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'Why would they do that?': Faculty reflect on restrictions for distinguished professorships

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead distinguished professor of history, poses for a portrait in his Hamilton Hall office on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

Members of the UNC Board of Trustees called for "a full and open explanation to the entire University community" in a Nov. 3 letter regarding the N.C. General Assembly's decision to limit distinguished professorships to STEM fields.

A provision in House Bill 259, which became law in October, prevents professors outside of STEM fields from earning distinguished professorships in the UNC System. In a Board of Governors meeting on Oct. 19, the BOG proposed a revision to the UNC Policy Manual to comply with the General Assembly.

The committee members who wrote the letter to BOT chair John Preyer asked that the “gravity of [their] unease” regarding the exclusion be conveyed to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

Tenured faculty with distinguished professorships receive an honorary title and substantial research funds, which may be provided for a fixed period or until their retirement.

“I always thought it was the next honor one would aspire to, to be given this kind of position, and I appreciated it very much,” Philip Gura, UNC’s William S. Newman distinguished professor of American literature and culture, said. “If that isn’t available, you’re going to go to a place like Duke or the University of Chicago, where you’ll be rewarded properly.”

Some professors at UNC learned of the change through their University emails. Others, like W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a William Umstead distinguished professor of history, learned about the change when colleagues from other universities asked them how they felt about the decision.

“It certainly is not going to add luster to the reputation of [UNC] in the social sciences or humanities,” Brundage said. “There have been many important scholars in the humanities and social sciences who came to this University through distinguished professorships.”

Hooker distinguished professor of biology Mark Peifer, who served on the Distinguished Chairs Selection Committee, said he saw no justification to change a decades-long approach to choosing distinguished professors. 

He also said the General Assembly has made multiple "disturbing" decisions within the last five years that suggest that broad support for public education has been lost among some of the leadership of the current legislature.

For Gura, his distinguished professorship made him feel rewarded for his work. He said the University could lose personnel if it stopped offering chaired positions to tenured faculty in the humanities.

“It’s hard to ascribe motive if we don’t know the people, but I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that they feel that those other fields — the STEM fields — are becoming more important to students,” Gura said.

Alan Jones, a Kenan distinguished professor of biology, said he does not see a reason to exclude qualified scholars in humanities and social sciences.

“I think it would have a real impact at the higher level,” Jones said. “In terms of morale, it’s just going to really kill the good feeling on our campus.”

While alumni can still donate to distinguished professorships in the humanities, the state will no longer contribute money for these positions. 

Laurie McNeil, the Bernard Gray distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, said the lack of support from the legislature would make it harder for humanities professors to earn distinguished chairs through private donations alone. 

“I would imagine that some donors, who are interested in enhancing the quality of faculty at UNC [and] who have interests other than in STEM, may not be so inclined to give those donations,” McNeil said. “Generally, people who donate to universities want the entire enterprise to be strong.”

During Peifer’s time on the selection committee, he said he reviewed the work of impressive humanities faculty like Alan Shapiro, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. 

“Honestly, I think Alan Shapiro was much more qualified for a distinguished professorship than me,” Peifer said. “I’m sure you could find a dozen examples easily of people here like that — people who are literally at the top of their discipline nationally.”

While H.B. 259 provided no rationale for these changes, some professors and faculty have speculated about their purpose. McNeil said one reason might be that STEM education can lead to well-paying jobs for graduates, but that preparing students for lucrative careers is not the only purpose of a university. 

“The other reason, which is an even less favorable inference, is that the areas that are not being supported are areas where there is more political controversy,” McNeil said. “There’s no political controversy about Newton’s laws. The people who chose to put this provision into the law could think that the views of people they disagree with should not be supported at the University.”

Brundage said he feels the decision diminishes the contributions of humanities and social sciences departments on college campuses. 

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“I think this will discourage private donations to establish distinguished chairs in the humanities and social sciences, and it sends a message to devalue the humanities and social sciences,” Brundage said. “Why would they do that?”

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