The History and Future of Academic Freedom at UNC
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the second 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
Over most of UNC’s history there were strict limits on academic freedom and free speech, but these limiting interventions often surged in response to the campaigns of Black North Carolinians to achieve freedom and equality.
The history of attacks on academic freedom at UNC
- In 1829 the African American writer David Walker (who grew up in Wilmington, NC) published an anti-slavery book entitled Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. When copies of Walker’s book began to appear in North Carolina, the state legislature passed laws that criminalized the distribution of “seditious” abolitionist texts.
No teacher or student could legally distribute abolitionist writings in the state’s schools and universities before the Civil War. There was no academic freedom for faculty or students to use anti-slavery texts at UNC.
- In 1856 a UNC chemistry professor named Benjamin Hedrick stated in a letter to a local newspaper (not in his classes) that he supported the “Free-Soil” Republican candidate John Fremont in that year’s presidential election. Both the faculty and Board of Trustees immediately voted to fire Hedrick from the university for his “political” statements about slavery, though another faculty member – the biologist Elisha Mitchell – had previously defended slavery in his public writings.
There was no tenure to defend academic freedom or free speech outside the university. Mitchell spoke publicly on the same issue as Hedrick, but Hedrick was fired, and Mitchell was honored. Mt. Mitchell carries his name, and we still have Mitchell Hall at UNC.
- As Black citizens asserted their rights to vote and hold public office in the decades after the Civil War, the early 20th-century state legislature enacted Jim Crow segregation laws that effectively prevented African Americans from voting and blocked the enrollment of Black students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Until the late 1950s, no department could appoint Black faculty members or admit Black students. There was no faculty control over this aspect of faculty hiring or student admissions.
- When the Civil Rights Movement gathered strength in the early 1960s, members of the state legislature charged that it was a communist movement.
The General Assembly thus passed a speaker ban law which prohibited campus talks by anyone deemed to be a communist sympathizer (meaning also Civil Rights activists). Academic freedom and free speech were again restricted.
- In 2015, as some North Carolinians began to call for the removal of Confederate statues and the renaming of university buildings that honored enslavers or Klansmen, the state legislature banned the removal of such statues from public spaces; and the BOT (after renaming one building) passed a 16-year ban on renaming University buildings.
Angry protestors eventually tore down the “Silent Sam” statue, and the BOT later rescinded its ban on changing the names of buildings, but there was still no legal way for faculty, administrators, or students to freely alter Confederate symbols on their own campuses.
- In 2021, the faculty at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media recommended Nikole Hannah-Jones for a tenured faculty appointment, but the Board of Trustees stalled the faculty recommendation because of political opposition to her work on the 1619 Project. Like David Walker in 1829, Hannah-Jones described historical patterns of systemic racism, and some legislators sought to ban her book (like Walker’s book after 1829) from North Carolina schools.
Although a small majority of the BOT finally approved her appointment, there was strong outside opposition to a faculty recommendation for hiring and tenure, and Hannah-Jones accepted an appointment at another university.
This history of restrictions on academic freedom and faculty control over academic policies (and I have noted only a few salient examples) suggests why the recent faculty letter condemned four proposed or enacted interventions in the sphere of faculty autonomy and expertise. UNC’s long history shows that such actions are now reviving past patterns of legislative interventions, which have always claimed to represent or protect the views of most state citizens outside the university.
Today’s faculty therefore honor the struggles of past generations when they reaffirm the long-developing principles of academic freedom and the hard-earned expertise of academic scholarship.
Current Threats to Academic Freedom and Faculty Expertise
UNC Faculty who signed the recent public letter have good reasons to believe that the University’s national reputation, evolving diversity, and future ability to recruit faculty and graduate students will be adversely affected by new legislative and Board proposals.
We are now regularly losing faculty to private universities because our colleagues (especially faculty of color) are deciding that the struggle to flourish at UNC is not worth the price in their professional and personal lives.
My own department has lost two valued colleagues to private institutions over the past two years, and our departmental experience is not unusual. People leave for many reasons, but faculty of color feel especially drawn to other places during these times at UNC.
Recruiting new faculty colleagues will be difficult, however, when job candidates ask about tenure policies at UNC or ask about the university’s future commitment to diversity or ask why the BOT is mandating a new School that was proposed outside the usual academic processes of faculty governance.
The national standing of UNC is thus threatened in the academic world, so professors are responding with explanations for why they oppose top-down interventions that increasingly affect their professional and intellectual work.
Future Faculty and Students at UNC
We can’t know the issues or concerns that faculty and students will face in future decades, but we can safely assume that the struggle for democracy – and the struggle for academic freedom that helps to sustain democratic societies – will remain important components of their intellectual communities and public lives.
I appreciate the ways in which our academic predecessors challenged recurring attacks on academic freedom by establishing tenure policies, securing faculty control over the curriculum and professional hiring policies, and defending their expertise as scholars and teachers.
We stand on the shoulders of those who built the great system of public universities in the United States, but how can we be sure that these achievements and traditions will endure?
Future generations will look back at our own era to find historical patterns of hostility for university cultures and to look for reassurance in the power of enduring academic values. They will face similar or new challenges in their own time, but they will also be protecting an intellectual baton that was carried in different ways during earlier centuries (even in 2023).
All of us make mistakes, and we cannot easily see the problematic aspects of our own actions or cultures which future generations will recognize and criticize. But choices must be made, and we should take public actions whenever we can – though we never know where our actions may lead or how others may view what we have done.
It seems unlikely that the recent faculty letter will have much immediate impact on policymakers who are trying to transform UNC because they believe it is hostile to conservatism or to their own political ideas.
Some version of a well-funded, new UNC School of Civil Life and Leadership seems to be emerging, whereas academic tenure may well survive for an ever-declining percentage of future university professors. The recent faculty letter thus responded to present-day issues with a defense of long-term principles, but these enduring principles should remain influential in shaping institutional values, memories, and identities.
The opinions expressed in this article do not represent any official position or viewpoint of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.