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The Daily Tar Heel

Faculty react to AAUP report criticizing limits on academic freedom in UNC system

Professor Michael Palm

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

In 2016, UNC history professor Jay Smith said he wanted to teach a course putting UNC’s athletic-academic scandal into the context of the broader history of big-time college sports. 

Smith said there were no objections to the course by any College of Arts and Sciences committees responsible for approving new courses at UNC, and he successfully taught the course in the summer of 2016. However, Smith’s proposal that the course be offered in the 2017-2018 academic year resulted in phone calls from UNC administration objecting those plans.

The American Association of University Professors, a national organization of college and university faculty members and academic professionals, cited Smith's situation as an example of how academic freedom had been threatened in the UNC system in its recent special committee report.

The AAUP claimed, "political pressure and top-down leadership have obstructed meaningful faculty participation in the UNC system, jeopardized academic freedom and reinforced institutional racism."

The AAUP also criticized the system’s racial climate, citing an underrepresentation of faculty of color, unequal chances for faculty to move into positions of power and disproportionate amounts of faculty of color leaving their positions compared to white faculty.

In 2020, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones accepted Hussman School of Journalism and Media former dean Susan King's invitation to apply for an endowed chair position at UNC. According to the report, the journalism faculty was overwhelmingly in support of Hannah-Jones in a vote on her tenure.

A vote to determine if Hannah-Jones would receive tenure was delayed twice by the Board of Trustees before it failed to approve the journalism school's recommendation.

The AAUP report also cited how major donor Walter Hussman Jr. – who donated $25 million to UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school in 2019 – sent messages to administrators and trustees about concerns relating to Hannah-Jones' work on the 1619 Project.

Conservative groups with ties to the UNC Board of Governors also called on the BOT to block the appointment of Hannah-Jones.

Michael Palm, communications professor at UNC and president of the school’s AAUP Chapter, said the report starts to connect the dots between examples — such as the Nikole Hannah-Jones case — of mismanagement and political interference in the UNC system. 

“What was so important about the Nikole Hannah-Jones situation is that it was clearly a case of racism,” Palm said. “And it was clearly a case of the Board of Trustees, in this instance, interfering with what should have been a decision made by the faculty of the journalism school.”

The report was commissioned by the national AAUP and written by AAUP members at other universities. The investigation will now go to the governing body of the AAUP, which could recommend sanctions against the UNC system.

UNC Media Relations declined to comment on the report, and The Daily Tar Heel did not get an immediate response from a UNC system representative.

Kimberly van Noort, a spokeswoman for the UNC system, sent a response letter to the AAUP criticizing the report’s bleak portrayal of the UNC system campuses and its lack of empirical data about the health of the system.

Smith, who serves as vice president of the Chapel Hill chapter of the AAUP, said sanctions would mainly be a symbolic statement.

“The concrete tangible consequences of a sanction like this are fairly minimal to non-existent,” Smith said. “But it is something that most institutions would want to avoid, because the AAUP’s a very respected organization with a long history, and it doesn't do things like this willy nilly.”

Deb Aikat, a professor at the journalism school, said that besides the response letter, the UNC system has largely ignored the report.

"Besides a comment questioning the veracity of the AAUP report, the UNC system has done nothing," Aikat said.

According to Palm, the AAUP chapter at UNC was relaunched in 2018 to address many of the issues mentioned in the report. 

“There's a broad range of faculty who are trying to continue to withstand the political interference and to find ways to ensure that the key decisions affecting our campus are made by the people who work and study on our campus,” Palm said. “So I think we'll continue fighting that fight."


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