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Former UNC faculty, staff explain reasoning for taking offers at Duke

Omid Safi, a former UNC professor, is now the director of the Islamic Studies at Duke. One of the reasons he left was to have more freedom to give his political opinion.

Omid Safi, a former UNC professor, is now the director of the Islamic Studies at Duke. One of the reasons he left was to have more freedom to give his political opinion.

In the 2015-16 school year, at least 11 faculty members left UNC and five offers from Duke University were made to faculty, Executive Vice Provost Ron Strauss said.

Jeremy Petranka, a professor of economics at Duke and a former professor at UNC, said he left for Duke because the offer Duke made him was too good to pass up.

“There was no part of me that was looking to leave UNC,” he said. “I had taught a class at Duke before and the school decided they wanted me to come over. They were able to put together a package that there was no reasonable way I could turn it down.”

Petranka said private universities have an easier time pulling people over than public universities, especially as public budgets become tighter.

While he didn’t want to leave UNC, Petranka said the transition to Duke is easier than some due to the close proximity.

Omid Safi, who is now director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke, left UNC in 2014.

Safi said his departure was partially politically motivated.

“We started to see a very chilling impact on the ability of professors and intellectuals and universities to do the kinds of things we ask our students to do all the time, which is to connect the dots and to scrutinize injustice, not at an individual level, but at a systematic and institutional level,” Safi said.

“I study the intersection of religion and politics and no one at UNC had ever objected to anything I had to say about human rights violations in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, in Turkey, in Israel, in any other country. I started to write about the North Carolina human rights violations and injustices, and the ways that the Republican state legislature was characterizing things like the Moral Monday movement as ‘outside agitators,’” he said.

Safi said UNC’s administration started censoring what he could and could not say about the political climate, which he said contributed to his decision to leave.

“I was told in no uncertain terms that while people in the UNC administration individually agreed with me, they were afraid,” Safi said.

“They were afraid that these kinds of comments would lead the GOP to cut UNC’s budget even more than they already had ... So ironically, although Duke is an elite, private, privileged school, I found it easier to do this kind of political truth-telling at Duke than I did at Carolina.”

Strauss said the trend of people leaving is not what it might at first appear — faculty retention is a market just like any other, and there are flows between universities.

Though 11 faculty members left UNC last year, 94 were brought in, Strauss said.

“What happens with faculty retention and recruitment is that we tend to look at one side of the equation only, the departure side, and we forget about the incoming side,” Strauss said.

“At UNC, the balance is so dramatically tipped towards bringing in talent and not towards losing talent that it’s important for people to see that.”

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