When the Dean Quashes Your Class: An Interview with Jay Smith

BY MICHAEL C. BEHRENT 

Interviewer Michael C. Behrent of Appalachian State University is vice president of the AAUP’s North Carolina state conference.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor of history Jay Smith

Several months ago, something strange happened to Jay Smith, a tenured professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s History Department: he found out that his dean made his chair cancel a class he had been scheduled to teach. It so happens that Smith’s class dealt with a topic that unsettled powerful forces on campus: the place of “big-time athletics” in higher education. This issue is a sore spot for UNC-Chapel Hill, which is still recovering from a major “athletics-academics” scandal first revealed several years ago—about which, it so happens, Smith had been particularly outspoken. Articles about the cancelling of Smith’s class have appeared in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here, Smith tells his side of the story, and what it means for academic freedom. An essay by Smith will also appear in Academe magazine this fall.

Behrent: Several years back, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was awash in scandal when it was discovered that various faculty and staff had arranged for generations of athletes to take meaningless “paper classes” (and to count them towards graduation), all in order to advance the university’s big athletics program. With Mary Willingham, you wrote Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports, a fascinating history of the scandal. Last year, you taught a class in the History Department, History 383, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present.” Recently, top UNC administrators intervened to cancel your class. Is there a connection between the sports scandal from a few years back and the cancellation of your class?

Smith: The canceling of my class is perfectly consistent with the university’s overall handling of the scandal and its fallout. They’ve always got something to hide, something they would prefer not to talk about. From the beginning, their instinct has been to divulge as little as possible about the mechanics of the fraud in which the institution engaged, to avoid a public airing of what happened, and to resist confronting the full range of issues brought to light by the scandal. The existence of my course not only threatens to shed critical light on administrative decision-making but stands as a direct contradiction to the institution’s entire scandal-management strategy. To the surprise of even their harshest critics, myself included, their determination to change the subject, and to cover dirty laundry, has actually led them to carry out a naked assault on academic freedom. The “paper class” scandal (in which students got free credits for bogus classes run by an administrative assistant) has seamlessly morphed into an academic censorship scandal.

Behrent: Your dean, Kevin Guskiewicz, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that his initial concern was not the content of your class, but the fact that you taught it in lieu of an “honors” class you had been scheduled to teach in fall 2016. Your provost, James W. Dean, informed UNC’s Faculty Council that your course was cancelled for 2017 due to “scheduling, not academic freedom” issues. Is there some truth to this?

Smith: No. This is pretext, pure and simple. For one thing, how plausible is the notion that the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences spends his time monitoring the proposed Honors course offerings of the forty odd departments in the College? The truth of the matter is this. I was scheduled to teach a rather esoteric philosophy of history Honors course (“Historical Time”) in the fall 2016 semester. The course often struggles to attract students, and in the summer of 2016 I noticed that only four students had pre-registered for the fall, even though students had been registering for more than two months. It is the policy of my department to cancel classes with fewer than ten students in them. Fearing that the course would be canceled at the last minute, leaving me scrambling to put a substitute class in its place, I suggested to my associate chair, who handles scheduling, that we cancel the Honors course and put in a section of 383 for the fall. She agreed and made the switch. But we were stopped in our tracks a couple of days later when our department chair, having learned of the switch, informed us that we had a problem. The 383, he said, could not be scheduled without our getting prior authorization from the Dean. That is, the Dean had already let my chair know of his displeasure over the existence of my course. And breaking all precedent, he had also made clear that henceforth Deans would effectively be making the decision on whether to allow the course to go forward in any given semester. The Provost made his public remark, backing the Dean’s dishonest rendering of events, without even bothering to ask me or my department chair for our version of the story. A reasonable person can only conclude that the “Honors course” excuse was an ex post facto rationale cooked up and coordinated by the higher-ups in the administration. (Note: Because the 383 had made it onto the fall schedule before the Deans learned about it, and because a number of students signed up for it immediately, they ultimately decided to let the course go on in fall 2016; Dean Guskiewicz put his foot down more firmly by removing the course from the next year’s schedule).

Behrent: When teaching the course, you asked to visit one of UNC’s major athletic facilities. UNC athletics director Lawrence R. “Bubba” Cunningham denied your request, and said that given his experience in athletics, he was better qualified to teach the course than you were. You are an historian of early modern France. Does Cunningham have a point?

Smith: UNC’s sports boosters have been making this argument. How could a guy who “specializes in French monsters” (I wrote a book about the beast of the Gévaudan) possibly have any idea about the history of college sports? Leaving aside the procedural reality that only my department should be making the call on who is qualified to teach its courses, I would like to point out a few things. Like almost everyone I know, I’m a sports fan. I have spent virtually my entire career, first as a graduate student and then as a faculty member, at two of the biggest of the “big-time sports” universities (Michigan and UNC), learning much about how the machine operates. I have been immersed in the issues surrounding the UNC scandal since 2010, when I first began to speak out on the matter. I’ve even co-written a book, published by an academic press, on the UNC scandal and its place in the current college athletics landscape. In short, I know a little something about sports, higher education, and modern American culture. It’s not like I had to learn Sanskrit or Swahili before venturing onto the terrain of twentieth-century American history. (And as a matter of fact, I was a teaching assistant in American history surveys and studied American history in preparation for my comp exams in graduate school, which few Europeanists do.) More broadly, what those who question my credentials seem not to understand is that the historian’s skills—perhaps unlike, say, the dentist’s—are eminently transferrable. Historians ask questions about how context conditions events, how culture constrains and enables human action, how long-term patterns become established over time and how individuals both resist and get absorbed into those patterns. Reading the UNC experience through a historical lens really opened my eyes to some of the underlying issues that structured our own descent into academic fraud. I wanted to take the lessons I had learned and channel them pedagogically, thereby giving at least some UNC students a depth of understanding about our scandal and its origins that stonewalling administrators and their PR consultants had thus far denied them. My colleagues in the History department understood that I was well qualified to teach this course.

Behrent: Tell us more about History 383. What did you read and study? What do you think the students learned?

Smith: For the first two iterations of the course I assigned Cheated, but the UNC scandal in fact makes up only about twenty percent of the course content. We begin at the beginning, with discussion of the origins of intercollegiate athletics in the 1850s. With Ronald Smith’s invaluable Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform as our guide, we follow the growth of the commercial enterprise of college sports throughout the twentieth century, noting the conflicting interests and competing philosophies that drove the main constituencies in that enterprise (students, faculty, presidents, alumni, governing boards). Inevitably, we note the forms of corruption that crept into the big-time machine from the outset, and we examine critically the language used to defend and promote the theory of “amateurism” that undergirds the whole college athletics enterprise. The course ultimately focuses on the athletes themselves. Specifically, it highlights the ways in which athletes are served, or ill-served, by big-time college sports. The academic fraud in which UNC engaged comes to look, at least in part, as a violation of rights—the right to a sound education being only one of many rights that athletes are too often denied (and have historically been denied.) Through an array of readings, and with informative visits from insiders and experts in the field, students learn that social divisions based on race, class, and gender feed into and reflect structural inequities built into the system and reinforced over many decades. My students, judging from course evaluations and the level of engagement they showed in class, were thrilled to acquire the historical skills and perspective they needed in order to look at college sports anew, with athletes’ interests foremost in mind. Of course they still leave the class as Tar Heel fans, but they carry with them a much more sophisticated understanding of the forces that shape athletes’ experiences. It pains me to think that UNC undergraduates will be denied this form of enlightenment next year. How ironic it is that UNC’s motto is lux, libertas. Light and liberty. Someone needs to turn the lights back on.

Behrent: One of the key justifications of academic freedom in AAUP’s foundational 1915 “Declaration of Principles” is that academic freedom is necessary because universities have a responsibility to the public. Academic freedom isn’t just an individual right; it’s also a public duty. Institutions that limit what faculty say because it upsets the private interests that fund them—as happened in American universities in the Gilded Age—are, according to the statement, “proprietary institutions,” not “public” ones. Is UNC-Chapel Hill still a public institution? Or is it a sports franchise with academic support programs?

Smith: It’s UNC’s failure to meet its duties to the public that has so bothered me all along. When they have been willing to speak to journalists at all they have given evasive answers. They have stonewalled on a great many public records requests. (I have been waiting for one small cache of documents for three and a half years, even though there is no legal rationale for refusing my request to see them). They have refused to schedule campus discussions about the scandal. They have interfered with and doctored internal reports so as to conceal key details of the wrongdoing. They have gone to absurd lengths to disguise the involvement of the men’s basketball program in the scandal. They organized a public and collective denunciation of the one men’s basketball player, Rashad McCants, who spoke truthfully and shared his transcript with the public; it was an exercise in double-speak that would have made Stalin proud. In short, the university has flatly deceived the citizens of the state of North Carolina—all for the purpose of evading NCAA discipline and protecting both the athletic program and the sensitive feelings of those who value it so highly. I don’t want to overstate the degree to which the institution’s values and priorities have been overturned by its sports-first culture. Obviously UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic programs remain stellar. Obviously the vast majority of its students continue to get fine educations. But nor do I want to understate the seriousness of what is happening at UNC-Chapel Hill. Administrators now blithely undermine academic freedom and free speech. Our Law School has suffered withering attacks from ideologues in the state legislature, with nary a public word of complaint from our leaders. The institution has offered a most cynical legal resistance to the jurisdiction of the NCAA in anticipation of that body’s long-awaited ruling on the UNC scandal. Our Dean now talks unabashedly about protecting and promoting UNC’s “brand.” In these and other ways, UNC acts less like a public university that prioritizes academic values and more like a private corporation that has its eyes trained always on the bottom line. This is bad news for all of us connected to the institution, and it is bad news for North Carolina.

Behrent: What other trends in higher education besides “big-athletics” led to your course’s cancellation?

Smith: In addition to the corporatization of the academy to which we both just alluded, I would point to the widening chasm between faculty and administrators. Administrative bloat afflicts UNC-Chapel Hill just as it afflicts all of higher education. Administrators spend almost all of their time talking to other administrators, losing contact with faculty and with the values that motivate faculty. And let’s not overlook the fact that the “administrative track” in higher education has become a highly lucrative one. Administrators pull in much larger salaries than the rank and file faculty. And they enjoy many other perks as well (including tickets to games and a place in the luxury sky box.) Serving at the pleasure of their superiors and, in the case of the chancellor, at the pleasure of the institution’s governing board, who among them is going to find the courage to speak truth to power? To stand up for principle? To articulate and defend the importance of freedom of inquiry? The faculty, meanwhile, disempowered and feeling overworked, have learned to go along to get along. Fewer and fewer of them enjoy the protections of tenure in any case, and even senior tenured faculty have increasingly given up the fight. At UNC, my own department of History made a brave public stand in defense of academic freedom and against the actions of the administration, but at this point History is a lone voice in the wilderness. Through years of scandal and egregious administrative misbehavior, UNC’s faculty have been largely MIA. Administrators have a free hand to muck up things as they wish. This is an unhealthy dynamic that threatens the vitality of the academic values we cherish.

Behrent: In your book, you talk about the “elephant in the room”: the fact that American higher education has made a bizarre pact with big-time sports, an activity that (now, anyway) is primarily focused on entertainment and the vast revenue it generates. Why has this happened? Why does this exist in the United States, but not elsewhere?

Smith: It exists in the United States because the precedent was set here, essentially through historical accident, and there’s simply no breaking with the precedent. The late nineteenth century witnessed a sort of crisis in American masculinity, and there was a widespread drive to make America’s male youth more vigorous, active, and ready to defend the nation. (It’s no accident that Teddy Roosevelt was a huge fan of college football). College students began organizing intercollegiate athletic contests, controlling everything at first, including the rules of the games, but presidents quickly realized that the popularity of these contests could be exploited for what they saw as the greater good of their institutions. Spectator sports exploded in popularity from about the 1880s, and colleges emerged as a favored site for these contests. Games appealed to students, they could be used to cement connections with alumni, and of course they could be used to make money. Presidents went all in, and by 1900 the die was cast. Intercollegiate athletic contests had been woven into the fabric of university life. Much hand-wringing followed, at regular intervals, but the lure of money and the American public’s will to be entertained always ensured that the role of sports on college campuses would continue to grow, and, with few exceptions, would never be diminished.

Behrent: What have you learned from this experience? What advice do you have for other professors, particularly those who teach controversial topics?

Smith: First bit of advice: Get tenure. No, in all seriousness, I was blindsided by this experience, genuinely shocked to see the lengths to which administrators would go to silence a perceived gadfly. Perhaps it was naive of me, given UNC’s actions over the past six years, but I trusted the administrators’ basic commitment to free speech and critical discourse. I thought that by having my course considered for inclusion in the university’s listing of permanent courses, and by submitting it for review by all of the College committees that routinely carry out such reviews, I was gaining all the protection for the course that I would need. I was clearly wrong. So my serious advice is twofold. Do not underestimate administrators’ willingness to engage in unethical and offensive behavior in pursuit of their own short-term political goals. Expect the worst. Crucially, however, I would say that the proper response to this situation is not to acquiesce but rather to plan for battle. Anticipate the sorts of arguments your opponents will make. Find likely allies across the campus and beyond. Network with them. At the first sign of trouble, reach out to your discipline’s professional organization and to faculty coalitions like the AAUP. Then, take the fight to the public arena. What administrators dread more than anything is bad PR. So give them some. As much as you have the energy to give. You may not win. But you will have fought the fight that needs fighting. If faculty do not stand up for academic freedom, what will become of academic freedom? We represent the last line of defense. I think we have a moral obligation to resist unethical administrators and uninformed governing boards. So fight, but take care to form alliances first.

If you are from North Carolina and want to get involved with the AAUP at the state level or found a chapter on your campus, write to Behrent at michaelcbehrent@gmail.com.

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5 thoughts on “When the Dean Quashes Your Class: An Interview with Jay Smith

  1. This is a terrific interview on an important topic. My congratulations to Professor Smith for his courageous stand. I can only endorse, of course, his recommendation that faculty members reach out to the AAUP for assistance when these things happen. But the AAUP is only as strong as its membership. So if you’re from North Carolina or anywhere else and you’re a faculty member reading this but not a member of the AAUP, please take a moment right now to join by going to https://www.aaup.org/membership/join

    • Professor Smith remains a valued member of our French mythological monsters department and will no doubt continue to contribute significantly to the education of dozens of students.

  2. Pingback: Trapped Inside of LAX with the MKE Blues Again | Gerry Canavan

  3. Pingback: Academic freedom and the new corporate university | occasional links & commentary

  4. Professor Smith has become so irrelevant as to be unable to attract even 4 students for a course which engages his expertise in a completely inane subject, which further speaks to the absurdity of this calling. He has been left with selling a “scandal”, much like a National Enquirer hack.

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