UNC administrators squelching academic freedom

Professor Jay Smith said his academic freedom was violated when his sports history class was not scheduled last year.
Professor Jay Smith said his academic freedom was violated when his sports history class was not scheduled last year.

The recent decision by UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor to reject a faculty committee’s findings that administrators interfered with a professor’s ability to teach a course might sound like an arcane issue, but it isn’t: This incident raises important questions about university governance and UNC administrators’ commitment to serve North Carolina’s citizens.

A brief review of the facts: Jay Smith, a history professor and outspoken critic of Chapel Hill’s role in the athletics-academics scandal, contends that university administrators attempted to quash a course he developed on college athletics. Last October, UNC’s faculty grievance committee found in Smith’s favor. It concluded that administrators were inordinately concerned with Smith’s course, that his department felt pressured by administrators to cancel the class, and that this interference violated the university’s commitment to academic freedom. Yet the provost and chancellor simply rejected the committee’s findings.

UNC’s administrators justify their decision by claiming that their concern with Smith’s course fell squarely within their responsibility to meet the university’s educational goals. They claim that they never objected to Smith offering a course on sports. Their sole complaint, they say, is that to teach this course, Smith canceled a low-enrolled seminar contributing to UNC’s honors curriculum.

Yet this decision blatantly ignores the faculty committee’s findings. The committee observed that “it was extremely unusual” for deans “to scrutinize the elimination of a single honors course in a single department.” The committee further stated that the claim that “the addition of one course out of the thousands offered...each semester would threaten the College’s long-term strategic goals strains credulity.”

Some legal scholars embrace the controversial “unitary executive theory,” which holds that the power of the President is virtually unlimited by other government branches. UNC’s chancellor is claiming a “unitary theory of university administration”: if administrators rationalize their actions by referring to “strategic goals,” their ability to interfere with the curriculum is unrestricted—even when they bully departments.

UNC’s administrators protest that they are simply following well-established norms. In rejecting the faculty committee’s findings, the provost declared that “University leaders can and should maintain oversight over course offerings, which includes the right to participate in individual course selection decisions.” He cites documents by its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSOC), to the effect that academic freedom must not interfere with a university’s obligation to offer a “sound education”—a responsibility, he assumes, that ultimately befalls administrators. Yet he conveniently ignores that SACSOC’s 2018 standards say a university must place “primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty.”

Professors have crucial roles to play in keeping universities committed to their core mission and in ensuring the accountability of university leaders. Accrediting organizations and the American Association of University Professors have long defended this principle. In an age when administrators’ salaries vastly exceed those of faculty, when boards dangle the prospect of substantial “performance bonuses,” and when administrators are constantly angling for more prestigious positions, university leaders have become deaf to this conception of the faculty’s role, upon which the modern university is founded. Unaccountable administrators governing by fiat is unworthy of North Carolina’s longstanding commitment to higher education. Our students and citizens deserve better.

Behrent is an associate professor at Appalachian State.