UNC committee sides with professor on sports history course that includes recent scandal

Jay Smith, UNC-Chapel Hill history professor and outspoken critic of how UNC has handled the academic-athletic scandal

VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.
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VIDEO: Smith talks about the effectiveness of dozens of reforms UNC has introduced in the wake of the scandal and his reform group's unsuccessful efforts to obtain data from UNC officials to track the academics of special-admit athletes.

UNC-Chapel Hill administrators exerted pressure over the scheduling of a sports history course that dealt with UNC’s athletics scandal, in a way that was inconsistent with the university’s stated commitment to academic freedom, a faculty committee has concluded.

In an Oct. 3 decision, a three-member faculty grievance committee found in favor of Jay Smith, a UNC history professor and frequent critic of the university’s handling of the long-running athletic and academic scandal. Smith filed his grievance July 6, and the committee held a hearing Sept. 8.

Smith created the course, History 383, titled “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes,” which he originally taught in 2016. It was not scheduled for the current academic year after history department administrators worried about “blowback” and “a fight on our hands,” according to internal UNC emails published by The News & Observer earlier this year.

The course was added to the spring 2018 schedule a few weeks after Smith filed his grievance. UNC administrators had sought to have the issue dropped, but the committee heard the case anyway, saying it was appropriate for review.

Administrators named in the grievance were: Jim Dean, former provost; Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Jonathan Hartlyn, former senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Fitzhugh Brundage, chair of the department of history.

The committee concluded that the course aroused “an extraordinary amount of attention” from Guskiewicz and Hartlyn, and that Brundage interpreted the attention as “pressure to keep History 383 off of the regular academic schedule.” That pressure, the committee wrote, was inconsistent with the university’s commitment to academic freedom and with the history department’s traditional deference to course selection decisions.

“I’m very pleased by the results and the tone the committee adopts in their report,” Smith said in an interview, adding, “The irregular procedures that had been followed in the scheduling of my class were so outside departmental and college norms that someone had to answer for it, and the committee obviously saw it my way.”

A UNC spokeswoman, Joanne Peters Denny, said the university is unable to comment on individual faculty grievance cases due to state law on employee privacy. “As a matter of process, the Faculty Grievance Committee makes recommendations to the appropriate administrative officials who must accept those recommendations for them to be final,” she said in an email.

Further, she said: “Carolina has a steadfast commitment to academic freedom and shared governance, and we respect the grievance rights of all faculty to ensure that these principles are upheld. Under the shared governance model, faculty and administrators must work collaboratively to determine the curriculum and course priorities consistent with the needs of each department, school, the University and our students.”

She pointed out that History 383 “was never canceled and the department was never told that it could not ever again be offered.”

The officials named were unable for comment, Denny said. Guskiewicz has maintained that he never pressured or has been pressured about Smith’s class, but said he has asked departments to make strategic decisions about course offerings.

According to the committee’s report, Guskiewicz and Hartlyn testified that they had received inquiries about the course in the spring of 2016. “It was not clear from whom these inquiries came, but it was implied that they were in the nature of phone calls, emails, and in-person requests for information from some combination of the public, students, faculty and/or alumni,” the report said.

In the committee hearing, Guskiewicz and Hartlyn explained that their concerns about the addition of History 383 related solely to the fact that it would replace an honors history class that already had enrolled students. But the committee found that it was unreasonable to assume the loss of one honors course, with low enrollment, would threaten the College of Arts and Sciences’ priorities.

Smith had asked to drop the honors course in favor of the sports course, which would be expected to attract more students.

“The argument that the addition of one course out of thousands offered by the College each semester would threaten the College’s long-term strategic goals strains credulity,” the report said.

The committee found that no administrator explicitly told Brundage, the department chairman, not to schedule Smith’s course. But the committee said it was reasonable that Brundage felt his department could be at risk for budget consequences after Guskiewicz talked of “declining enrollments, declining majors” and a reputation of being “over-resourced.”

“Putting aside questions of memory or veracity, it does appear that Professor Brundage felt under an extreme amount of duress regarding the scheduling of History 383,” the committee’s report said.

In its conclusion, the committee wrote that senior university officials have a right to set long-term strategic goals for academic departments but should not interfere in individual course decisions. “University officials should not state or imply that a department will lose financial resources or otherwise suffer negative consequences if it were to approve a particular course, so long as in the aggregate the department is consistently supporting the University’s strategic goals,” the report said.

Smith said he expected the committee’s proposal could be relevant if such a situation arises again with a course.

“In some respects it’s a toothless proposal that administrators simply remember what their duties are,” Smith said. “Nevertheless, it is useful to have it stated explicitly.”

The committee added that there was no evidence of personal animus against Smith. In fact, Guskiewicz, a well-known expert on concussions, spoke to Smith’s class when it was first offered.

Smith has been outspoken in his criticism of UNC leadership and its handling of the 18-year athletic and academic scandal involving “paper classes” in African studies that never met and required little work for students, many of whom were athletes. He co-wrote a 2015 book about it, titled “Cheated.” Content about the UNC scandal was part of his course, which also covered the rise of the NCAA, athletic scholarships, women’s participation in sports, and issues around race and sports.

The controversy about Smith’s class attracted national attention in higher education publications. It also prompted a letter of protest signed by 45 history faculty in April, calling the cancellation “a serious infringement of freedom of inquiry, a fundamental feature of intellectual life in every authentic university.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was extensively investigated by the NCAA for a system of fake classes taken by thousands of students, roughly half of them athletes, that spanned three decades.

Michael Behrent, a state representative of the American Association of University Professors, said the grievance outcome was good news.

“It makes it clear that university administrators who might be beholden to concerns that are not strictly academic (such as ‘university reputation’ and the sports program) cannot arbitrarily bypass regular university procedures,” Behrent wrote in an email. “Furthermore, Smith’s case shows the importance of having a robust grievance procedure on campuses, precisely in order to prevent arbitrary interference with academic programs. I admire the intelligence, energy, and courage that Professor Smith has put into defending academic freedom and the integrity of academic procedures. In an age when these principles are threatened, he is an example to faculty everywhere.”

Smith said he’ll have about 30 students in the spring, and he’s updating his syllabus to include the NCAA’s recent decision not to sanction UNC in the scandal.

Carol Cartwright, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and a member of the NCAA Infractions Committee, talks about UNC pivoting from accepting the term "academic fraud" to claiming the courses were legitimate courses.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill