”

Wouldn’t that logic also apply to Hanley-Bowdoin, who was reappointed to a third term?

Eric Muller

“We’ve been trying to get more diversity on some of these boards,” Kotis said. “Not reappointing a woman on the board wouldn’t help with that. With Muller, it’s not reappointing another white man.”

But the University Governance Committee did not ask Guskiewicz to advance the name of a woman or non-white person. It asked for a candidate who was not Muller. If diversity is now a priority on boards appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly or its appointees on the UNC Board of Governors, progress appears to be incremental at best over the last few years. The UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees remain overwhelmingly white and male. Appointments to lower boards continue to lean white, male and conservative, rarely approximating the racial or gender makeup of the universities or communities they are meant to serve.

In 2019 the board of governors approved four members of the UNC Press Board of Governors. Three of those four were white men. Two of those white men were new appointments. One was a reappointment.

Muller’s case comes on the heels of the controversy over the UNC Board of Trustees denying acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure. Students, faculty, alumni and academic groups across the country are pointing to a pattern of interference with academic freedom.

Faculty at the UNC Law School released a statement last week, saying recent decisions by the board of governors and board of trustees “undermined the morale of faculty and undermine the intellectual credibility and moral integrity of the University.”

This week free speech advocacy group PEN America also weighed in on Muller’s case.

“This is another unusual incident where the motivations and judgements of UNC’s governing bodies are being rightfully called into question”, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America in a written statement. “The same principles of academic freedom that should protect Muller from retaliation for his teaching and scholarship must extend to his public commentary on UNC’s decisions, which are closely related to his field of academic expertise.”

“The onus now falls on the Board of Governors to explain the rationale for this decision, to offer some legitimate reason for their decision based on Professor Muller’s execution of his academic duties,” Friedman said. “Otherwise observers will be left wondering whether the UNC system has forfeited its commitment to reasoned disagreement, open exchange, and academic freedom in favor of a system of political interference and ideological uniformity.”

Thorsten Wagner, executive director of Fellowships and Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, also urged the board of governors to reconsider Muller’s reappointment.

“Eric L. Muller has consistently shown extraordinary ethical leadership as a professional — in his role as legal expert, academic teacher, educator, and public intellectual,” Wagner wrote For almost a decade he has been pioneering FASPE’s Law program, encouraging law students and practicing lawyers to apply the lessons from past failures of the legal profession as they critically examine constructs, current developments, and issues that raise ethical concerns.”

“He has put this self-critical perspective into practice in his leading scholarship on the role of lawyers in American-Japanese internment camps, reaching a wide audience, and in his insights on the conflicts over the ways the University of North Carolina has been dealing with the symbols of a fraught and toxic history of slavery and the Civil War,” Wagner wrote. “Irrespective of particular positions, it is Professor Muller’s ethical obligation to speak his mind in matters of professional responsibility, which he has consistently done in a respectful manner.”

“We urge the University of North Carolina to reconsider its decision not to re-appoint him to the Board of Governors of UNC Press, given his long and proven track record of ethical leadership at a time when this country, and its educational institutions, so sorely need it,” Wagner wrote.

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Questions continue to mount over UNC Press board appointment