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House bill could eliminate tenure in the UNC System, faculty see it as a threat to academic freedom

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 UNC history professor Jay Smith rarely sees a petition collect signatures so quickly. 

In a letter published Monday, faculty reacted to a bill introduced in the N.C. House last week aiming to end faculty tenure at all UNC System universities and community colleges. The Higher Ed. Modernization & Affordability Act would apply to all faculty members hired after July 1, 2024. 

The petition — expressing faculty concerns over damage UNC's reputation and principles of shared governance — garnered over 670 signatures in just a few days. 

Co-authors Smith and law professor Maxine Eichner said they are alarmed by the “interference and overreach” of the N.C. legislature, UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees into academic freedom and shared governance at the University. Supporters of the letter include faculty members in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, School of Medicine, College of Arts & Sciences and more.

Filed by Rep. David Willis (R-Union), H.B. 715 would require that faculty members within all UNC System universities and N.C. community colleges to be at-will employees or employees working under one-to-four year contracts. All sponsors of the bill are members of the Republican Party.

Similar bills have been filed in Florida and Texas. And national conversations on academic tenure and school curriculums have been paired with allegations of political intrusion in the classroom. 

For UNC faculty, Smith said the issue struck a nerve.

“(The state legislature) challenged the core operations of the University —  teaching, research, hiring, tenure — everything that we take seriously, everything that's vital to the institution, is being challenged in a new way here,” Smith said. “And, we just wanted to raise our voices in protest.”

‘We're losing good people right now’

If H.B. 715 is passed, Smith said UNC-CH and System schools would become a “pariah” in the world of higher education. 

Tenure is the most vital protection for academic freedom, he said. Without it, Smith said speech in classrooms will most likely be chilled and research agendas will be stalled — degrading the educational experience at the University. 

Faculty members granted tenure receive an indefinite appointment at their university and can only be terminated for cause or under extraordinary circumstances. The designation is intended to protect academic freedom since faculty members cannot lose their jobs due to the content of their lesson plans, publications, research findings or speech in the classroom. 

It is unconscionable, he said, that the legislature would consider removing tenure protections for “no good reason.” He worries that topics like reproductive health care and climate change would no longer be part of open class discussions. 

“There will be certain topics that teachers who are developing new courses will feel that they can't touch — they can't risk touching — because of the threat to their livelihood, the threat that they might be dismissed from the University for running afoul of someone's political opinions,” Smith said.

 A University report shows that, as of 2021, 34 percent of all academic and health staff were tenured and 10 percent were tenure track, with all remaining faculty hired on a fixed-term basis. 

Tenure at UNC made national news two years ago when the UNC BOT initially failed to grant Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. She was set to become the Knight chairperson in investigative journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media — and every faculty member who had previously occupied the position held tenure. She was later offered and accepted a tenured position at Howard University. 

“Because of the various controversies we've had to go through over the past five to 10 years, we're losing good people right now," Smith said. “And more will be leaving.”

‘It would be disastrous’

Many faculty members believe threatening academic freedom at UNC will harm not only the institution's reputation, but talent retention and the stability of the school’s accreditation as well. 

Michael Palm is an associate professor in the UNC Department of Communication and a signatory on the faculty letter. 

He said there has already been a tremendous and ongoing loss of faculty at the University — especially faculty of color — in direct response to attacks on tenure. With new legislation, he said these losses will only increase. 

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In April 2022, the national American Association of University Professors published a report on governance, academic freedom and institutional racism within the UNC System. Palm and Smith are president and vice president, respectively, of AAUP's UNC chapter. 

The report found that institutional racism and recent University decisions on the Silent Sam settlement and Hannah-Jones tenure case make the UNC System a "hostile environment for faculty, staff, and students of color."

“That's what they're are trying to do, right?” Palm said. “They want UNC to be a whiter campus, both at the faculty level and ultimately among the student body.”

Smith said the bill could make it nearly impossible for the University to recruit top scholars from around the country because no one will want to come to UNC System schools. Citizens of North Carolina should be alarmed, he said. 

"I think it would be disastrous, to be blunt, if tenure were removed,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told The Daily Tar Heel. “And I think it could be disastrous for the state of North Carolina.”

A representative from the UNC System and sponsors of H.B. 715 did not respond for comment by the time of publication.

'Clear and blatant power grab'

The stakes for education in the state are high, Smith said. 

Alongside H.B. 715, the faculty letter outlines concerns about the BOT’s resolution to accelerate the development of the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership and a recent legislative inquiry into the System’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. 

It also mentions House Bill 96, which would create a new American history graduation requirement for students attending all N.C. public colleges and universities, with specific state guidelines for class content and exams.

Palm said the proposed elimination of tenure and other bills in the legislature are a “clear and blatant power grab” by the largely conservative BOT, BOG and General Assembly. As of April, Republicans hold a supermajority in the N.C. legislature and can override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. 

Another bill currently in the legislature, Senate Bill 680, could allow the BOG the right to select which accreditation body reviews the University — effectively leaving accreditation decisions up to the governors. 

As it stands, Smith said the University might also risk losing accreditation if faculty tenure is entirely eliminated.

Palm said H.B. 715, S.B. 680 and other conservative-led actions relating to higher education in North Carolina “are all part of an attempt to wrestle control of the curriculum from the faculty and hand it to politicians in the state Assembly and their appointed cronies on the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees.”

“It seems as though the legislature wants to remake higher education in North Carolina, and remake it in a way that will effectively destroy it,” Smith said. 

'Listen to us'

Going forward, Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman told The Daily Tar Heel she hopes the faculty will be better included in institutional decisions. 

The importance of tenure is not widely understood outside of academia, she said. Without consulting faculty members on matters of tenure and curriculum, she said legislators, governors and trustees appear to be operating without adequate information. 

"I think it's very important for people outside of the system, outside of the day-to-day running of it to at least gather information from a lot of different sources before moving ideas forward," Chapman said. 

Smith said that University leaders and faculty members must make clear to the legislature that tenure is vital to talent retention and academic freedom. He hopes that, together, UNC leaders can come together to resist the "radical reformation of higher education" he said is included in H.B. 157 and related bills. 

"Obviously, we would like our boards and our legislature to be on our side too, rather than acting as mutually hostile enemies," he said. "It would be great if we could get together as administrators and faculty and persuade our leaders on the governing boards and in the State Assembly to to listen to us."


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