National teachers’ organization releases scathing report on UNC system

Thursday’s scathing report on the UNC system from the American Association of University Teachers included contributions from universities across the system.

“The University of North Carolina system is in trouble,” according to a report released Thursday by a national group of faculty. “And not the kind of problem that record entries or good rankings can solve. It’s the kind of disorder that festers and spreads.

The 38-page report, released Thursday by the American Association of University Teachers, chronicles what the group calls excessive political interference, threats to academic freedom and systemic racism throughout the 17-campus system. It is the product of a special committee’s interviews with more than 50 current and former faculty members, administrators and trustees, and members of the system-wide racial equity task force. The report includes quotes from numerous interviewees, although they are not identified by name.

The report is the first step in a process that could lead the national organization to sanction the system for violating group governance standards. Although the AAUP has no power over the system, a formal sanction from the group could carry weight with faculty and further harm the university’s ability to attract and retain top talent. Only 13 establishments have been formally sanctioned by the AAUP, according to the band’s own list – mostly smaller private colleges and universities.

“It’s a rare event,” said Michael Behrent, a history professor at Appalachian State University and president of the North Carolina AAUP.

“There are already concerns about an exodus of professors of color and other professors as well,” Behrent said at a UNC-Chapel Hill press conference Thursday morning. “Having the national teachers’ organization tell other teachers that this institution is sanctioned could cause serious recruiting problems for this system, with all the attendant consequences for its reputation, the quality of its degrees, etc.”

The investigation, led by a committee of professors from out-of-state universities, was sparked by last year’s controversy over UNC-Chapel Hill’s very public failure to hire famed journalist Nikole Hannah. -Jones. But Behrent said the seeds of that controversy were sown years earlier, when Republicans took office in 2010 and began a purge of Democrats from the UNC system’s board of governors. Critics inside and outside the system say it has contributed to more partisan and ideological governance and a series of scandals that have drawn national attention.

Beyond the Hannah-Jones controversy, the report examines the politically motivated ousting or resignations of system presidents and chancellors, the controversial installation of new system and campus leaders under rules changed by political appointees and unsuccessful responses to everything from the toppling of the Confederate “Silent Sam” Monument at UNC-Chapel Hill to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also addresses a lack of diversity on boards of trustees, among faculty at most schools in the UNC system, and high-profile incidents in which faculty members said they were targeted for expressing criticism of the university or conservative state leaders.

The AAUP committee reached out to UNC System Chairman Peter Hans, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and UNC-Chapel Hill Chairman of the Board of Trustees. ‘UNC-Chapel Hill David Boliek during the preparation of the report. The band said each of them declined to be interviewed.

The report contains “countless errors,” UNC System spokesman Josh Ellis told Policy Watch on Thursday.

Megan Hayes, associate vice chancellor and director of communications for the state of Appalachia, provided Policy Watch with the school’s information 8-page rebuttal of the sections of the report that address the status of enforcement.

The system shared two response letters Kimberly van Noort, the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, sent to an AAUP representative before the report was released.

“You offer a relentlessly bleak portrait of one of the strongest, most vibrant and most productive university systems in the country,” van Noort wrote on March 23, after reading a copy of the report. “It’s nearly impossible to reconcile the grim portrait you’ve created with the thriving campuses we know and love.”

“Over the past six years, we have reduced tuition fees for almost all of our students; improving graduation rates among low-income and minority students; and is making historic investments in growing and supporting the six historically minority-serving institutions in our system,” van Noort wrote. “We continue to recruit and support world-class faculty, and we secured substantial increases for faculty and staff in the last (bipartisan) state budget, as well as more than $2 billion in capital funding. for our campuses.

These are no small accomplishments, van Noort wrote. While the system appreciates dissenting voices and criticism, she wrote, “our harshest criticisms should not be confused with a consensus among the UNC system’s 260,000 faculty, staff, and students.”

In an earlier email exchange, dated Oct. 18, van Noort specifically addressed the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy. Writing on behalf of Ramsey, van Noort pointed out that the issue of Hannah-Jones’ hiring and tenure was handled at the campus level and not at the UNC system level, but she noted that ultimately, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees offered a permanent position. to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Revealing details of how and why the bid was successful, the political and donor pressure exerted on the university’s trustees and board eventually led Hannah-Jones to turn down the post at Chapel Hill for a position at Howard University.

“It’s hard to read this as anything other than a situation in which a wanted researcher weighed several tenure offers and selected the one she most wanted to pursue,” van Noort wrote.

At Thursday’s press conference, AAUP members said that this type of denial — and regular assertions that criticism from students, staff, and faculty do not represent the consensus opinion on campuses in the system – are disappointing.

“I came to the UNC system in 2010 because I thought it was one of the best university systems in the United States, if not the world, for teaching and research,” said Nicole Peterson, professor of anthropology and president of the AAUP chapter at UNC-Charlotte.

But during her time in the UNC system, Peterson said, she and her colleagues felt the system was not living up to its potential.

“This new report supports that sentiment with evidence,” Peterson said. “It shows that our reputation and the reputation of our state is suffering. The issues this report highlights keep the UNC system from being one of the best university systems in the world.

Peterson said the system can be a leader in education, but the number of issues and details in the report are “shocking” and need to be addressed rather than brushed aside or justified.

Behrent said he hopes the university will instead heed the details of the report and begin working with its students, faculty and staff to meaningfully address them in the type of shared governance promoted by AAUP and seen for a long time in the system.

The AAUP could address the issue of sanctions by early summer, he said.

“I sincerely hope that by then – after being ignored for a long time – board members, board members, campus administrators, system administrators, will actually listen to these concerns and be d agree that it’s not a good thing for the system to be sanctioned, – and we’ll be talking to other campus voters about trying to address these issues,” Behrent said.

Lily the full AAUP report here.

Aubrey L. Morgan