Losing Carolina -- Gene Nichol

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNC and former president of  the College of William & Mary, law dean at the University of Colorado, and dean at UNC (1999-2005).
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNC and former president of the College of William & Mary, law dean at the University of Colorado, and dean at UNC (1999-2005).

It was reported recently that UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt, Provost Bob Bruin and the Board of Trustees rejected the findings of the faculty grievance committee that Jay Smith’s academic freedom had been violated when his course on big-time athletics, and its scandals, was derailed.

No great surprise there. The higher-ups concluded that no undue influence had been deployed by the higher-ups. It was a fitting capstone to our endless, and endlessly-dissembling, athletic/academic scandal. We may not oversee meeting-less classes. But we’ll immediately jump on any professor who mentions them.

Smith, who wrote “Cheated” with the formidable Mary Willingham, taught the challenged course in 2016. It had been approved in the regular order and was immensely popular with the students. Unsurprisingly, it was thus rescheduled for the next year. But after unspecified “blow-back” – from alumni, administrators and, apparently, the athletic director – the offering was canceled.

The dean of Arts & Sciences explained, twice, to the chair of history “this is not a threat, but in a time of scarce resources” it made no sense to court controversy. The chair explained he thought there would be “adverse consequences to the department” if he didn’t yield.

Forty-five members of the history faculty wrote a letter of protest about the tampering. They called the cancellation “a serious infringement of freedom of inquiry, a fundamental feature of the intellectual life in every authentic university.” The campus-wide faculty grievance committee reached the same conclusion – finding the pressure from above to be inconsistent with academic freedom and the history department’s traditional deference in course selection decisions.

Chancellor Folt rejected the faculty findings and had an inane spokeswoman declare: “Carolina has a steadfast commitment to academic freedom and shared government.”

Steadfast indeed.

Frank Porter Graham wrote, famously, “the freedom to think, freedom to speak and freedom to print are the cornerstone and motto of the first American university to open its doors in the name of the people.” When, in 1936, trustees moved to fire English professor E.E. Ericson for dining at a Durham hotel with a black man, Graham responded: “if Professor Ericson has to go on the charge of eating with another human being, then I’ll have to go first.”

Graham echoed earlier sentiments by President Harry Chase when, in 1925, the General Assembly threatened academic freedom. Chase told a legislative hearing: “If it be treason to oppose the bill offered in the name of tyranny over the mind, I stand here in the name of progress and make my protest.”

When reminded UNC’s appropriation stood in the balance, Chase responded “if the university doesn’t stand for anything but appropriations, I don’t care to be connected with it.”

When he was selected president, a 36-year-old Bill Friday explained in a “tactful way” pressure had been applied to ensure he “made certain appointments” if chosen. Friday publicly rejected such pressures saying “it must be clearly understood that anyone invited to serve as president must enter the office completely free of commitments.”

When, after repeated scandals, Friday ended the hugely popular Dixie Basketball Classic and trustees threatened to intervene, he replied, firmly: “I have explained how the matter should be handled. The question for you is whether you are ready to take over the administration of athletics as a board of trustees.”

When the General Assembly tried to interfere, he wouldn’t budge.

And then there’s Bill Aycock.

Dean Smith told me when the chancellor offered him the job he said: “I’ll never fire you for losing games, but if you cheat, you’ll be gone in a minute.” When a group of alumni came to Aycock’s office seeking Coach Smith’s head after an early disappointing season, he excused himself for a few minutes, came back, and reported: “Gentlemen, I’d like to inform you that I just extended Dean Smith’s contract, so are we done here?”

When he defiantly opposed the 1963 Speak Ban Law in every corner of the state, including the halls of the legislature, Aycock didn’t mince words: “Political tampering can drastically lower the quality of (an institution). It is our duty to express opposition to it clearly and forthrightly. If we do not reject external pressures on research, publication and teaching, we forfeit our claim to be a university. We’ve come far, short on cash but long on freedom.”

Chancellor Robert House, thinking of Frank Graham’s long shadow, once explained that in Chapel Hill, the great values of academic integrity and independence are “caught” not “taught.” Our chancellor has been here almost five years. She apparently hasn’t caught on yet.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at UNC and former president of the College of William & Mary, law dean at the University of Colorado, and dean at UNC (1999-2005).