Academic Freedom is the Foundation for Great Universities
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first installment of a three-part essay by Lloyd Kramer, a professor of history and former Chair of the Faculty Council at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he has been a faculty member since 1986.
By Lloyd Kramer
Almost 700 faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill signed a statement in late April to express their opposition to recent actions of UNC’s governing boards and to recent legislative proposals in the North Carolina General Assembly.
Some skeptical colleagues have questioned the rationale for this statement, and critics outside the university have asked why professors in Chapel Hill are so concerned about policies that seek to reshape the culture and faculty influence within a public university that serves people throughout our state and far beyond North Carolina.
Are close-minded professors simply refusing to listen to North Carolinians whose beliefs may differ from their own ideas?
Why did UNC Faculty Write and Sign a Letter?
I am one of the professors who signed the statement, so I would like to offer my perspectives in a three-part discussion of why the letter became timely and important for many of my colleagues who work and teach at our state’s outstanding public university.
As a longtime faculty member and a former chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council, I have often gained valuable insights from my conversations with members of our Board of Trustees, so my concerns about the actions of UNC’s governing boards and legislative leaders do not come from personal conflicts with any specific individuals.
I nevertheless disagree with evolving structural changes in the traditions of shared governance at the University, and my critiques of recent interventions reflect my belief that the UNC faculty must expand our dialogue with both our own Board of Trustees (BOT) and with the Board of Governors (BOG).
The recent faculty statement is thus part of an ongoing effort to sustain this dialogue, to affirm the value of academic freedom, to protect UNC’s national stature, and to continue the best possible institutional service to North Carolinians.
Faculty members from every school of the university (including more than 220 from the Schools of Medicine and Public Health) signed this public letter, which expressed broad concerns about threats to the principle of academic freedom.
More specifically, the letter (1) opposed a legislative bill that would eliminate tenure in state universities; (2) criticized another bill that would create a state-mandated graduation requirement for a course on American history/government (with a list of required readings); (3) challenged the BOG’s restrictions on various strategies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion; and (4) stressed that BOT and legislative interventions to establish a School of Civic Life and Leadership violate long-established academic traditions of faculty governance.
In the view of most faculty who signed the letter, such interventions in the university’s internal management of academic affairs have become part of an ongoing transformation of academic freedom that seeks to limit the faculty’s control over decisions about professional expertise, academic curricula, hiring processes, and the creation of academic departments or teaching-research programs.
The Mission and Achievements of the Nation’s First Public University
Like most of my colleagues across the whole university, I am deeply committed to the mission and achievements of UNC as key components of education and democracy in our state.
I have therefore always appreciated the statewide support for our excellent university system as well as the opportunity to serve on UNC’s faculty for more than 35 years. But I also appreciate how the struggle to establish and protect academic freedom has required a long-developing, endless campaign in our state and university.
The current faculty continue to build on (and benefit from) 20th-century efforts to establish tenure and academic freedom, so I signed the letter because of the past history of attacks on academic freedom, the present-day attacks which are linked to that history, and the responsibility we have to pass these freedoms on to future faculty and students at UNC.
As 21st-century faculty members, we are like runners in a long academic race, who have been given the vulnerable baton of academic freedom by our predecessors and who must carry this baton toward the next generation in the ongoing campaign for a democratic society.
It is not simply a historical coincidence that authoritarian regimes always deny academic freedom and remove dissenting faculty from their universities. Academic freedom is one of the foundations of a democratic society.
In our state and elsewhere, the legislative campaign to control what can or should be taught about history or gender or racial identities is now spreading from K-12 education into the governance of our public universities. There is a long history of such interventions, however, and the troubling legacy of that history remains important for every teacher who seeks to defend public education in our own era.
The opinions expressed in this article do not represent any official position or viewpoint of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.