Education

More questions for UNC about academic freedom and cancellation of sports history course

After conflicting reports about what led to the cancellation of a UNC-Chapel Hill course on big-time college sports, administrators are answering a new round of questions about academic freedom and whether the class will be taught again.

State representatives of the American Association of University Professors wrote to UNC officials June 12, wanting an explanation about why History 383, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present,” won’t be offered to students this fall. The AAUP is a national organization that advocates for academic freedom and the rights of faculty.

The representatives, Altha Cravey of UNC-Chapel Hill and Michel Behrent of Appalachian State University, asked UNC leaders to reaffirm their commitment to academic freedom and to assure UNC history professor Jay Smith that he can teach History 383 whenever “he and his department see fit.” Cravey and Behrent serve as the president and vice president, respectively, of the AAUP’s state conference in North Carolina.

Their letter was addressed to UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, Provost James Dean and two administrators in the College of Arts and Sciences – Dean Kevin Guskiewicz and Senior Associate Dean Jonathan Hartlyn.

Cravey and Behrent wrote that a reasonable person could conclude that Guskiewicz and Hartlyn had “vetoed” the class by Smith, who has been a tough critic of the university’s handling of the long-running athletic and academic scandal, in which classes required no attendance and little work and were disproportionately enrolled by athletes. Smith co-wrote a book on the scandal titled “Cheated.”

“The unusual character of this decision, as well as Professor Smith’s record of outspokenness on college athletics, would also lead a reasonable person to wonder if it was History 383’s controversial subject matter that led to its cancellation,” Cravey and Behrent wrote.

They suggested that UNC had violated Smith’s academic freedom, jeopardized UNC’s responsibility to the public, undermined faculty control of curriculum and confused its academic mission with athletics.

“For anyone who takes the academic profession seriously, it is ironic and distressing that an institution that is still recovering from a scandal in which it was revealed that its athletics program interfered with its academic integrity is still—to put it bluntly –allowing its athletics program to interfere with its academic integrity,” they wrote.

Smith’s course, which includes discussion of the UNC scandal, was taught last year but was kept off the schedule for the coming academic year without clear explanation. Emails published this month showed that the history department head, Fitz Brundage, expressed concern about administrative “blowback” if the course were offered again and suggested he and Smith would have “a fight on our hands.”

Guskiewicz, who oversees Brundage, told the N&O he had neither been pressured nor pressured anyone about the course. He said the decision not to offer the class this fall was made by Brundage. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story on the issue, in which Guskiewicz confirmed that he and Hartlyn had raised concerns about the course being scheduled in 2016 with Brundage. Guskiewicz told the Chronicle the reason was that the course had replaced an honors course that Smith was supposed to teach that semester.

Smith told the N&O that the sports history class replaced the honors course because so few students had registered for the honors course. In an interview last month, Brundage said he didn’t know who was behind the pressure: “Obviously there is someone somewhere who is troubled by the course.”

In a response on Friday to the AAUP representatives, Guskiewicz and Dean took issue with some of the professors’ assertions, but said not offering the course in the fall was merely a scheduling situation and that the decision was Brundage’s. “No one has ever said the course would not be taught again in the future,” Guskiewicz and Dean wrote.

“Academic freedom does not give individual faculty members the right to unilaterally decide what courses they will teach in a given semester or academic year,” they added in their response. “Academic deans, chairs and faculty work collaboratively to determine the curricular needs of the College and its departments.”

But Cravey and Behrent wrote that it was unusual for administrators to weigh in on the question of whether to offer a course, and “highly unusual, in the absence of exceptional and compelling reasons, for administrators to interfere with such a specific and relatively minor issue of departmental scheduling.”

After receiving the explanation Friday from administrators, Behrent called it unclear and incoherent. He said it was odd that athletics was not mentioned in the response. “The strangest aspect of the explanation, and in my view the least plausible and frankly, most disingenuous one, is the idea that this is simply just a matter of scheduling,” Behrent said Saturday. “I really do not think that the evidence suggests that is the case.”

The controversy prompted a letter of protest signed by 45 history faculty in April, calling the cancellation “a serious infringement of freedom of inquiry, a fundamental feature of intellectual life in every authentic university.” The course had been developed through normal committee review processes and received positive evaluations from students.

Guskiewicz, Hartlyn and another official in the dean’s office met with three history faculty last month in an effort to smooth over the situation.

“We are committed to academic freedom and shared governance and believe Carolina has robust policies and procedures in place that assure that these principles are upheld,” Guskiewicz and Dean wrote to the AAUP representatives.

And, they added: “We believe that we have addressed this matter sufficiently and do not intend to offer further comment on the matter.”

Behrent wasn’t so sure the matter has been put to rest. “We’ll see,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

  Comments