A group of UNC-Chapel Hill alumni, faculty, staff, students and others interested in the university are coming together to stop what they say are political influences in campus decisions.
The group launched the Coalition for Carolina on Thursday to build a supportive network of allies “to defend the university’s independence from interference” and to support “the principles of open inquiry, free speech, equity, and inclusion.”
Professor and UNC-CH Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman first proposed the idea for this group in an op-ed in The Daily Tar Heel. The piece came on the heels of the highly politicized controversy over journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure that brought national attention to Chapel Hill this summer.
But the sentiments have been swelling for years.
“There’s been this history over the last number of years of big controversies,” Chapman said. “And many of them … find their roots in the governance structure of the UNC System.”
She said the problems trace back to an overly political UNC System Board of Governors and UNC-CH Board of Trustees, which she said are behaving differently than they have in years past.
Response from Berger’s office
Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for stae Senate leader Phil Berger, issued a statement Thursday that said, “Whenever a decision at UNC is made that doesn’t align with this group’s beliefs it’s an ‘assault’ on the university, and whenever a decision falls in line with their beliefs it’s ‘upholding the university’s mission.’ These are some of the same people that peddled the debunked conspiracy that the legislature was meddling in personnel matters.
“Their motives are transparent. They only want a governing board that’s a rubber stamp to push forward their own goals,” Horsch continued. “This is just another conspiracy-driven blame game. These perpetual malcontents should examine why 68% of conservative students at UNC reported self-censoring their views in class. Perhaps it has something to do with top university staff putting to paper their desire to extinguish viewpoint diversity.”
The Coalition for Carolina notes that every current member of both boards was appointed by a conservative-run state legislature. Only one of the former lawmakers that sits on either board is a Democrat. Key players in the higher education system are former politicians, donors and close allies of top legislators, extending the power of conservative leaders beyond the halls of the General Assembly.
“There’s a level of interference in campus affairs that just simply complicates decision-making and has taken away autonomy from campuses,” Chapman said. “The administration doesn’t have the delegated authority it needs.”
She said the same issues could happen regardless of the political affiliation of board members.
Chapman is on the new group’s steering committee, along with former member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees Roger Perry, former dean of the Kenan-Flagler School of Business and former member of the UNC Board of Governors Paul Fulton and alumna and chair of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media Board of Advisors Joyce Fitzpatrick.
“The first step is to enroll as many people as possible in this coalition and show the General Assembly and Board of Governors how many UNC-Chapel Hill alums are living and working and concerned in the state,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said they’re just getting started and don’t have an agenda or a prescription. But she said she hopes they can help restore public higher education funding to pre-recession levels and get campuses their autonomy back so there’s less micromanaging and more growth across the system. That could require policy changes at the trustee and BOG level.
‘A series of embarrassing episodes’
The group launched its website Thursday and took out a full-page ad in the September/October edition of Carolina Alumni Review titled “What the hell is going on at Carolina?.” It touts the university’s teaching, cutting-edge research and national rankings, while criticizing the lack of authority and autonomy Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other campus leaders have.
UNC-CH is “being led, or should we say controlled, by a group of partisan politicians who have overtaken our institutions’ governing bodies,” the ad says.
The group says those individuals are “shunning the principles of transparency and shared governance that this university was built on.”
The ad mentions “a series of embarrassing episodes,” including the handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument, re-opening plans and vaccine protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy. Each of those campus controversies brought national attention to Chapel Hill, prompted numerous campus protests and left students and faculty feeling like they are not a priority.
“Decisions that shape the future of Carolina should be made in Chapel Hill,” the ad says. “Instead, they are being made covertly and controlled 28 miles away. In a place called Raleigh.”
Perry said in those cases the university was mandated to do things that created additional problems. He said they would have not been nearly as contentious or controversial had campus leaders been able to make decisions without outside political influence from the legislature.
He pointed out that the legislature took away appointment powers to campus boards of trustees that the governor once had and ignored recent recommendations from the UNC-CH chancellor and Board of Trustees.
“The self-determination and ability of each campus to manage its affairs, that has been diluted significantly over the last number of years and I think that we would hope to return to the way the system functions in times past,” Perry said.
In addition to providing a forum for stakeholders to express their concerns, the group will amplify good news on campus and highlight the work of faculty, researchers and students. The group says it is bipartisan and has about 100 members, though there isn’t a published list.
“We are intent on raising awareness around all the great things,” Fitzpatrick said, “which have frankly become a little bit minimized because of all the chaos and the controversy.”
In a statement Thursday, Guskiewicz said, “As a taxpayer-supported public institution, our partnership with the General Assembly is critical. We are continuing to serve the people of North Carolina and beyond through the University’s priorities and accomplishments as a great public research institution.”