An ongoing battle between the esteemed University of North Carolina and the state legislature is heating up. The Republican-controlled body is considering two bills that would require students study specific areas of US history to graduate. Naturally, hundreds of professors disagree, and they are doing what they do best: writing letters of protest and making a lot of noise.
The proposed legislation is two-fold: HB 96 requires the history credits, but HB 715 would eliminate tenure and institute a renewable contract system. And that’s where the noise became the most discordant to date. The professors all agree the legislation is an attack on “expertise.”
On Tuesday, 673 educators at UNC-Chapel Hill published an open letter, making an already sticky situation downright gooey. In part, the missive reads:
“Instead of heeding this warning, our leaders continue to disregard campus autonomy, attack the expertise and independence of world-class faculty, and seek to force students’ educations into pre-approved ideological containers.”
For outside observers, the courses seem innocuous. They focus on the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, essays from the Federalist Papers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. So how is this an attempt to brainwash seekers of higher education? It isn’t; that argument is, at face value, inconsequential and somewhat hysterical. What really has professors in an uproar is the bill removing tenure. That could be devastating to educators and the NC economy.
Tar Heel Economics
The University of North Carolina drives the state’s reputation for higher education, equating to a significant economic impact. The two who penned the letter, History professor Jay Smith and law professor Maxine Eichner, wrote: “[i]f enacted…these measures will further damage the reputation of UNC and the state of North Carolina and will likely bring critical scrutiny from accrediting agencies that know undue interference in university affairs when they see it.” Thus driving away talent and students seeking, well, great talent, they argue. The UNC website boasts of its influence on a strong economy:
Our $1 billion research enterprise alone employs more than 10,000 North Carolinians in 81 counties, conducts business with 6,000 companies in 95 North Carolina counties, and brings new industries to rural parts of the state.
The University has also been home to nearly 800 startups — more than half of which are still operating today and headquartered in our state, bringing in more than $14 billion in annual revenue and creating thousands of additional jobs.
Teaching history will probably not impact those numbers one way or another. But again, this isn’t really about the students so much as the faculty. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has warned UNC of undue political influencing since the summer of 2022. Irene Mulvey, the organization’s national president, has lobbied in Texas and Florida against some of the same legislative measures but claims NC has the most “egregious” attempts yet that will “have devastating effects on recruiting faculty and even graduate students.” She continued: “I don’t think these people have any idea of the damage this is going to do to higher education in North Carolina.”
Professor Smith agreed, asserting the legislation was: “[c]learly written by someone who doesn’t have the faintest idea why tenure is important, or why its elimination would be so devastating to UNC schools and, ultimately, harmful to the people of North Carolina. The states that do away with tenure will not – simply will not – attract top-flight scholars and teachers.”
The North Carolina Compromise
The letter was focused on tenure, but it wove in the required study of US history in that it “substitutes ideological force-feeding for the intellectual expertise of faculty.” But the Republican legislation is picking up momentum now. Rep. David Willis wasn’t swayed by the dire warnings from the educational community and doubled down on revisiting tenure. “Salaries are one of the biggest expenses for constituent institutions of the UNC System and the North Carolina Community College System, and they need to be better managed and regularly evaluated through rigorous study,” he said.
Rep. John Hardister, who co-sponsored HR 715, told Campus Reform the legislature it is “perfectly within [its] right” to make decisions as it sees fit. “The General Assembly actually created the UNC system, not the other way around. We created the system we funded to the tune of billions of dollars.”
In defense of the curricula requirements, Hardister and Willis wonder why reading and studying the US and North Carolina constitutions, Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech would be problematic. The university system has always required general education classes that must be passed for a student to graduate, even when they aren’t at all related to the desired degree. So why is a three-credit course studying how the nation came about disturbing anyone?
As Hardister explained: “We’re founded in part on the idea that we are a democratic republic where you can…share ideas, you can debate ideas, and then you have a democratic process you go through to elected representatives, who you then can hold accountable.”
All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Liberty Nation.
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