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Tuesday May 17th

AAUP launches special committee to investigate structural racism in UNC System

<p>UNC Communications Professor Michael Palm poses for a portrait at the Bell Tower on Oct. 26, 2021.</p>
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UNC Communications Professor Michael Palm poses for a portrait at the Bell Tower on Oct. 26, 2021.

The American Association of University Professors announced at the end of September that it launched a special committee to investigate violations of academic governance principles and structural racism in the UNC System.

Anita Levy, a senior program officer in the AAUP Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure & Governance, said the UNC Board of Trustees' initial failure to offer tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones persuaded the AAUP to appoint the Special Committee on Governance and Related Issues.

She said the ideal outcome of the report would be to assess and clarify the recent actions of the UNC System's governing bodies, specifically regarding governance, academic freedom and institutional racism — especially because one of the AAUP’s main goals is the advancement of academic freedom and shared governance.

“The AAUP has followed critical events and actions over the past few years in the University of North Carolina system and at UNC-Chapel Hill with growing concern,” Levy said in a statement. “These events appear to represent an evident pattern of departures from principles of academic governance and of persistent institutional racism in the UNC system and on the part of its governing boards.“

The investigation will focus on the UNC System as a whole, but history professor Jay Smith — the vice president of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of the AAUP — said he thinks it is clear the University is taking center stage.

He said Hannah-Jones' tenure case is one indicator of the deep structural issues that work against people of color at UNC.

“It was such an obvious violation of standard academic protocols,” Smith said. “Tenure decisions are made by the faculty and endorsed by the provost, and typically rubber stamped by the Board of Trustees. Boards of Trustees have no expertise, no bearing, to make a decision on something like this.”

The other focus of the investigation is the Republican-controlled state legislature's effect on the Board of Governors, Boards of Trustees and the obstruction of faculty participation, according to AAUP's Sept. 29 press release.

UNC history professor Jay Smith stands in his office for a portrait on Oct. 26.

Appalachian State University professor Michael C. Behrent, the president of the North Carolina conference of the AAUP, said it should be a cause for concern that every member of all System Boards of Trustees and the Board of Governors is directly or indirectly chosen by the North Carolina legislature.

“I would argue that the reason why you have a dysfunctional, but at least more or less good system of higher education in this country, is because of the fact that professorial appointments can't be made by the arbitrary will of politicians or university administrators,” Behrent said. “And Chapel Hill just kind of — their Board just went headlong into that sort of territory of arbitrary choice, arbitrary decisions about tenure.” 

UNC communications professor Michael Palm, president of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of the AAUP, said he can’t think of another university that is more deserving of this type of investigation. 

“Part of our responsibility as local chapters is to kind of keep the national office abreast of what's happening on our campus and in our state,” Palm said. “So our chapter has been pretty active in  — at the very least — documenting our opposition to some of the examples cited in the press release for the investigation.”

The committee will arrange virtual interviews with chief administrative officers, governing board members, trustees, professors and other members of the faculty and administration to conduct the investigation, Levy said.

The committee does not include representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill or any other UNC-System school. 

UNC Media Relations referred comment on the AAUP investigation to the UNC System Office. The UNC System Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The investigation can’t make the UNC-System administrators do anything,” Palm said. “But it can be illuminating, and it can help us garner public awareness and public support, and it can help us fight for the changes that we want to see on our campus.”

The committee leading the investigation plans to release its report in early 2022.

@hannahgracerose | @isabellareillyy

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