Trouble at our universities

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Is the University of North Carolina in trouble?

“Yes. It always is.”

That answer is accurate and not necessarily a bad one, because universities should raise, discuss, and feature ideas — including controversial ones.

A university is a place where controversy and the conflict of ideas are necessary parts of the search for truth and the discovery and critique of new ideas.

But a university can find itself involved in too much trouble.

The headline of a April 29 New York Times article by Stephanie Saul stated, “G.O.P. Leaders Subverted University of North Carolina, Professors’ Group Says.” The article’s opening paragraph is as follows:

“A prestigious national academic group charged on Thursday that North Carolina’s legislature had politically interfered with the operations of the University of North Carolina for more than a decade, creating a hostile academic and racial climate at its campuses, including the flagship in Chapel Hill.”

In its lengthy report, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) set out a long list of recent troubling events on the campuses of UNC-Chapel Hill and other universities of the UNC System.

For instance: the handling of the removal of the Silent Sam statue; the botched attempted hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones, primary author of The Times’ 1619 Report; the closure of the UNC Law School’s Poverty Center; the appointment of Darrell Allison as chancellor at Fayetteville State University, although he had no leadership experience in higher education; the failure of the UNC-Chapel Hill board to reappoint Eric Muller, a renowned law professor, to the governing board of the UNC Press, although the board had reelected him unanimously to chair the board; and many other actions.

The report asserts that racism is embedded in the system. “In a state that is about 20 percent Black, 5 percent of UNC faculty members are Black.”

The report asserts “detailed patterns of political interference by the North Carolina legislature into the administration of the UNC system, overreach by the board of governors and boards of trustees into specific campus operations, outright disregard for principles of academic governance by campus and system leadership, institutional racism, and a hostile climate for academic freedom across the system. Some of these patterns reflect national trends.”

The controversies, “coupled with constant mismanagement on the part of the system and campus boards for a situation is unique to UNC. The cumulative effect of these tumultuous events, especially since 2010, leaves the UNC system in a precarious position.”

In responding to the report, UNC System Senior Vice President Kimberly van Noort said that it “contains no empirical data about the true health of the university system” and was a “relentlessly grim portrayal of one of the nation’s strongest, most vibrant, and most productive university systems.” According to the Times article, she cited “lowered tuition, improved graduation rates among low-income and minority students, and investments in six historically minority-serving institutions.”

Chris Clemens, professor of physics and astronomy, became UNC-Chapel Hill’s executive vice chancellor and provost on Feb. 1. He acknowledges his conservative views and believes the university can do a better job explaining to the legislature its value to the people of North Carolina. He talks about how research creates jobs and wealth for the state and how college and graduate education provide a bank of talented people.

If legislators are worried about the universities indoctrinating students to be liberals, Clemens asks them, “Have you ever tried to indoctrinate an 18-year-old?”

With people like Clemens trying to bridge the gap between the legislature and faculty, some of the worries outlined in the AAUP report can be minimized.

D.G. Martin hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch,” for more than 20 years.

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