Why does academic freedom scare UNC-Chapel Hill's leaders?

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 administrators have at last shed some light on the thinking that lay behind their war on my course on the history of college sports. That thinking is so flawed, and so tainted by dishonesty, that it requires a detailed rebuttal. (Editor's note: For the view from the UNC-Chapel Hill administration, see this column by Joel Curran.)

In October 2017, an independent faculty grievance committee at UNC found that administrators' behavior in my case had been "inconsistent" with UNC's commitment to academic freedom. The chancellor and the provost have deployed five basic arguments in defense of their decision to overturn those findings.

First, they claim, my grievance should never have been heard because I was permitted to teach my course this spring. This dodge simply ignores the actual content of my grievance, which involved not the scheduling of the course but the gross violation of the protocols that govern course scheduling. A department chair was intimidated and a faculty member singled out for harassment. Nowhere in their responses to the grievance committee report do they acknowledge the intimidation that lay at the heart of this conflict. Instead they suggest that it is normal for a faculty member to have to fight for his right to teach; such reasoning is an offense to intelligent people everywhere.

Second, they claim that acceptance of the grievance committee recommendation — that administrators acknowledge departmental authority in course scheduling — would jeopardize the dean's "authority to oversee" curriculum. At all UNC institutions, deans exercise oversight by establishing the processes and faculty personnel that determine the soundness of every new course and program of study. My course was approved by faculty committees appointed by the dean of the college. Blocking or quashing a course that has been duly approved by his own appointed committees is not part of the dean's remit.

Third, the administrators claim that the dean never engaged in misconduct. Chancellor Folt even asserts that my department chair's testimony at the September 2017 grievance committee hearing "corroborated Dean Guskiewicz that there were no 'threats' to the Department of History" over my course. This is a stunningly dishonest statement, for it ignores the full record of the hearing transcript, in which my chair is quoted as saying that the dean, on two occasions, told him "this is not a threat, but" in a time of scarce resources he should think hard about scheduling my course. Crime families use intimidation tactics all the time; should we feel heartened that Carol Folt is embarrassed enough to want to hide their use in this case?

The administrators claim that "budgetary constraints" were partly behind the dean's intervention in departmental course scheduling decisions in 2016. It is hard to understand why Folt draws attention to this alleged motivation — since it, too, speaks to the atmosphere of veiled threats in which this entire conflict played out. By invoking budgetary pressures, the dean made his intentions clear: "Nice department you have there; I hope nothing happens to it."

Finally, the administrators claim that the dean's interest in my course stemmed only from his general concern to ensure that the college have adequate numbers of honors courses each year. This line of reasoning omits two crucial facts. First, the history department always meets and often exceeds its course obligations to the honors program. Second, I proposed to Dean Guskiewicz in his office, in November 2016, that I teach my college sports course as an honors course. I told him I would be "more than happy" to do it; he declined to accept my offer.

All who care about UNC-Chapel Hill, and who worry about the state of public higher education in North Carolina, need to ask some questions: Why would the leaders of UNC engage in such naked duplicity, and display such shoddy reasoning, simply to avoid accepting the common-sense recommendations of a faculty grievance committee? Why does academic freedom scare them so? Why do they show such contempt for the principles and practices of shared university governance? And why are our governing boards willing to participate in this nonsense? The core values of public universities, and the public interests for which they ostensibly exist, are at stake. University faculty and citizens of the state will have no hope of rescuing those values if they quietly accept blatant administrative corruption.

Jay M. Smith is a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill.