Academic Censorship and Faculty Resistance

BY JAY SMITH

My article in the current issue of Academe, “Academic Freedom, Meet Big-Time College Sports,” tells a story about academic censorship. It provides a blow-by-blow account of the process whereby deans in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill intervened in departmental course scheduling in order to prevent the teaching of a course I had recently developed, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present.” The course was deemed controversial—by someone, somewhere—because it addressed, among other things, UNC-Chapel Hill’s shocking experience with academic fraud and its violation of NCAA standards and by-laws. I announce in the article, “the bad guys win,” noting that the deans had successfully blocked me from teaching History 383 for the 2017-2018 academic year.

To an extent that I did not appreciate as I was writing (mostly in February and March of this year), I was reporting on a still-developing story. I am now pleased to report that, in late July, administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill relented. They have now given my department chair the permission to place History 383 on the schedule for the spring 2018 semester. This of course changes the outcome of the story I tell in the pages of Academe. The saga of History 383, it turns out, is not a story of administrative censorship but rather one of attempted administrative censorship. It would seem that the good guys won after all. The anatomy of this sudden summer turn-about, however, alters the whole meaning of the story in two other ways worth exploring.

Most important, credit for this unexpected victory over administrative subterfuge must go directly where it belongs: to a successful resistance effort led by impassioned faculty colleagues. In late April, as the semester wound down and it became clear that administrators had no intention of undoing their stunningly impolitic assault on academic freedom, the vast majority of my colleagues in the department of history signed a stinging letter of protest that was sent simultaneously to the dean’s office and to local media. That courageous public act generated intense media attention (from the campus newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, the Raleigh News & Observer, and eventually from the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.) The journalistic coverage, in turn, got the attention of both the AAUP and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). In June, the North Carolina conference of the AAUP wrote a detailed, cogent, hard-hitting letter to UNC-Chapel Hill officials that challenged the chancellor, the provost, and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to explain themselves. In early July, FIRE followed suit with its own polite but uncompromising letter. Meanwhile, after consulting with a number of people at the AAUP, I decided to file a formal grievance against the university for administrators’ blatant violation of my academic freedom. I submitted my paperwork on July 11; on July 27 I heard the good news, from my department chair, that deans were now willing to tolerate my teaching of the course in the spring semester. There is no question in my mind that the din of public outrage, and the growing prospect of further public embarrassment, helped convince administrators that their self-inflicted wound at last needed to be cauterized. If there is an encouraging moral to this story, it is this: sometimes faculty resistance works.

At the same time, however, the messages sent from our administrative offices in Chapel Hill tell us that we can expect further disappointments and outrages to come. Within days of their decision to give History 383 the green light for the spring semester, the four administrators named in my complaint wrote a letter in which they appealed to the Faculty Grievance Committee to drop my grievance; they claimed I had suffered no “injury” that needed redress. Worse, in their letter to the Grievance Committee they stuck with their shameful explanation for what had happened to 383. Still refusing to admit that deans had pressured my department chair to block the course from the 2017-2018 schedule, they suggested that the chair was solely responsible for the initial decision not to schedule the course, and that he was solely responsible for the unexpected reversal that occurred just weeks before the academic year was set to begin. “In the course of planning upcoming course loads,” they dissembled, my chair had decided to run with the 383 after all. Why, then, the initial refusal to schedule the course? Why the unexpected reversal? No actual reasons appeared in their letter, just as no reason had ever been given during the entire ten-month battle that ensued after I first submitted my teaching request form to my department chair last October.

No reason was given, of course, because no defensible reason exists. My course was shut down because someone did not like its content. It was resuscitated because the risks of public embarrassment for the university had finally outgrown the perceived benefits of censorship. My recent experience at UNC, when combined with the stunning news tumbling out of places like USC, Louisville, Baylor, Minnesota, Penn State, and other campuses in recent years, suggests that the undergraduate curriculum needs another new course.  I’m thinking that my next new syllabus will focus on the social and historical roots of the generalized abandonment of integrity on the twenty-first century American campus. Students should be fully apprised of the kind of behavior they can expect of their leaders during their undergraduate years. Any thoughts on readings or other tips for crafting a course on the moral decline of the modern University should be directed to jaysmith@email.unc.edu.

Guest blogger Jay Smith, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, is a specialist on early-modern France whose next project will examine attitudes toward truth telling among eighteenth-century political elites.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.


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