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New UNC documents shed light on controversy surrounding sports history class

UNC Professor Jay Smith speaks during a Faculty Council meeting in 2013. He filed a grievance alleging improper administrative meddling in his course on the history of big-time sports.
UNC Professor Jay Smith speaks during a Faculty Council meeting in 2013. He filed a grievance alleging improper administrative meddling in his course on the history of big-time sports. tlong@newsobserver.com

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt released documents Friday related to her rejection of a faculty grievance committee's report supporting a faculty member's assertion that administrators intervened in the scheduling of a sports history course that included information about the university's athletics scandal.

Earlier this week, university officials declined to talk about the case of Jay Smith, the history professor who has claimed administrators in the dean's office took an unusual interest in his class and prevented it from being offered in 2017. He taught the course, "Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes," this past semester. Smith is co-author of a book on the UNC scandal and has been a frequent critic of the university's handling of it.

The documents released include a Nov. 30, 2017 letter from Provost Bob Blouin to the faculty grievance committee, informing it of his rejection; a Feb. 26 letter from Folt to Smith; a March 20 letter from Folt to Board of Trustees chairman Haywood Cochrane; and an April 2 decision from the Board of Trustees denying Smith's appeal.

"I am releasing the letters that set forth the basis for the final decision made in that grievance in order to provide important context and facts that were not in the media reports," Folt wrote in a memo Friday. She said the university is typically limited in releasing personnel information but in this case it was appropriate "to maintain the integrity" of the university, as state law allows.

Last year, a three-member grievance panel concluded that Smith's history class was dropped from the schedule after administrative pressure that was inconsistent with the university's commitment to academic freedom. The panel recommended that university officials not interfere in individual courses and not threaten an academic department financially or with other negative consequences over a particular course.

The letters released Friday explain the provost's, chancellor's and board's rationale for denying the faculty grievance committee's report and recommendations. They cite factual errors in the grievance report. They argue that the grievance was moot because Smith's course was taught again, and they say that the dean has the authority to make decisions about curriculum matters in accordance with accreditation and university standards.

In her Feb. 26 letter to Smith, Folt wrote: "I fully support and embrace the University's commitment to protect academic freedom for our faculty, in accordance with our policies, our accreditation requirements, and the law. At the same time, I will continue to support the authority of the deans and department leaders to make certain that we are offering classes that meet our strategic goals and our commitment to offer our students a sound education."

Smith said Friday the "moot" point argument ignores the crux of his grievance, "that my department and I were victims of improper harassment over the scheduling of a single course." He further argues that there is evidence that the dean, Kevin Guskiewicz, "used threatening language on more than one occasion" during discussions with Smith's department chairman.

"They claim that an affirmation of their own believe in departmental curricular autonomy would jeopardize the dean's authority to supervise the curriculum," Smith responded. "This is nonsense, since the dean's own appointed administrative boards of the college approve all new courses and new curricular programs — indeed, my course was approved by that very same committee, appointed by the dean."

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