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National faculty group condemns UNC System for political interference, institutional racism

AAUP members addressed problems across the UNC System in a scathing 38 page report in April.

A national faculty group voted unanimously Thursday to condemn the UNC System Board of Governors and UNC System office for a pattern of political interference it says threatens academic freedom, chills speech and  perpetuates institutional racism.

As Policy Watch reported in April, a special committee of the American Association of University Professors released a scathing 38 page report detailing its investigation into problems across the UNC System. On Thursday, at the group’s national convention in Washington, D.C., the group’s governing council voted to officially condemn the system and its board of governors. The resolution cited a series of actions, “among them the 2015 closure of three of the system’s university-based policy centers, the nonreappointment of distinguished professor of law Eric Muller to the UNC Press board, and the adoption of a policy implementing the 2017 North Carolina state “Free Speech” legislation on UNC’s seventeen campuses—that have placed the basic protections of academic freedom in jeopardy and made the overall environment for academic freedom in the UNC system insecure.”

Michael Behrent,  professor of History at Appalachian State University and president of the North Carolina AAUP,  said the formal “condemnation” was an unusual move AAUP in dealing with universities.

“Indeed, the problems identified in the AAUP’s report were so extensive and varied—the gutting of shared governance, disregard for academic freedom, rampant institutional racism—that the AAUP, for the first time since 2015, had to invent a new term to capture its concern: ‘condemnation’ (the more traditional terms, “sanction” and “censure,” being too limited in scope),” Behrent said.

“The AAUP’s condemnation of the UNC System should be an alarm call to every North Carolinian who cares about higher education,” Behrent said. “The word is out: something is seriously wrong with the University of Carolina. The country and world are finding out about it.”

The condemnation was also avoidable, he said.

“Things could have been different,” Behrent said. “If the UNC System had really been concerned about its direction, it could have expressed a willingness to work with AAUP when the report was released. The AAUP has existed for over a century. It has played a crucial role in making American higher education the envy of the world, and in establishing the principles for a democratic educational system in a democratic society. Yet the UNC System’s leadership is so beholden to its political taskmasters that it could not even comment on the report’s substance.”

In a statement AAUP released the report in April, spokespeople for the UNC System called it relentlessly negative and said it was riddled with errors, especially disputing sections wherein the AAUP called out actions the system says its politically appointed board of governors is empowered to take.

“We know that the UNC System will claim that it embraces equity and diversity while denying tenure to faculty who denounce racism, that it will present itself as a champion of free speech while making sure faculty don’t say too much, and will claim to support shared governance while disregarding the perspective of academic professionals,” Behrent said. “In North Carolina, one party is responsible for this situation, and the other has washed its hands of it. North Carolina has a robust tradition of higher education. Its citizens deserve leaders who aren’t content to let the UNC System wither away on their watch.”

The UNC Board of Governors effectively purged all Democrats for several years. The current board has just one Democrat and has been criticized for not reflecting the political, racial and gender diversity of North Carolina or the UNC system.

The AAUP’s statement of condemnation addresses the board’s composition directly, saying “UNC Board of Governors and System Office, the racial composition of which is disproportionately white, have fostered a culture of exclusion, marked by a lack of transparency and inclusion in decision-making, that has prevented faculty members of color from moving into positions of leadership and authority, chilled the climate for
academic freedom, represented a constant threat of political interference, and perpetuated institutional racism.”

Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, said she was not surprised by Thursday’s condemnation.

We’ve been holding listening sessions for the faculty over the last couple of weeks to talk about this report, to give people a chance to react to it,’ Chapman said. “It has certainly rung true for people as they have watched it unfold in real time. And they’ve had their own personal experiences that aren’t documented in the report.”

Chapman is also one of the organizers of the Coalition for Carolina, a group of faculty, staff, students and alumni who have been sounding the alarm over political interference at the UNC system’s flagship campus.

People may have issues with specific sections of the report, Chapman said, but “the overall spirit and documentation and analysis is not in dispute.”

There’s a lot of grief that faculty members are carrying around, people who have been here a long time and have been through a lot of difficult periods on this campus,” Chapman said. “But they’re dismayed by this political interference and they don’t know what to do. It is also true that young scholars are very concerned for their future here.”

The condemnation is another in a series of high profile embarrassments for the school with consequences to its reputation.

“If this makes people think about the damage they’re doing to this place, perhaps it’s a necessary consequence,” Chapman said.

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