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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Maybe It’s Time to Stand Up to the Bear

A flagship university is being devoured slowly. Some would like to stop it.

July 8, 2021

Since this is a publication primarily aimed at those who are “inside” higher education, I’m not going to spend a lot of time recapping the series of events that resulted in Nikole Hannah-Jones joining Ta-Nehisi Coates as faculty at Howard University, bringing a $20 million grant from the Knight Foundation and other donors that will help found the Center for Journalism and Democracy with them.

It seems undeniable to me that recent actions by the UNC governing board have been damaging to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even those members of the board who were dedicated to seeing Hannah-Jones not become a Knight Fellow in the journalism school must recognize that the damage to the university’s external reputation and the harm of the internal turmoil is considerable.

The other leading higher ed publication has labeled this whole thing a “saga,” which, on the one hand … come on … and on the other … maybe not so wrong.

Though it’s possible that some members of the board do not care, providing that their power remains in place and they can send the signal that a Pulitzer-winning, genius grant-holding Black woman is not welcome. You have to assume that a tenured Professor Hannah-Jones would continue to draw attention to her groundbreaking writing and journalism on issues of race in America, which one would think would be most welcome at a university, but apparently not in the minds of some.

The dynamic in North Carolina is not unfamiliar to those of us in South Carolina, where politicians view public higher education institutions not as public trusts, but playthings, or worse, subjects that must bend the knee to those in power. These disputes are set against a larger political and culture war that shows no signs of abating any time soon. In fact, as incidents like this one seem to indicate, it’s intensifying.

Institutional leaders are in a very difficult spot. These boards filled with political appointments have the very real potential to harm institutions via the power of the purse. The top administrators at UNC-CH seem to see the system board as a problem that can/must be managed, and therefore refrain from direct criticism.

Hannah-Jones herself remarked, “When leadership had the opportunity to stand up, it did not.”

When asked whether or not the board had done anything wrong following the positive tenure vote for Hannah-Jones, but prior to her announcement that she wasn’t coming, the UNC chancellor responded, “It is a complex governance structure that I work within. I value the unique perspective that each of those board members brings to the table for addressing the issues that we were faced with.”

Reading the subtext, I’m getting the sense the chancellor would rather talk about anything else, and I don’t blame him, but at some point, it’s my view that these things have to be talked about.

Enter Professor Mimi V. Chapman, an associate dean at UNC-Chapel Hill and chair of the faculty, and a brave person who published an op-ed in the Daily Tar Heel newspaper calling for the creation of a “coalition for Carolina.”

In it she says what the chancellor feels he perhaps cannot:

No matter what decisions the Board of Trustees or Ms. Hannah-Jones have made, the assaults on this campus will continue. Right now, a legislature controlled by one political party appoints, either directly or indirectly, every member of the Board of Governors and every member of the Board of Trustees with the exception of the student body president, who serves by virtue of the office. The Democratic governor’s ability to participate in these appointments was stripped in 2018 upon his election. This hyperpartisan reality means that our administrative leaders, namely the chancellor and provost, are in a position where they cannot transparently lead or autonomously make decisions for our campus.

Chapman identifies the structural problem underlying these recurring crises, the way that university governance has become a partisan project.

The response to this dynamic has been, in Chapman’s words, a “do not poke the bear” strategy, “in order to protect this or that budget allocation.”

This is a familiar concept from my time in South Carolina, where, for example, College of Charleston was required to not only not poke the bear, but to hire one of them (former state senate president pro tempore Glenn McConnell) as president of the university, even though he was not recommended by the outside search firm and was not supported by the students or faculty. The school wasted six figures on a Potemkin search when state legislators had already decided McConnell would be getting the gig. Those who opposed McConnell tried to comfort ourselves with the thought that perhaps the other bears in the Legislature would be nicer to one of their own when he went asking for honey … err … funding, but during McConnell’s tenure, the budget barely budged.

A flagship university with a national reputation is an important asset to a state. If North Carolina would like a look at the future if this continues, they can cast their eyes to Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Idea was undone by former governor Scott Walker, faculty left in droves and UW-Madison, which had been in the top five universities on research spending from the 1970s until 2015, slid to sixth. They’re now eighth.

Pardon the abuse of Chapman’s analogy, but the bear is already gnawing on a leg, working its way up. Hoping the bear is satisfied once it’s done with the leg is a sure recipe to be entirely devoured by the bear.

In her op-ed, Chapman is betting that there is a critical mass of stakeholders who would like to see the institution cease to be a political plaything. I think she is right about the numbers, that there are lots of people who are open to collaborating and compromising across ideological lines in the service of protecting and preserving the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The unknown is whether or not people will feel compelled enough to make the stand. When institutions are empowered to live up to their values, they are awesome engines of possibility for many different stakeholders. How awesome would it be to get out of a permanent crouch and make the case for what we know these institutions can do?

It’s possible that taking a stand will anger the bear and result in a quick devouring, which would be terrible, but not standing up to the bear simply means a death that is slow and excruciating.

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