Smith led the discussion and election of officers. The discussion, “Going Forward: Re-launching an AAUP Chapter at UNC, Chapel Hill” capped off Academic Freedom Day, a series of lectures and panels devoted to educating attendees about the threats to academic freedom on campus and discussing potential resolutions.
In his discussion, Smith shared his experience advocating for his course, Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present. The course explores the history and structural flaws of the NCAA, the rights of student-athletes and the details of UNC’s academic scandal.
Administration told Smith there were concerns with the class because it was replacing an honors course, but the sensitive content of the course and Smith’s public criticism of the UNC academic scandal in his book, "Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports," co-authored with Mary Willingham, led Smith to believe this was not just a matter of scheduling.
Without the resources and expertise of an organization like the AAUP, Smith wasn’t sure how to proceed or who he could turn to for advice.
“I’ve never felt so isolated in my life, so professionally isolated,” Smith said.
But when Michael Behrent, vice president of the North Carolina Conference of the AAUP and associate history professor at Appalachian State University, reached out to Smith, everything changed.
Behrent provided Smith with specific advice and wrote a letter, along with Altha Cravey, president of the North Carolina Conference of the AAUP, to Chancellor Carol Folt, Provost James W. Dean Jr., Dean Kevin Guskiewicz and Senior Associate Dean Jonathan Hartlyn supporting Smith's right to teach the class.
“For the first time, I felt like ‘Oh, there is some place I can go where I will actually be supported,’” Smith said. “I felt like I was an oxygen-deprived person who had been shambling around the campus for six months, and somebody had put an oxygen mask to my face.”
The experience left Smith certain an AAUP chapter at UNC must be established and remain active on campus in combatting threats to academic freedom like course censorship.
“It’s main goal is to try to in some ways to be kind of a watch dog to make sure that some of the key principles that AAUP defends which are tenure, academic freedom and shared governance are properly followed on campus,” Behrent said.
Online records show UNC's previous AAUP chapter started in 2006 and had its last meeting in January of 2010 and elected officers for 2010-2011. However, there are no online records showing the group held meetings in 2011.
“It’s kind of been in and out as far as having a chapter, relaunching, sometimes it dissipates, and there’s relaunching,” said Sherryl Kleinman, professor emerita of sociology and one of the main organizers of the event.
After elections, the discussion turned to recruiting more chapter members.
Having been involved with the AAUP chapter in his previous position at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Erik Gellman, history professor, offered advice.
“If an AAUP’s chapter starts out at UNC small, that’s okay if that small group is really determined to fan out through the university and slowly do the organizing work necessary to build a robust AAUP chapter,” Gellman said. “Because I think you need more than a small minority in an AAUP chapter otherwise the administration will dismiss you as ‘Oh, that’s that faction of troublemakers.’”
Other faculty members present emphasized the importance of reaching out to a wide range of departments on campus to strengthen the chapter’s efforts. Smith said the chapter will need to sell the value of AAUP on a retail basis to individual faculty members all over campus.
Smith also said it is vital for students at UNC to understand the importance of academic freedom to their learning experience.
“It is in the public’s interest to permit faculty, to permit experts to permit people who’ve been highly trained their fields to conduct research and to teach their students and to speak out on issues of concern to them because the public benefits from that kind of work and it can’t be done if faculty are always being hemmed in by outside agitators or by insufficiently sympathetic administrators,” Smith said. “We need to have full freedom to do what we are trained to do.”