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UNC history professor Jay Smith suspects external involvement in removal of his college athletics class

Professor Jay Smith taught a class about athletes' rights, but it was later cancelled.
Professor Jay Smith taught a class about athletes' rights, but it was later cancelled.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated the wrong semester History 383 is not listed. Professor Jay Smith believes someone outside the history department influenced the decision not to list the class in the upcoming fall semester. The story has been updated to reflect this. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

At the end of the fall 2016 semester, the history department made the decision to remove History 383 — a class that explores the history of college athletics and the rights of college athletes — from the course listings for the upcoming fall semester. Professor Jay Smith, who taught the course in the summer and fall, said he believes someone outside the department influenced this decision.

Smith said his department notified him that he would not be allowed to teach the course in the fall semester, but did not explain why.

“Well, of course I’m speculating here because no reason has ever been given, which is one of the really curious things,” he said. “No reason has ever been given by anyone. But I would guess that someone either in the administration or outside of the university feels very sensitive about the content of this course and decided to apply pressure to my department to make sure that it didn’t get taught this year.”

He said while administrators did not clarify why the course would not be offered this semester, it was clear that faculty members in the history department approved of the course.

“Everybody in the department has been very enthusiastic about this course,” he said. “Yeah, I better just leave it at that.”

Smith said when he taught the course in the summer and in the fall, his department faced resistance from administrators and had to fight for his academic freedom.

Smith said the sudden removal of his course sets a dangerous precedent. He said it suggests that the administration, or someone outside of the administration, has control over what professors can and cannot teach. He said he believes there is reason to fear external pressure will suppress free speech on campus in the future.

“I mean that is the big concern, the precedent that it sets. At this moment in North Carolina’s history, I think we can assume that there will be all sorts of pressure to suppress uncomfortable or controversial speech, to squelch courses with unpopular themes.”

He said the course focuses on the rights of student-athletes along with the history of the NCAA — including the flaws in the system that lead to problems like UNC’s academic scandal.

“It focuses on the structural inequities that are baked into the system and the many, many efforts at reform that have come and gone over the years and how the UNC scandal, which we covered at the end of the course, is kind of a manifestation of all those failed reform efforts and basic inequities that are baked within the system,” he said.

Fitzhugh Brundage, chairperson of the history department, said he made the decision to refrain from offering the course this semester, but plans to offer it in the next academic year. 

“Well, the chairs ultimately have the responsibility to decide what’s taught and what isn’t taught,” he said. “I made the decision — I guess it was late November, early December — because of departmental priorities and scheduling needs, that we would not schedule the course until the fall of 2018.”

He said rescheduling a course like this is not common. While professors must follow the curriculum put in place by their department, they typically decide what courses to teach. 

“There are a variety of circumstances, but I would say probably 90 percent of the time, 95 percent of the time, faculty teach — in our department — teach what they more or less want to teach.”

Brundage said he didn’t have anything to say about Smith’s comments regarding the University administration’s role in the rescheduling of the course.

“I have never had administration contact me about a course,” he said.

A UNC spokesperson said Provost Jim Dean was unavailable to comment for this story.

Nick Bolick, a junior journalism major, took the class in the fall. He said he thinks it is likely administration pressured the history department into dropping the course.

“I think the University fears Jay Smith and 30 students having a discussion — that’s what the class is, it’s a discussion, it’s a discussion-based class, all it is, we are not stereotyping or anything, it’s just a discussion-based class," he said. "I think they don’t want him doing that. They don’t want him having honest discussions with his students over material that can be used in the UNC case, it can be connected to it.”

Bolick said he believes administrators want to protect the University’s public image and prevent students from learning the truth about the scandal.

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“It’s a blind culture here, as far as upper administration," he said. "They want to be blind to the problems, they want to push them aside, they want good PR — whatever.”

Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said he wasn’t aware of the issue concerning History 383.

“This is what I know,” he said. “So that was a course that was approved — as all of our courses are — through the administration board of the college.”

He said he there was no evidence that administration was curbing Smith’s academic freedom.

“So again, I think in terms of, it was approved by the (administration) board, it’s been taught twice already within the last year, once being in summer school, so I’m not quite sure where the censorship, I mean if you mentioned academic freedom, that has a lot to do about censorship, and I don’t — given that those three things have happened — I don’t think I understand or see the censorship.”

Guskiewicz said there was no reason to believe that someone in the administration pressured the history department into dropping History 383 — instead, there were questions about why History 383 was replacing an honors course.

“The only reason that the concern was ever even raised, was that it had reached the Office of Undergraduate Education that that course was replacing an honors course,” he said.

Henry Watson, a history professor who knows Jay Smith, said he thinks it’s possible administrators — or someone outside of the University — pressured the history department into dropping the course. He said the situation reminded him of another instance in which the University faced controversy concerning academic freedom.

“Oh, it immediately made me think of the pressure that came under the University decades ago to stop teaching evolution, for example,” he said. “And it also made me think about the possibility of pressure on the University to stop teaching climate science, right here in the present. I think it is — any time you start avoiding certain topics because they’re politically sensitive, you are running a risk on an attack on intellectual freedom, which is what the University survives on.”

He said Smith has reason to be upset because the course went through the appropriate vetting processes.

“His class did go through all the procedures that you’re supposed to go to to get a class approved,” he said. “It went through a committee here at the history department, it went through a committee at the college level.”

Watson said he thinks the tension between the University and Smith is a result of Smith and Mary Willingham’s research on the academic scandal.

“And then when the Wainstein report came out, it appeared to me that what Mary Willingham and Jay had been saying was vindicated, proved chapter and verse, with quotations,” he said. “And while the administration acknowledged, in the face of the Wainstein report, that there was a much bigger problem than they had ever admitted before, they did not take the next step and say ‘and therefore Mary Willingham and Jay Smith had been right all along,’ which to me would have been the right thing to do.”

Watson said a combination of the content of the course and Smith's role as instructor may have resulted in the removal of the course from this semester’s listings. He said he thinks someone in the administration noticed Smith was teaching the course.

“It seems to me that somebody decided that if the University allows to Jay Smith to teach this class, it’s as if they were saying Jay Smith had been right all along,” he said. “And that’s one thing they’ve never wanted to say.”