In North Carolina, an Esteemed Public University System Teeters on the Brink

Will attacks on faculty governance and tenure spell the end of the public research university?
By Jay M. Smith

This article is part of a series, "Dispatches from States under Legislative Attack."

Alarming developments in North Carolina came in rapid succession in the spring semester of 2023. In February we learned that the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was preparing to foist on the university a new school that the campus did not need and the faculty did not want. Ostensibly, the School of Civic Life and Leadership would prepare students for a life of engaged citizenship. But the chair of the board revealed in an interview with Fox News that its real purpose is to “remedy” the “imbalance” that allegedly excludes “right-of-center views.” For the first time in living memory in our state, a governing board is dictating the shape of a university’s curriculum, what is to be considered in hiring decisions, and the goals and values of the institution. The board’s complete disregard for shared governance, and for the principle of faculty control over the curriculum enshrined in the joint 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, left many of us, including the chair of the faculty, “flabbergasted.” As is customary here, administrators wasted no time before rolling over, and the process of selecting faculty members who will make “a good fit” for the new school is already underway.

In March, while still reeling over this power grab, we heard about the NC REACH Act, a bill from the bicameral general assembly that would require all two- and four-year institutions to add a new graduation requirement to their curricula: a three-credit course on American government or history. If passed, the bill will require students to read a specified set of historical documents reflecting America’s “founding principles”; the final exam will be heavily weighted to assess knowledge of those documents. Historians across the state were disappointed to learn that the voices of women, laborers, Native Americans, and Black Americans would be excluded from these expressions of the “American constitutional heritage”—with the exception of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Having passed the house easily, the bill will reach the North Carolina senate early next year.

Later in March, the general assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations announced an inquiry into all diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) programs in the state’s institutions of higher education. The commission’s letter demanding information from the UNC system office about all DEIA programs revealed its true agenda. “For the purposes of this letter, DEIA includes, but is not limited to, those subject matters which reference or discuss ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘accessibility,’ ‘racism,’ ‘anti-racism,’ ‘anti-racist,’ ‘oppression,’ ‘internalized oppression,’ ‘systemic racism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘gender,’ ‘LGBTQ+,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘unconscious bias,’ ‘bias,’ ‘microaggressions,’ ‘critical race theory,’ ‘intersectionality,’ or ‘social justice.’” The word police are clearly determined to snuff out any suggestion that systemic inequity has been part of the historical experience of the United States.

The next assault came in April. House Bill 715 proposed a series of changes to the nuts-and-bolts operations of universities. The bill would “prospectively eliminate academic tenure.” Beginning in 2024, all new faculty members would be appointed on short-term contracts of no more than four years. The elimination of tenure would presumably advance one of the overarching goals of the bill: to “ensure efficient use” of resources by allowing the elimination of “unnecessary or redundant” personnel and areas of study. The bill did not stop at withdrawing tenure protections. It would also require the governing boards of both two- and four-year institutions to establish “minimum class sizes”—on the common assumption that faculty don’t work hard enough.

Arguably the most unsettling of the bill’s provisions was its demand that each institution in the state “shall study all noninstructional research performed by higher education personnel at the institution and report this information” to their respective governing boards. The “costs and benefits” of each “noninstructional” research project, along with an estimate of the number of hours devoted to such projects, would be specified in regular reports sent to the boards, whose overriding commitment would be “to increase instructional time for students and faculty” at each institution.

It is no exaggeration to say that HB 715, if it were to become law, would spell the end of the public research university in the state of North Carolina. Without the protection of tenure, without the freedom to pursue a robust research agenda rooted in a discipline’s search for the truth, and with the expectation that a faculty member’s hours in the classroom must always be high and rising, no academician looking for a new home would dare step foot in this state. If you take the “noninstructional” research out of our public universities, you take away what makes them unique. The public university as we have known it for over a century, a model for the entire globe, will collapse under its own weight, which may well be the legislators’ endgame.

Fortunately, HB 715 failed to meet an important deadline to transfer from the house to the senate in May. For the time being, the bill has been pushed to the back burner. But no one expects it to remain there. The legislature’s new veto-proof Republican majority (thanks to the recent defection of one Mecklenburg County Democrat) has put new wind in the sails of the right-wing politicians who prioritize the culture wars. All these assaults on higher education—in Florida, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, and many other states in addition to North Carolina—seem so depressingly predictable. Legislatures in the South and elsewhere, intellectually indebted to what the Center for Media and Democracy calls a sprawling “web of right-wing ‘think tanks’“ funded by corporations and ideologues, are resolutely determined to silence and undermine faculty members whose research and informed public discourse have frequently trained a bright light on bad policies and patterns of injustice.

In North Carolina, beleaguered faculty members have pushed back against these measures. A letter to the editor of the Daily Tar Heel, the UNC–Chapel Hill student newspaper, drew nearly seven hundred faculty signatures in support of the principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and institutional autonomy that are currently under attack. The state AAUP conference issued a similarly worded letter, and AAUP chapter members have written strong opinion pieces. Other faculty members have written their own op-eds and letters to local media. Plans for teach-ins and other direct actions in the coming academic year are developing. So far, though, there has been no sign that the power brokers are inclined to listen. Perhaps our best hope in North Carolina is that voters will eventually make the culture warriors pay a price at the ballot box. Otherwise, our highly successful state university and community college systems could soon be broken, possibly beyond repair.

Jay M. Smith is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of the North Carolina AAUP conference.