Special Committee Report on the UNC System

By Anita Levy

In April, the AAUP published a report by the Special Committee on Governance, Academic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the University of North Carolina system. The report considers the influence of the gerrymandered North Carolina state legislature on the systemwide board of governors and campus boards of trustees and how political pressure has obstructed meaningful faculty participation in the governance of the UNC system. It also assesses how the environment for academic freedom in the UNC system has been weakened by the politicization and increased centralization of system governance and by mounting political interference in university policy. Finally, the report focuses on key issues of institutional racism within UNC: the racial climate, institutional inequities, and retention of faculty of color. It demonstrates how the areas of governance, institutional racism, and academic freedom overlap significantly.

The report focuses on UNC–Chapel Hill as the flagship campus but also examines events across the entire system, including ones at Appalachian State University, Fayetteville State University, and East Carolina and Western Carolina Universities, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on faculty governance. Through interviews with more than fifty individuals across the UNC system, the report details the pattern of political interference that has characterized the entire system since 2010, when Republicans won majorities in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly. The report explains how the legislature subsequently consolidated its control over board appointments, making the UNC system board of governors the only statewide governing board in the nation that is solely appointed by the legislature without input from the governor.

The special committee’s report surveys the environment for governance and academic freedom in the UNC system against this backdrop of overtly partisan political control. It canvasses numerous instances of interference by the board of governors in campus-level matters, among them the 2014 systemwide review of campus centers that culminated in the closure of three centers, including two—the Center for Work, Poverty, and Opportunity at the UNC–Chapel Hill School of Law and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University—headed by faculty members who had been vocal critics of state leadership; the 2017 board of governors’ vote to bar campus centers from conducting litigation, which particularly affected the UNC–Chapel Hill School of Law Center for Civil Rights; and the 2021 controversy surrounding the appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones to an endowed chair in the UNC–Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Media.

The special committee concluded that the statewide board of governors and the campus-level boards of trustees have repeatedly exercised their considerable power in a manner that violates AAUP-supported principles of academic governance set forth in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities and reinforces institutional racism in the UNC system. The report finds, moreover, that the various actions taken by the board of governors and campus administrations have placed academic freedom in “growing jeopardy.”

The special committee’s report also details how the system’s governance problems have interacted with long-standing patterns of institutional racism to make the UNC system a particularly hostile environment for faculty, staff, and students of color. In examining the racial climate at UNC, the report looks at two recent public controversies in detail—the case of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument and the board’s refusal to consider the appointment with tenure of Nikole Hannah-Jones—and the public outcry that followed. The report finds that these two events, while specific to UNC–Chapel Hill, sent the same message to faculty members of color across the system, making them feel unwelcome, undervalued, and insecure.

The report concludes that UNC needs strong and independent leadership that respects faculty expertise, that observes widely accepted principles of academic governance, that protects academic inquiry from political pressures and constraints, and that is willing to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea of equity. Citing the Statement on Government, the report notes the governing board's “special obligation to ensure that the history of the college or university shall serve as a prelude and inspiration to the future.” It closes by calling for system and campus-level governing boards to fulfill this obligation to ensure that the history of the University of North Carolina inspires and serves as a prelude to a future that looks very different from its past and its present.