A course on the history of big-time college athletics will be offered again next year at UNC-Chapel Hill, after its professor alleged that the university violated his academic freedom.
The class, “History 383 – Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present,” initially was not scheduled this academic year after history department leaders said they feared “blowback” from the administration. The professor, Jay Smith, filed a grievance in July, alleging a breach of his academic freedom. Two weeks, later, he said, he was notified that he would be allowed to teach the class in the spring.
Smith said four administrators then wrote a letter to a faculty grievance committee requesting that the complaint be dropped. The faculty panel declined, and went ahead with his hearing Sept. 8, Smith said. He now awaits the findings.
The case drew national media coverage and letters of protest from faculty and free speech groups. Smith said he believes all the public attention has prompted administrators “to rethink their strategy here.”
Smith is an outspoken critic of the UNC leadership and its handling of the 18-year athletic and academic scandal involving “paper classes” in African studies that never met and required little work for students, many of whom were athletes. He co-wrote a 2015 book about it, titled “Cheated.” Content about the UNC scandal was part of his course, which also covered the rise of the NCAA, athletic scholarships, women’s participation in sports and issues around race and sports.
In June, internal UNC emails published by The News & Observer showed that history department administrators worried about “blowback” and “a fight on our hands” if they made the class part of the regular academic lineup. The class was first taught in 2016 but was not scheduled for the current academic year. The dean at UNC who oversees the department, Kevin Guskiewicz, said he had neither been pressured or pressured anyone about Smith’s class. He said scheduling classes was at the discretion of the history department.
Fitz Brundage, chairman of the history department, said in an interview earlier this year that he’d never had so much discussion about the scheduling of a class, adding, “Obviously there is someone somewhere who is troubled by the course.”
The controversy prompted a letter of protest signed by 45 history faculty in April, calling the cancellation “a serious infringement of freedom of inquiry, a fundamental feature of intellectual life in every authentic university.” Representatives of the American Assocation of University Professors also wrote to top administrators, demanding an explanation.
In a response to the AAUP letter, Guskiewicz and then-Provost Jim Dean called the situation merely a scheduling matter. “No one has ever said the course would not be taught again in the future,” they wrote. In late 2016, Brundage said the course would be offered again in 2018.
The situation also drew the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that monitors free speech and academic freedom at U.S. universities.
In a July 20 letter to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, an attorney with the foundation wrote that the university’s refusal to schedule the class set a dangerous precedent. “This de facto censorship is contrary to basic tenets of academic freedom and runs afoul of your educational mission and your obligations to uphold the First Amendment,” wrote Ari Cohn.
“The intellectual inquiry of students and faculty at UNC cannot lawfully be constrained by the administration’s apparent desire to prohibit certain viewpoints from campus, or prevent the university’s prior mistakes from being the subject of scrutiny and exploration,” Cohn added.
UNC officials Guskiewicz and Dean wrote that academic freedom “does not give individual faculty members the right to unilaterally decide what courses they will teach in a given semester or academic year.” That, they said, should be a collaborative decision among deans, department chairs and faculty, based on curricular needs.
Smith said he’s happy to be able to teach the course again.
“I still feel insecure about the intentions and the values of this administrative team that we have right now, because who’s to say that they won’t decide a year from now that once again this course or some other course is just too politically inconvenient for the campus,” he said.
Smith wrote an article detailing his saga on the AAUP website. In an accompanying update to the story, he wrote, “It would seem that the good guys won after all.”
Then he suggested that he might develop another course on the “abandonment of integrity on the twenty-first century American campus.” He asked professors for feedback, and he said he’s already received some ideas.
“Honestly I thought of it first as a provocation,” he said. “I just wanted to throw that out there and say, ‘well, you know, if you want to push a faculty member around about what they teach, be careful. It could come back to bite you.’”