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North Carolina legislators will no longer fund new distinguished professorships at public universities—unless the individuals work in science, technology, engineering or math degree programs.
The new restriction, which also affects distinguished scholars and distinguished fellows, was part of the budget bill the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed Sept. 22. It became law Oct. 3 without Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s signature.
The law’s definition of a “STEM subject area” is “Any subject area in a field of scholarship related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.” And it specifies that “A subject area in a field of scholarship related to journalism or law is not a STEM subject area.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has one of the country’s most prestigious journalism programs.
Jane Stancill—spokeswoman for the UNC System, which includes all 16 of the state’s public universities, under the UNC moniker and otherwise—said there are over 700 current distinguished professorships, which come with higher pay and research stipends. Existing non-STEM professorships will continue through their already established endowments.
Stancill said state dollars match private funds one to one for these endowed professorships at the system’s smaller institutions. State dollars provide a third of the funding for the professorships at seven larger institutions.
Jay Smith, a UNC Chapel Hill history professor who’s also president of North Carolina’s State Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said he only learned about the change when a colleague sent him an Oct. 19 WUNC article on the budget. That article also caught fire on X Friday.
“Everyone who’s heard about it is outraged, for a whole bunch of reasons,” Smith said in an interview. He said the change “seems to reflect a vision of the university as a vocational school,” where the only scholarly distinction worth valuing is in the sciences because they provide job training. “It’s a blinkered view of university life and of the power of a university education,” he said. “It’s going to render all of our humanities and humanities-adjacent fields less competitive nationally.”
Smith said Republican politicians in the state have been denigrating fields such as gender studies, art history and English for years. “This is just sort of the culmination of that—that attitude of contempt that they have toward humanities fields and the people who teach in them,” he said.
The General Assembly started the program in 1985.
While adding the restriction, the General Assembly increased funding for the distinguished professorships by adding $10 million total in nonrecurring funds for this year and next, according to information Stancill provided.
There’s more new money that could go to non-STEM professors, according to Stancill. She wrote that the UNC System “received a $15 million recurring appropriation for the faculty recruitment and retention fund, which helps UNC campuses remain competitive in hiring and retaining top faculty.”