How Not to Think About Institutional Racism

To really understand institutional racism at the University of North Carolina, look to its governance, past and present, Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn writes.

June 23, 2022
The empty pedestal of "Silent Sam," a Confederate monument on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in August 2018, after the statue was toppled by protesters. The pedestal is surrounded by fencing.
The empty pedestal of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate monument on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in August 2018, after the statue was toppled by protesters.
(Contributor/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If we are to fend off right-wing attacks on education that examines the stubborn persistence of white supremacy in the United States, we must prove able to defend our claims about what is variously called “structural,” “systemic” or “institutional” racism. In this regard, we owe a debt to the American Association of University Professors and specifically the report its special committee issued in April titled “Governance, Academic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the University of North Carolina System.” Doubling down on that report, earlier this month the AAUP governing council voted to condemn the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and system office for, among other things, taking “actions with regard to the system’s minority serving institutions to reduce budgets, defer maintenance, maintain low salaries, and increase the workloads of faculty members of color at these institutions.”

There is much that is right in the AAUP report’s contention that we cannot understand why the UNC system represents “a particularly hostile environment for faculty, staff, and students of color” absent an appreciation of how that system is governed. However, because the report’s analysis of UNC’s governance is itself flawed, it cannot adequately explain how the UNC system sustains the recalcitrant racialized injustices that so many red-state legislatures now aim to render invisible.

Those Who Neglect the Past …

In its opening pages, the report notes that the University of North Carolina was founded by owners of enslaved persons, that much of its campus was constructed by bondaged labor and that Black students were excluded from admission until 1951. However, rather than digging into this history, the report concentrates on what it labels the “new era in the political and administrative life of the system” that began in 2010. It was then that Republicans captured both houses of North Carolina’s General Assembly and, persuaded that UNC “had become dominated by what they considered out-of-control liberalism,” set about stacking the system’s Board of Governors as a way of imposing their “conservative” agenda.

The report thereby represents the last 12 years as a marked departure from an earlier era, when “the General Assembly had usually sought to make appointments of political moderates and to maintain a degree of partisan balance on the university boards it oversaw.” This charitable reading of the past grounds the report’s construction of the present problem as one of Republican “meddling in academic matters for expressly political reasons.” That problem’s solution, accordingly, is to secure “strong and independent leadership” that is “willing to do more than simply pay lip service to the idea of equity.” That in turn requires “system and campus-level governing boards” committed to ensuring “that the history of the University of North Carolina inspires and serves as a prelude to a future that looks very different from its past and its present.” The implication is clear: overcoming UNC’s history of institutionalized racism must start at the top, and only that will enable the system to avoid repeats of the multiple fiascoes that have embarrassed it in recent years (think, most notably, of the bungled removal of the Silent Sam Confederate monument from the UNC Chapel Hill campus and the botched tenure bid of Nikole Hannah-Jones).

This will not do. The report’s investigation gives us every reason to believe that the system’s most powerful governing board will continue to serve as a pawn of the state Legislature and hence that there is little reason to believe that leaders of the sort summoned by the report stand any chance of appointment. As the AAUP report observes, “given the racial makeup of North Carolina’s Republican-controlled General Assembly and its successful efforts to ensure even less diversity within that body, these structural means of excluding people of color from positions of power will likely endure.”

Under these circumstances, to appeal to the UNC system board to “undertake appropriate self-limitation” (emphasis in original), as the AAUP does, borders on the delusional. So, too, given the report’s comprehensive catalog of unsuccessful attempts on the part of UNC faculty to challenge the board and its senior administrative appointees, the North Carolina AAUP president’s contention that “uprooting systemic racism and protecting academic freedom depend on robust shared governance” (emphasis in original) offers not a remedy but a recipe for perpetual defeat.

These self-contradictions are indicative of the report’s failure to appreciate the historical roots of the racism that confirms the assertion, advanced by an unnamed Appalachian State faculty member quoted in the report, that “the plantation model of governing is alive and well” in the UNC system. Although the report gestures toward the “systemic forms of inequity with regard to the distribution of power, privilege, and resources” that infect the UNC system, it does not explore with any care the formalized mechanisms that enable and propel this structure of oppression through time. Instead, for the most part, it focuses on UNC’s creation of a hostile “racial climate” that makes faculty members of color “feel unwelcome, undervalued, and insecure.” That ethos in turn is characterized as a fruit of the demographically unrepresentative composition of its ultimate governing body as well as the presidents and chancellors it appoints. Those rulers, however, operate within a legally constituted order whose long history has stitched racism into its very seams, much as the sweat and blood of enslaved persons remain baked within the bricks of the principal administrative building on the Chapel Hill campus. Until this constitution of power is fundamentally upended, UNC will prove unable to do more than tinker around the margins of white supremacy.

‘The Fish Rots From the Head’

Essential to understanding this constitution is UNC’s legal identity, which, like almost all U.S. colleges and universities, is that of an autocratic corporation. Issued by the state assembly in 1789, UNC’s founding charter constituted the 40 individuals named therein, at least 30 of whom owned enslaved persons, as a “body politic and corporate.” To these incorporated trustees and their successors, the charter granted specific legal powers, including but not limited to the power to appoint as well as remove the university’s president and professors; to make whatever “laws and regulations for the government of the university … as to them may appear necessary”; and to “take, demand, receive and possess all monies, goods and chattels that shall be given them for the use of the said university.” Those who were not members of this corporation but who worked for it, whether instructor, indentured servant or enslaved person, were denied any formally guaranteed title to participate in exercise of the governance powers granted by the 1789 charter specifically and solely to UNC’s trustees.

UNC’s constitution as a hierarchically organized corporation in which the power of rule is monopolized by an elite minority unaccountable to those over whom it rules cannot be segregated from its reproduction of white supremacy. When UNC was chartered, the General Assembly made no direct appropriation to fund it. Instead, the Legislature provided for allocation to the trustees of revenue derived from certain debts owed but as yet unpaid to the state as well as “all the property that has heretofore or shall hereafter escheat to the state.”

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Escheated property consists of goods owned by a person who dies without an heir; left unclaimed, it defaults to the state. In antebellum North Carolina, such property often included enslaved persons whose ownership, as the Legislature had provided, was transferred to UNC’s governing board. Acting in accordance with the board’s chartered power to “bargain, sell, grant, demise, alien or dispose” of its possessions, these persons were then sold for cash to offset the university’s operating expenses and build its financial reserves. Indeed, by one estimate, between 1790 and 1840, more than a quarter of UNC’s total income derived from diverse forms of escheated property, including the revenue secured by the university’s indirect but lucrative implication in the transatlantic slave trade. UNC’s governing board was able to profit from this traffic in human beings only because it was legally constituted as a corporation vested with the right to own and hence to merchandise these persons as its rulers saw fit.

UNC Reformed?

Following adoption of a new state constitution in 1971, the General Assembly revamped the governance of higher education in North Carolina by conferring on a statewide Board of Governors responsibility “for the general determination, control, supervision, management and governance” of what today are the system’s 17 campuses, each of which is outfitted with its own Board of Trustees. After Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was elected governor in 2016, the Legislature additionally modified this structure by stripping the state’s chief executive officer of the power to appoint four trustees to each individual campus board. Instead, the authority to name all trustees was effectively transferred to the General Assembly insofar as their members are now either appointed directly by the Legislature or indirectly by the systemwide Board of Governors, whose members are themselves selected by the Assembly. The institutional conditions that enable the political “meddling” that so vexes the AAUP were thus set in statutory stone.

What did not change after 1972 or 2016 is the UNC system’s legal constitution as a “body politic and corporate.” Confirming but also consolidating this corporation’s autocratic character, the UNC Policy Manual and Code affirms the exclusive power of the Board of Governors to adopt any “policies and regulations as it may deem wise.” Subject only to the requirement that it not contravene state law, this board is authorized to amend or suspend any provision of the manual itself.

True, the Board of Governors may elect to cede some measure of its plenary power by delegating certain tasks to the system president, the trustees of each individual campus and/or their respective chancellors. But that board reserves to itself the unilateral right to rescind such delegations in part or in whole at any time and for any reason it deems fit.

About the class of employees designated as faculty, the manual authorizes each campus to create a Faculty Council or Senate but is quick to note that the sole role of these bodies is to “advise the chancellor on any matters pertaining to the institution that are of interest and concern to the faculty” (emphasis added). As to the class we call staff, the manual says virtually nothing, which is not surprising given that these at-will employees are effectively irrelevant when it comes to UNC’s governance. Rightly understood, both are subjects of an incorporated “body politic” ruled by outsiders selected by and beholden to other outsiders.

White Supremacy Amplified

Because the UNC system is constituted as an incorporated autocracy, we should not be surprised when its rulers seize additional powers and nor should we be surprised when these new powers reinforce UNC’s racist past. For example, prior to 2020, the authority to identify finalists for the position of chancellor at any given campus was vested in the campus’s Board of Trustees, although the system president ultimately selected the candidate to be forwarded to the Board of Governors. Today, however, the system president is authorized to add up to two handpicked candidates to any pool of candidates. At least one of those two candidates must then be included among those submitted by trustees to the system president even if they find that person unacceptable; the president in turn chooses the candidate whose name is submitted to the Board of Governors for final approval.

The AAUP chapter of Eastern Carolina University was surely correct when it branded this change “a radical and dangerous expansion in the powers of the system President,” one that “eradicate[s] institutional sovereignty and shared governance” in selecting the highest-ranking administrator of each campus. It was trustees at several of the system’s historically Black colleges and universities, however, who linked this power grab to UNC’s racist past. Speaking anonymously to NC Policy Watch, one said the Board of Governors “is overwhelmingly white, male and conservative … There is already a history in this state and this UNC System of Black people being left out of decision making.”

That trustees agreed to voice their opposition to the press only on condition that they remain nameless tells us more than we may care to know about the UNC’s system’s constitution as an autocratic corporation deeply invested in reproduction of white supremacy: “I think we all know,” a trustee at another North Carolina HBCU told NC Policy Watch, “that if we criticize the Board of Governors publicly or we question the system president publicly, that is the end of our time as trustees.”

From Bondage to Contract

White supremacy, argued the late Charles L. Mills, cannot be understood as an unfortunate departure from a norm of universal equalitarianism. From its very inception, the United States has been “a system for which racially determined structural advantage and handicap are foundational.” If what Mills says remains true, the financial wherewithal of UNC may no longer turn on its participation in the legalized abomination that is slavery, but that does not spell the end of its engagement in racialized exploitation.

Consider, for example, the academic labor force’s wholesale transformation over the course of the past half century. In absolute and relative terms, the number of faculty of color employed by America’s colleges and universities has increased. But, during these same decades, the institution of tenure has been gutted and contingent appointments, full- and part-time, now predominate. Older white men continue to be significantly overrepresented among those holding well-compensated tenured appointments, especially at the rank of professor, whereas the gains made by faculty of color are mostly within the academy’s precariat. From this evidence, the AAUP drew the correct conclusion in a 2020 report: “Given the lack of URM [underrepresented minority] individuals at the higher academic ranks, particularly among women, we can infer the existence of a racial pay gap overall.”

The academy’s capacity to extract cheap labor from persons of color turns on its legal formation as a corporation whose powers include that of entering into contractual agreements backed by the power of the state. This form of exploitation is not identical to UNC’s sale of escheated property, including enslaved persons. But nor is it entirely discontinuous with that practice or its successors, including sharecropping, debt peonage and convict leasing, all of which reproduced racial subordination by means less visibly violent than chattel slavery. Should we fail to teach our students about the incorporated constellation of powers that convey this history into the present, we too will prove complicit in perpetuating what the U.S. Supreme Court once characterized as “an ever-turning wheel of servitude.”

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Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn is the author of several articles on academic governance as well as The Autocratic Academy: Re-envisioning Rule Within America’s Universities (Duke University Press, 2023).

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