RALEIGH (April 20, 2023) – If there’s any doubt that education – especially higher education – is in the crosshairs for next year’s elections, North Carolina’s Republican legislators made it clear in recent days.
It’s bill-filing season – the time of year when some poor soul in the General Assembly’s Bill Drafting Division must attempt to turn zany ideas into something that sounds like law. And the crossover deadline – the day bills must clear one legislative chamber or the other to remain viable – is looming on May 4.
So there are a lot of half-baked ideas out there. Why do legislators want to make an election issue of the biggest economic driver in this state?
In addition to bills they’ve moved to overhaul governance of the NC Community College System,1 legislators have filed bills in recent days that take aim at the UNC System in particular:
- One House bill, HB 715, would do away with tenure for university faculty – a system that actually saves universities money, for any fiscal conservatives who might be interested in that notion.
- And a DeSantis-style Senate bill, SB 680, would upend the accreditation process for North Carolina’s public colleges and universities, forcing them to change agencies every time they seek accreditation and threatening their students’ eligibility for federal financial aid.
THE BILL TO ELIMINATE TENURE, sponsored by Rep. David Willis, R-Union, a Co-Chair of both the House Appropriations Education Subcommittee and the Education-Community Colleges Committee, is something of a Christmas tree of right-wing higher-ed reforms.
It would require the state’s universities and community colleges to replace tenure – a centuries-old tradition to protect academic freedom and free speech – with employment of UNC and Community College System faculty “at will” or with 1-to-4-year contracts.
It would require colleges and universities to create a unified undergraduate admissions application and establish minimum class sizes for courses.
And it would require an annual report on research projects from each institution to the UNC Board of Governors, the State Board of Community Colleges and the General Assembly.
UNC Chapel Hill alone conducts more than $1 billion in sponsored research each year. This reporting requirement comes from politicians who purport to hate bureaucracy. We challenge you to name a single member of the Board of Governors or General Assembly who would finish reading such a report. (Sorry, Rick Glazier’s no longer there. But Art Pope might.)
Paul Fulton, Higher Ed Works’ Chair and former Dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC Chapel Hill, has experience with tenured faculty.
“Tenure’s not a burden – it really isn’t. It does give faculty freedom of expression – what’s wrong with that?” Fulton said.
“There’s nothing that prevents you from dealing with a faculty member, regardless of the issue, whether they have tenure or not.”
IN THEIR BOOK Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and Its Colleges & Universities, former UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Buck Goldstein offer a thoughtful discussion of how tenure saves universities money.
“Tenure is a remarkably cost-efficient tool for recruiting and retaining faculty. Without it, the economics of higher education would be in even more serious peril,” Thorp and Goldstein write.
“The economics of tenure are compelling. For what other job would people train for years in order to earn $60,000 – even after beating out more than a hundred other candidates for the job?”
Once hired, they say, a tenure-track faculty member has roughly six years to compile a dossier to support full tenure.
“The granting of tenure usually comes with a relatively modest raise in financial compensation. The huge applicant pool, the relatively low starting salary, the strong incentives for productivity, and the extended and comprehensive evaluation period combine to create a near-perfect economic model as far as the university is concerned,” Thorp and Goldstein write.2
THE SENATE ACCREDITATION BILL could roil the accreditation process for North Carolina’s public colleges and universities, forcing them to change agencies every time they seek renewal of their accreditation every 10 years.
Accreditation involves a thorough periodic review to assert “the common denominator of shared values and practices” at degree-granting institutions in higher education.
The vast majority of colleges and universities in 11 Southern states – including North Carolina – are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), based in Decatur, Georgia.3
Loss of accreditation is a very big deal – it can mean an institution loses access to millions of dollars in federal financial aid for its students. And there simply aren’t that many accreditation agencies.
But some conservatives have challenged SACSCOC’s influence over Southern colleges and universities.
SACSCOC raised questions in 2021 over two high-profile issues at Florida universities, including a conflict-of-interest case where a state Education Commissioner sought to become president of Florida State University. (Sound familiar?)
After those controversies, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation last year that requires Florida colleges and universities to change accreditors at the end of each accreditation cycle, a process that can take 10 years.
IN RALEIGH, SB 680 – sponsored by Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, and co-sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – includes many of the requirements in Florida’s law.
The bill orders the UNC Board of Governors and the State Board of Community Colleges to each adopt a list of “preferred accrediting agencies” from a database of accreditors maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.
Then it would require each of the state’s 16 public universities and 58 community colleges to pursue accreditation from a different agency on the list than its current agency. If the college or university isn’t named a candidate by a new agency within three years of expiration of its accreditation, it could remain with its current agency.4
The bill could be a copycat attempt at Florida Republicans’ efforts.
Or it could be backlash against SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan, who raised questions based on media reports about the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ claims that they established a new School of Civic Life and Leadership to hire conservative faculty.5 SACSCOC’s questions have since been resolved. 6
Or it could be all of the above.
Whatever the case, it’s clear where Republican legislators are training their crosshairs for 2024.
1 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/Senate/PDF/S692v2.pdf; https://www.higheredworks.org/2023/04/lawmakers-nibble-nibble-nibble-at-governors-powers/.
2 Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and Its Colleges & Universities, The University of North Carolina Press, 2018, pp. 68-71.
Brad Swearingen says
Community college faculty do not currently have the option of tenure in North Carolina. We are hired at-will according to NC law.
It’s “interesting” that people with no educational experience want to change the rules and expectations of a system that has worked pretty well for a century, another example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (Those with limited knowledge in an area of concern reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to even realize that they don’t know what they don’t know.)
Nancy Smith Marks says
It is more than obvious that if any of these folks attended one of our North Carolina public colleges or universities, we certainly failed in our responsibility to help them learn how to think.
Richard Tedder says
UNC and the other state universities definitely need an overhaul. The institution has become more of an indoctrination of wokeness than a place of higher learning. An example in today’s news was ” over 650 professors in the system signing a letter in objection to a requirement for studying the country’s founding, the constitution, the declaration of independence, a Letter from the Birmingham jail and several other historical pillars”. Erasure of our accomplishments seems to be an intentional process at these schools. Oversight will do them a lot of good.