RALEIGH (May 4, 2022) – Well what a week it’s been for the UNC System in the national press.
If there was any doubt remaining that the UNC System has become overly politicized, the past week made the point:
- Inside Higher Ed reported a spike in faculty and staff turnover at UNC System institutions that began in June 2021. The number of resignations and transfers that month alone was more than double the departures in each of the previous 10 months.
“Starting in the summer of 2021, the University’s turnover rates increased substantially across the board and this trend continues to-date,” said Matthew Brody, the UNC System’s chief human resources officer. Brody and UNC Board of Governors members attributed the moves to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation.
But others aren’t so sure. Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at UNC Wilmington, said other factors include “burnout, demoralization, disengagement,” issues that “have been around a long time and are not going away when the pandemic does. The pandemic revived them.”1
- The agency that accredits university journalism programs voted to downgrade UNC Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media to “provisional” accreditation for the next two years. The agency found UNC Hussman does not comply with standards for diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, though the school did adopt a diversity plan in 2016 and increase the number of Black faculty members from four to six.
“The UNC Hussman School is dealing with an existential crisis both internally and externally,” the accrediting team found. “The controversy surrounding the decision by Nikole Hannah-Jones to turn down a tenured, endowed chair at the school exposed long-standing problems. Many stem from inconsistencies in executing the goals in the 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.”
“Several faculty members and staff, in particular those of color, said morale is low and they are considering leaving the school,” the team found.2
- And a committee of professors from outside the UNC System issued a 60-page report for the American Association of University Professors that found repeated violations of shared governance and academic freedom in the UNC System against a backdrop of “pervasive and overtly partisan political control.”3
The report details controversies ranging from the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC Chapel Hill to the botched hire of Hannah-Jones, removal of appointment powers for a Democratic governor, three presidents in 10 years, closure of social-justice academic centers, interference by board members in chancellor searches at Western Carolina and East Carolina universities and a suspect search at Fayetteville State University where a former member of the UNC Board of Governors was hired as chancellor.
“This report has 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,” the report says.
Though some of those are part of national trends, “The frequency and intensity of controversies at UNC, coupled with constant mismanagement on the part of the system and campus boards, is unique to UNC,” it says.4
Tori Ekstrand, a journalism and First Amendment scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, observed with release of the report that the charged political environment results in a lack of communication – and trust.
“People talk a lot about feeling silenced these days. They talk a lot about cancel culture,” Ekstrand said. “But what we all need is more time talking about the chilling effects in our speech environments and how those chilling effects have eroded trust – the trust we need to run an institution accountable to the citizens of this state.“5
AS WE AND OTHERS have said repeatedly in our coverage of governance issues, the proper role for governing board members is “noses in, fingers out.” But the cumulative effect of these multiple missteps damages the University.
Stable leadership is important. The composition of boards should reflect the people of North Carolina. Board members appointed directly or indirectly by the N.C. General Assembly should not insert themselves in hiring and other decisions they have hired professionals to make. And shared governance means just that: Board members and donors must respect decisions of the faculty regarding academic matters.6
The people of North Carolina deserve no less from the institution that distinguishes this state from all others.
1 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/04/26/unc-faculty-staff-turnover-spikes-spurs-search-answers. See also: https://www.northcarolina.edu/apps/bog/doc.php?id=66644&code=bog, pp. 15, 19.
3 https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/21752521/aaup-report-unc-system-2022.pdf, p. 6.
4 Ibid, p. 57.