Under the Dome

UNC faculty, in resolution, complain of legislative overreach

UNC chancellor Carol Folt listens to student entrepreneurs on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UNC chancellor Carol Folt listens to student entrepreneurs on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 in Chapel Hill, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council has concurred with a systemwide faculty group’s complaint that the legislature has overstepped its bounds when it comes to university governance.

The council overwhelmingly passed a resolution Friday saying, “it is essential that the time-honored principles and practices of faculty participation in the shared governance of the University of North Carolina be preserved.”

At issue were several items in the state budget that UNC system faculty leaders say amounts to legislative overreach, including the establishment of K-12 lab schools at eight campuses, the formation of an environmental policy center at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the override of a UNC Board of Governors penalty on UNC-CH for exceeding the 18 percent cap on out-of-state students.

Earlier in September the UNC Faculty Assembly passed a resolution expressing opposition to the legislature’s foray into these areas, which it said are the prerogative of the Board of Governors, along with UNC chancellors and the system president, Margaret Spellings, in consultation with the faculty. The assembly asserted that the legislature’s moves circumvented administrative structures, established procedures and board authority.

On Friday, Chapel Hill faculty representatives affirmed those concerns with their resolution. The vote followed an update on the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, a controversial entity established at the Chapel Hill campus for environmental policy and research.

Hassan Melehy, romance studies professor at UNC, expressed his concern, citing previous comments made by Senate leader Phil Berger who said there was “philosophical and partisan homogeneity at UNC,” and conservatives couldn’t get hired at the university.

“When it comes to the environment, well, scientists regard science as science,” Melehy said. “Certain politicians have said it’s simply liberal bias. And there is definitely concern. We have legislators indicating that they think that the purpose of this is partly to counter that to depoliticize, in their eyes, which, in the eyes of scientists is to in fact be objective....That’s a real concern.”

UNC Provost Jim Dean tried to assure the faculty group there were serious scientists signed on to be members of the collaboratory’s advisory board.

“All I can really say to that is that science is science,” Dean said, adding that the university had received no guidance or direction from the legislature. “It’s important for us to maintain the academic integrity of this institution, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Melehy asked why usual procedures weren’t followed, as in typical research centers that arise from the faculty.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said she knew of no routine procedures. “The legislature asks universities to do many things,” she said, pointing out that UNC received $1 million last year for an educational program for the military.

As for the collaboratory, she said: “I was asked if we would be willing to take on the responsibility of trying to develop that policy center, and I said yes, because I felt as a public university, when the legislature asks us to do something, it is in our obligation, but our best interest, to do it, and now, to do it right – do it in a way that is consistent with our values and that provides great value to the state.”