The University of North Carolina System drives the state’s economy and advances the state’s reputation as a leader in public higher education. But Republicans are prepared to trade all that for the satisfaction of intimidating professors and solving a problem that doesn’t exist – universities as liberal indoctrination centers.
It also sets minimum class sizes and calls for UNC campuses to submit to the UNC Board of Governors a list of all “noninstructional” faculty research. This is part of a trend in several red states to rein in public university faculty and give more power to politicians and their appointees.
Irene Mulvey, national president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), recently testified against such legislation in Florida and Texas. She told me the North Carolina bill is the most sweeping move yet to undermine the independence of tenured faculty.
“There are attacks on tenure nationwide, but this is the most egregious I’ve seen,” she said. “It’s saying academic freedom would no longer be respected or protected in North Carolina.”
The AAUP issued a report last year criticizing political meddling in the UNC System, but Mulvey said this bill would go further, with legislation eliminating a fundamental protection that allows professors to speak, teach and research without fear of political interference or retribution.
Eliminating tenure for new hires, Mulvey said, would “have devastating effects on recruiting faculty and even graduate students.” She added, “I don’t think these people have any idea of the damage this is going to do to higher education in North Carolina.”
The bill is sponsored by Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican and chair of House committees overseeing education appropriations and community colleges. In a statement, he did not address the tenure issue directly, but said the bill’s proposed changes are aimed at streamlining the state’s higher ed systems and saving costs.
“Salaries are one of the biggest expenses for constituent institutions of the UNC System and the North Carolina Community College System, and they need to be better managed and regularly evaluated through rigorous study,” he said.
That reason is both backward and misleading. It calls for saving money by diminishing one of the state’s greatest assets. Beyond that, this bill isn’t really about cost savings, it’s about score settling.
Republican lawmakers are irritated that tenured professors on the public payroll can criticize the state legislature without fear of being fired. This bill would not remove such thorns as Gene Nichol, a tenured UNC-Chapel Hill law professor and a News & Observer contributing columnist who wrote a book blasting the legislature, “Indecent Assembly,” but it could muzzle future professors.
Whether the bill gets traction depends on how it fares in committee. But it’s notable that the bill that began with only Willis as a sponsor has gained three more primary sponsors and 14 other lawmakers have signed on.
Most who teach in the state’s universities and community colleges do not have the protection of tenure, a faculty appointment that can only be terminated for cause. Nationally, only one in five faculty members have that job protection, according to the AAUP. Still, ending tenure would have a chilling effect on academic freedom and would weaken the faculty at North Carolina’s public colleges and universities.
Jay Smith, a UNC-Chapel Hill history professor and head of the North Carolina AAUP, said of the bill: “I’m horrified by it. Mainly because it’s clearly written by someone who doesn’t have the faintest idea why tenure is important, or why its elimination would be so devastating to UNC schools and, ultimately, harmful to the people of North Carolina. The states that do away with tenure will not – simply will not – attract top-flight scholars and teachers.”
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com