On the UNC-CH campus, a climate change

In 2000, I came to North Carolina to be the ninth chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unlike most of my predecessors, I was not a Tar Heel born. Susan and I are adopted Tar Heels.

What drew us to Carolina was the great national reputation of the university – the first public university in America and unquestionably one of the truly great public research universities. Once here, what amazed us was a unique campus climate, something we had never seen in other universities in other states. It was a climate of excellence in research and teaching combined with a robust commitment to public service. Our most distinguished faculty members are engaged on campus in faculty governance, and their infectious commitment to public service is transmitted directly to our students.

When I left the chancellor’s office in 2008, I said I was assuming the most exalted title the university could confer: professor. I teach a first-year seminar in the Department of Music, and I have an office in the Institute for Arts and Humanities. This is a great listening post to hear what faculty members from across the university are thinking and saying.

I am very concerned about what I am hearing from my colleagues right now. They are dispirited, discouraged and very concerned about the future of the university. They are still as committed to public service as ever, and they still take great pride in their teaching and research (and the numbers for research productivity bear this out – the university is stronger than ever). All of that remains unchanged.

What has changed, however, and changed dramatically is the faculty’s confidence in the future of the University of North Carolina. One might assume the pessimism is all about the economy – the meager salary increases and budget cuts year after year for the past five years. Across the university system, we’ve seen that 76 percent of faculty members who received and reported offers from other institutions over the last two years accepted them and left.

But we have seen hard financial times before,

and what I am hearing now goes beyond a concern about budgets and salaries. Our best faculty members love this university with an amazing intensity. Indeed, the concern I am hearing arises from the deep loyalty and affection they have for the university. They are concerned about the university itself, concerned that its core values of academic freedom, the freedom to follow the truth wherever it leads without fear of censorship or review from higher authorities, may be under attack. It is the fear that politics and political agendas have begun to play a role in decisions about the university.

I was particularly struck by a Feb. 22 letter to The News & Observer editor from Professor Joseph Ferrell, longtime secretary to the faculty council. This was his letter:

“Regarding the Feb. 20 Point of View ‘A betrayal of past, promise’: It is a sad commentary on the current intellectual climate when the dean of Carolina’s law school feels obligated to say that he does not speak for UNC when he passionately and eloquently defends the right of inquiry that lies at the very foundation of the university. I am confident that he speaks for the vast majority of our faculty, staff and students in upholding that right.”

Joe Ferrell was referring to an eloquent piece by Jack Boger, dean of the UNC School of Law, in which he drew upon UNC’s great history of advocacy and free speech, one of the noblest legacies in all of American higher education.

My point is not to re-litigate the closing of the poverty center

or the abrupt dismissal without explanation of UNC system President Tom Ross, but rather to focus on the collateral damage to the university from these actions and from statements from people in high places that suggest a lack of support for academic freedom and a lack of understanding of the real purpose of a public university.

In my role last year as the interim chancellor of the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, I interviewed finalists for the chancellor’s position. Each candidate asked something like this: “I’ve been reading a lot about what is going on politically in this state regarding the university system. Is this a good time for me to be thinking about moving to a position in North Carolina?”

I did my best to convince them they should come. This is a state full of wonderful, decent people with good values, I said. The UNC system is held in universally high regard across the state.

Ferrell spoke of the “right of inquiry that lies at the very foundation of the university.” That is the right to speak truth to power, to question the assumptions and the motives of those in power and, yes, to advocate action and change. It is that tradition that has made Carolina one of America’s truly great universities. It was, indeed, the pioneering work of people like Howard Odom and Frank Porter Graham, viewing the racism and poverty of the South through the critical lens of scholarship, that allowed North Carolina to surpass other Southern states. It was the courage to do that work, often unpopular at the time, that led North Carolinians to love UNC.

Charles Kuralt famously asked, “What binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well, or the bell, or the stone walls, or the crisp October nights and the memory of dogwoods blooming. ... No, our love for this place is it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the People.”

It is time for the people to come to the aid of their university, so that it may continue as a place of free expression and free inquiry, with a positive climate in which great faculty and students can thrive for the benefit of all North Carolinians.

James Moeser is chancellor emeritus of UNC-Chapel Hill.