“The University of North Carolina system is in trouble,” according to a report released Thursday by a national faculty group. “And not the kind of trouble that record enrollments or good rankings can fix. It is the kind of trouble that festers and spreads.”
The 38 page report, released Thursday by the American Association of University Professors, chronicles what the group says is excessive political interference, threats to academic freedom and systemic racism throughout the 17-campus system. It is the product of a special committee’s interviews with more than 50 faculty members, current and former administrators and trustees and members of the system-wide Racial Equity Task Force. The report includes quotes from many of those interviewed, though they are not identified by name.
The report is the first step in a process that could lead the national organization to sanction the system for violation of the group’s governing standards. While the AAUP has no power over the system, a formal sanction from the group could carry weight with professors and further harm the university’s ability to attract and retain top talent. Only 13 institutions have been formally sanctioned by AAUP, according to the group’s own list – mostly smaller, private colleges and universities.
“This is a rare occurrence,” said Michael Behrent, professor of History at Appalachian State University and president of the North Carolina AAUP.
“There is already concern about an exodus of faculty of color and other faculty as well,” Behrent said at a press conference at UNC-Chapel Hill Thursday morning. “The fact that the national organization of professors tells other professors that this institution is sanctioned could pose serious recruitment challenges for this system, with all of the consequences that come with that for its reputation, the quality of its degrees and so on.”
The investigation, conducted by a committee of professors from universities outside the state, was sparked by last year’s controversy over UNC-Chapel Hill’s very public failure to hire acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. But Behrent said the seeds of that controversy were sown years earlier, when Republicans took over state government in 2010 and began a purge of Democrats from the UNC System’s Board of Governors. Critics within and outside the system say that contributed to more partisan and ideological governance and a series of scandals that gained national attention.
Beyond the Hannah-Jones controversy, the report looks at the ouster or politically motivated resignations of system presidents and chancellors, the controversial installation of new system and campus leaders under rules changed by political appointees and failed responses to everything from the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also addresses a lack of diversity on governing boards, among the faculty at most UNC system schools and high profile incidents in which faculty members said they were singled out for retribution for expressing criticisms of the university or conservative leaders in the state.
The AAUP committee reached out to UNC System President Peter Hans, UNC Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek as it did its prepared the report. The group said each of them declined to be interviewed.
The report contains “countless errors,” UNC System spokesman Josh Ellis told Policy Watch Thursday.
Megan Hayes, associate vice chancellor and chief communications officer at Appalachian State, provided Policy Watch with the school’s 8-page refutation of the sections of the report that deal with App State.
The system shared two response letters Kimberly van Noort, the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, sent to an AAUP representative before the report was released.
“You offer a relentlessly grim portrayal of one of the nation’s strongest, most vibrant, and most productive university systems,” van Noort wrote on March 23, after having reviewed a copy of the report. “It’s nearly impossible to square the bleak portrait you’ve created with the thriving campuses we know and love.”
“During the last six years, we have lowered tuition for nearly all of our students; improved graduation rates among low-income and minority students; and made historic investments in growing and supporting our system’s six historically minority-serving institutions,” van Noort wrote. “We continue to recruit and support world-class faculty, and we secured substantial raises for faculty and staff in the most recent (bipartisan) state budget, as well as more than $2 billion in capital funding for our campuses.”
These are not small accomplishments, van Noort wrote. While the system appreciates dissenting voices and criticism, she wrote, “our harshest critics should not be mistaken for anything like a consensus among the 260,000 faculty, staff, and students across the UNC System.”
In an earlier e-mail exchange, dated October 18, van Noort addressed the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy specifically. Writing on behalf of Ramsey, van Noort pointed out that the question of Hannah-Jones’s hiring and tenure was handled at the campus and not the UNC System level, but she noted that ultimately the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did offer a tenured position to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The revelation of details as to how and why the offer was held up, political and donor pressure exerted on administrators and the university’s board of trustees ultimately led Hannah-Jones to turn down the position at Chapel Hill for one at Howard University.
“It is hard to read this as anything other than a situation in which a sought-after scholar weighed multiple tenure offers and selected the one she most wanted to pursue,” van Noort wrote.
At Thursday’s press conference AAUP members said that sort of pushback – and regular assertions that criticism from students, staff and faculty don’t represent the consensus opinion on the system’s campuses – is disappointing.
“I came to the UNC System in 2010 because I believed it was one of the best university systems in the United States, if not the world, for teaching and research,” said Nicole Peterson, an Anthropology professor and president of the AAUP chapter at UNC-Charlotte.
But during her time in the UNC system, Peterson said, she and her colleagues have felt the system isn’t living up to its potential.
“This new report backs that feeling with evidence,” Peterson said. “It shows that our reputation and our state’ reputation is suffering. The problems that this report highlights is keeping the UNC system from being one of the best university systems in the world.”
Peterson said the system can be a leader in education, but the number of problems and details in the report are “shocking” and must be addressed rather than waved away or met with justifications.
Behrent said he hopes the university will instead take in the details of the report and begin working with its students, faculty and staff to address them meaningfully in the sort of shared governance promoted by the AAUP and long seen in the system.
The AAUP could take up the question of sanctions by early summer, he said.
“It is my sincere hope that sometime between now and then – after having been ignored for a long time – members of the board of governors, members of the boards of trustees, campus administrators, system administrators, will actually listen to these concerns and agree that it is not a good thing for the system to be sanctioned,- and will talk to us an other campus constituents about trying to solve these problems,” Behrent said.