Thursday, February 19, 2015

UNC Board's Review of Research Centers Is an Assault on Academic Freedom

The UNC Board of Governors recently convened a panel to review the system's 240 research institutes and centers. The stated goal of the panel was to find ways to divert state money away from these institutes and centers to other system priorities. On Wednesday, the panel released a draft of its final report, which recommends closely reviewing or terminating 16 institutes or centers. The three institutes or centers on the chopping block are:

East Carolina University's North Carolina Center for Biodiversity
North Carolina Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity

In addition to terminating these three institutes or centers, the report recommends banning university-backed political advocacy. To be fair, this recommendation simply extends to all employees of institutes and centers a pre-existing UNC system restriction on political activity while on duty. Moreover, some of the panel's recommendations, such as encouraging better coordination among similarly themed centers, strikes me as logical. But there are also political machinations at play in the panel's review process and recommendations. By now, it is clear to me that no change in North Carolina's education system is free from politicking. Setting aside momentarily the political motivations of the panel, the UNC Board of Governors's efforts to restrict the free inquiry of tenured faculty at colleges and universities is an unabashed assault on academic freedom.

Let's stop to consider the meaning of academic freedom. Robert O'Neill reminded us over a decade ago that the American Association of University Professors' 1940 "Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure" has undergone little change and, within the insular confines of higher education, "remains almost as nearly as inviolate as the U.S. Constitution." The Statement protects faculty in three areas: freedom in research and in the publication of results, freedom in the classroom when discussing course subject matter and expressing themselves as citizens, and freedom from institutional censorship and unwarranted sanction. This, of course, is more of a professional meaning than a legal meaning. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted in academic culture and has long been considered an essential feature of higher education. It refers not only to the rights of faculty, but also the rights of students to freely exchange ideas, regardless of how they affect administrators' or politicians' delicate sensibilities.

Because the UNC Board of Governors disagrees politically with several of the system's institutions and centers, it is using the review process and its increasingly interventionist approach to governance to censor faculty and students and subject them to unwarranted sanction. In particular, the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has been frequently targeted by conservatives in the state. The director of the Center, law professor Gene Nichol, has been criticized by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank with ties to Republican leadership in the state. Simply put, the Center is facing termination because conservative politicians and their allies on the Board of Governors find its work offensive. Although the panel claims the decisions are primarily financial, closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity would save the system no money--hence, the unwarranted sanction. The Center is privately funded. Indeed, the state has already slashed appropriations to institutes and centers by 40 percent since 2008. It is difficult for me to believe that such attention would be directed at a research center that receives no state funds were politics not part of the equation.

Academic freedom exists precisely to protect against silencing free inquiry because it is deemed offensive by those in power. Moreover, academic freedom is necessary in order to allow for healthy critique of government and its functionaries. In other words, we should encourage faculty at universities to engage in political activity and criticize the government. Without this protected voice, where else can we turn for social, political, and economic critics that can check the unbridled power of politicians? Of course, we should recognize that the institutes and centers being scrutinized by the Board of Governors were not founded for the purpose of critiquing the state's elected officials. Instead, they serve marginalized communities, promote the conservation of global biodiversity, and address injustices. I would argue that these institutes and centers are not politically targeting conservatives--they are the victims of political censorship. Nevertheless, the ability to engage in critique is essential and something we should want from higher education institutions in a democracy.

The UNC Board's assault on academic freedom is not limited to the centers and institutes under review. In many ways, it serves as a prior restraint on academic freedom. In my college, it has had a chilling effect on our aspirations to launch a collaborative, interdisciplinary research center. My colleagues and I had initially discussed launching a research center that promotes the excellence of public education at all levels in the state. The center would involve undergraduate and graduate students in research and might even produce regular policy updates for our community stakeholders, such as principals and other school leaders. We have abandoned this idea in light of the Board's hostility to institutes and centers that may in any way be labeled political. Instead, we are forming a research network, which at the moment has no stated goal or purpose. We are scared that anything we create will be scrutinized by the state, and administrators are hesitant to fund anything that will be dismantled or criticized at a time when we are already under the microscope.

In other words, the UNC Board's review may result in the termination of a few centers, but the effects could limit free inquiry at many institutions for the foreseeable future. There may not be an explicit policy of censorship in the UNC system, but my college is self-censoring out of fear.