The recent alarming action by the UNC Board of Governors to remove Tom Ross as president of the UNC system may threaten the very foundation of a world-class institution.
It takes decades for universities to gain their credibility and reputation by selectively hiring the highest quality faculty, affording them academic freedom, zealously guarding against partisan interference and producing ground-breaking research.
This action, which some see as politically motivated, could cascade through the system, tearing down all that took decades to build on campuses from Elizabeth City to Cullowhee.
It is basic at any credible academic institution that faculty be free to express its views and follow intellectual exploration wherever it leads, without fear of political censorship. It is accepted that at times these views will be unpopular. That is the small price to be paid if an institution is to fulfill its role as a marketplace for ideas, an engine for progress and center for innovation. Obviously, presidents and other high administrative officials should have similar protections.
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In all my experience in the UNC system only once was there an attempt to muzzle free speech – the infamous Speaker Ban law which was repudiated in 1968, the year I came to UNC Chapel Hill to teach. The fight against the law was led in part by President William Friday.
But back to the current case. The board, which is now made up, with one exception, entirely of Republicans, has voiced no credible reason for removing President Ross, leading some to suspect that he was removed in order to make way for a president who shares the political philosophy of the board and its current patrons. If that is the case, what political philosophy might the board wish to see replace Ross’s apolitical stance?
To find a hint, go to the website for the John William Pope Center on Higher Education. Since 1996 this off-shoot of the John Locke Foundation, the brain child of political mega-donor Art Pope, has railed against the “liberal” tilt of the university system, particularly Chapel Hill.
They claim the faculty is disproportionately liberal, the curriculum has departed from traditional “Western” focus, there are too many “narrow,” “trivial” courses, and “political correctness” is slavishly adhered to.
You don’t have to look hard to find an example of what some conservatives would like to see. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker seeks to radically transform the University of Wisconsin. He has proposed changing the mission statement from “the search for truth” to “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” The New York Times observed: “It was as if a trade-school agenda were substituted for the idea of a university.”
I hope the board’s reasons for removing President Ross have been misinterpreted. But at this point we will have to wait, see, and hope that the board will not go down the road of politicizing the “people’s University.” The choice of the next president will tell us a lot about the course the university will take.
Leutze was chancellor of UNC Wilmington from 1990 to 2003.