CHAPEL HILL (August 10, 2023) – Faculty are the heart of any university. But what has politicization cost UNC-Chapel Hill?
Though not all of these faculty members cited university governance as the reason, let’s take a look at some recent departures:
- Kelly Hogan is a rock star in the world of new ways to teach and keep students engaged (as is her colleague Viji Sathy).
When the pandemic lockdown forced a sudden shift to online classes in March 2020, Hogan moved a 320-student biology class online in a matter of two weeks. To keep students involved, she broke up classes with short, 5- to 15-minute videos, followed by questions for the students.
In an ingenious bit of pandemic pedagogy, Hogan and other professors even recorded lab experiments where they deliberately made mistakes so the experiments would fail – and they could then ask students what went wrong to generate discussion.1
In fall 2020, Hogan received a national award for her inclusive innovations teaching biology.2 But in June, she became a Professor of the Practice of Biology at Duke University.3
- Suzanne Barbour was Dean of the Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2019-22. Barbour has been a professor in biochemistry and molecular biology, with research focused in part on lipid signals in metabolic diseases.
Last September, she became Dean of the Duke University Graduate School.4
- Deen Freelon is an expert in digital politics and computational research, with a focus on the politics of race, gender and ideology.
He was a founding member of the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill and has been awarded more than $6 million in research grants from the likes of the Knight Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and others. As a son of celebrated architect and NC State University adjunct professor Phil Freelon, he has deep ties to North Carolina.
He is now the Allan Randall Freelon Sr. Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania – an endowed chair named for his great-grandfather.5 He remains a senior affiliate researcher at UNC, though, and will continue to work with faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students.6
- During the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ hesitation over tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2021, Lisa Jones, a renowned African-American biochemist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore whom UNC’s Chemistry Department had recruited for two years, withdrew as a candidate.
“The news this week that Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure was very disheartening,” Jones wrote (before the Board eventually granted tenure). “It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity.”7
- William Sturkey, a history professor who focuses on race in the American South, was named a Distinguished Lecturer last fall by the Organization of American Historians.8 He announced in March that he was leaving Chapel Hill to join the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania.9
- Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor at Carolina for 20 years who led the redesign of UNC’s undergraduate curriculum from 2016-19,10 left with his wife, Eliana, for Johns Hopkins University in July 2021. Andrew Perrin is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology, and Eliana is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Primary Care in Hopkins’ schools of Medicine and Nursing.11
FOUR OF THESE EXAMPLES involve faculty of color. Not all of them pointed a finger publicly at UNC’s governing boards.
Sturkey, though, penned an op-ed in February about the campus Board of Trustees’ resolution – and an accompanying media campaign in The Wall Street Journal and Fox News – to establish a School of Civic Life and Leadership.
“There was just one glitch: the BOT apparently never told anyone who actually works at or attends the university,” he wrote. Both faculty and administrators were surprised by the resolution, and administrators later asserted that the faculty will develop curriculum for the new school.
“Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of this is the trustees’ abject failure to demonstrate the very type of civil discourse they say is needed on campus. Why the need for secrecy? Why the media blitz? Why are the trustees attacking professors in conservative media? Why not answer questions from the very people who will be tasked with building this school?” Sturkey wrote.
“At worst, it’s a naked power grab that will further impose a political ideology over the campus and curtail academic freedom,” he wrote.
“I know the trustees profess to love the university. But it’s hard for anyone to take this seriously so long as the trustees themselves fail to articulate a consistent and clear vision for their new school, while using the great university that already exists as a political prop in the culture wars.” 12
WITH 51 OTHERS, FREELON signed a statement by journalism faculty and staff that criticized UNC’s botched hiring of Hannah-Jones.
“We will be frank: It was racist,” the statement said.13
He also spoke with both state and national media about the perception that UNC trustees brought politics to bear on a decision about tenure, and about the “undue influence” of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s namesake donor when he weighed in on the hiring decision.14
UPON HIS AND HIS WIFE’S departures in 2021, Perrin shared a blog post that praised how UNC focuses on being “truly public and truly excellent,” with dedicated faculty and high-level research.
He cited four levels of governance of the university: The UNC Board of Governors that oversees the 17-campus system, a Board of Trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill, a substantial UNC System administration, and a state legislature that closely monitors the university.
“That’s a huge oversight structure,” he wrote. “With the Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2010, though, that burdensome structure became a partisan weapon.” The Board of Governors “brazenly” interfered in university activities for political reasons and the Board of Trustees delayed tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, he said.
UNC has “extraordinary faculty;” “wonderful students,” many of them first-generation and low-income; and a great global reputation, Perrin said.
“But all of that is in jeopardy, in large part due to the untenable external governance structure. I don’t see how, in the long term, a top-tier university can survive under governing boards that are hostile to its goals or legislators determined at once to starve and politicize it,” he wrote.
“I really hope in the coming years that Carolina will find a way to stay proudly public, academically excellent, and truly inclusive,” Perrin wrote.
“That’s the promise of UNC – a truly important, even essential, institution for North Carolina and the country.”15
12 https://greensboro.com/opinion/columnists/william-sturkey-chapel-hill-trustees-hellbent-on-winning-campus-culture-wars/article_bd6394f4-abc4-11ed-a3e7-ffa67aaa299b.html; https://hew.aveltsagency.com/2023/02/guskiewicz-walks-a-tightrope/.