UNC chancellor and provost affirm academic freedom principles, but with a caveat

Professor Jay Smith said his academic freedom was violated when his sports history class was not scheduled last year.
Professor Jay Smith said his academic freedom was violated when his sports history class was not scheduled last year. tlong@newsobserver.com

UNC-Chapel Hill faculty leaders have asked Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Bob Blouin to affirm their commitment to academic freedom after they overturned a faculty grievance committee’s decision in favor of a professor whose sports history class faced administrative interference.

In a letter to Blouin, Faculty Chair Leslie Parise said the Faculty Executive Committee had met twice in July to discuss the case of Jay Smith, a history professor whose “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes” class explored, in part, the UNC athletic and academic scandal involving no-show classes. Smith’s course was kept off the schedule for a time in 2017-18.

In a rare challenge to the administration, Parise asked Blouin and Folt to “publicly reaffirm their commitments to department autonomy, academic freedom, and the process of faculty governance.”

Parise said the rejection of last year’s faculty grievance committee’s finding created the concern that academic freedom had been compromised.

“We acknowledge administrators’ responsibility to maintain oversight over curricula,” Parise wrote. “But to be compatible with the university’s commitment to academic freedom, this oversight must be fairly and consistently applied, leaving as many course scheduling decisions as possible to department-level leadership.”

In a response posted Thursday, Folt and Blouin wrote: “We are pleased to affirm our historic, steadfast commitment to academic freedom and faculty shared governance, and we value the robust and thorough process of faculty governance at this University. We know and appreciate the hard work of our faculty that has upheld and advanced this time-honored tradition.”

But, they added that the Smith grievance outcome is a rare instance where the administration and the faculty disagree, adding, “academic freedom is not free from accountability, which we must enforce as leaders of this University.”

In a break at a trustee meeting Thursday, Folt called faculty governance “the critical bedrock of a university” and said the administration supports faculty recommendations “nine times out of 10.”

However, she added, the university also has rules and regulations from governing boards and accrediting committees and must abide by them. If the faculty is “asking us to provide complete autonomy to any department to do anything that it wants, we will not and cannot state that without violating those policies.”

At issue in the grievance was whether the administration meddled in the scheduling of the course taught by Smith, a frequent critic of UNC’s handling of the athletic scandal.

UNC emails published by The News & Observer last year showed that history department administrators worried about “blowback” and “a fight on our hands” if Smith’s course was offered in 2017-18. It was kept off the schedule.

Forty-five history faculty signed a statement last year calling scheduling interference “a serious infringement of freedom of inquiry.” The professors said their chairman felt concerned about adverse consequences for the history department if the course were offered. Officials in the dean’s office denied interfering in the schedule because of the course’s content.

A faculty grievance committee reviewed the case and determined that Smith’s class was not scheduled because of pressure from administrators; the panel also recommended that UNC officials not interfere in individual courses or threaten a department with financial consequences.

The course was first taught in 2016. University officials had argued that Smith’s grievance was moot because his course was eventually offered again in the spring of 2018.

In an email Thursday, Smith called the Faculty Executive Committee’s letter to the administration “cautious and diplomatic.”

But he said it was telling that two faculty committees that considered his case “have found the administrators’ account of their actions deficient, suspicious, and threatening to the principles of academic freedom.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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