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Five panelists offered their view on solutions to a complex system of shared governance and academic freedom at UNC-Chapel Hill and beyond during the second of two panel discussions.

Defining challenges and complexities

The Graduate School and its Royster Society of Fellows held an engaging discussion on Wednesday about solutions and a way forward for universities in the United States dealing with the challenges of shared governance and academic freedom.

In the first panel discussion, four panelists discussed the tension in institutions of higher education between shared governance—or the processes and structures, such as governments, faculty, and administration—and academic freedom of faculty to pursue and to share knowledge.

Suzanne Barbour, dean of The Graduate School, said now is an opportune time to discuss these issues, particularly at the nation’s first public university—its past, present, and future.

“The Royster Society of Fellows provides graduate students a variety of avenues for professional development; among them is the opportunity to have this conversation about higher education,” Barbour said.

A close view of a mossy stone wall
“Low stone walls” on the campus of the  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A centuries-old ‘checkered history’

Martin Brinkley (‘92 JD), dean of the UNC School of Law and a William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor, began the discussion.

“To me, academic freedom relates primarily to the rights of students and faculty to engage in discussion and debate that advances the pursuit of the truth,” Brinkley said. Brinkley also provided a historical overview of tensions throughout Carolina’s 228-year history relating to shared governance and academic freedom.

“This is not the first time we have been here,” Brinkley said. “This is an institution with a checkered history on issues of academic freedom.” Brinkley spoke about issues relating to faculty tenure dating to before the Civil War and the tensions inherent in an ever-changing curriculum, such as teaching evolution during the 1920s.

“I believe that getting ‘the politics’ out of UNC is sort of like taking matter out of the universe,” Brinkley said. “The politics have been responsible for the good times and the bad times. It is how we govern a multi-versity.” He advocated for continued efforts to educate the public about the University, its role as an economic juggernaut for North Carolina, and demystifying the complex and complicated system of shared governance and academic freedom.

Mimi Chapman (’97 Ph.D.), associate dean for doctoral studies and the Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information at the UNC School of Social Work, said that issues within the last several years have put shared governance and academic freedom in sharp relief and have also extended beyond the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

“In the past, when difficult conversations happened on our campus, I think the belief was that it was a campus-focused problem,” Chapman said. “In some ways, these bodies have been more public about the positions they’re taking, and in that way, they’re being addressed more publicly.” She noted the evolution of views of the role of shared governance and academic freedom, the values held by leadership, and trust.

“Maybe it is time to re-educate the public about the importance of the ideas,” Chapman said. “Without those values and without a commitment to those values, you begin to see a breakdown.”

An eye toward solutions

Panelist Neel Swamy, the president of Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG), is pursuing a dual degree in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and is a Pharm.D. candidate in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

He pointed to the University’s service-oriented mission and said that in conversations with graduate and professional students, they are eager to produce and expand knowledge that will meet humanity’s great challenges, both in North Carolina and beyond. But, he said, there’s a need to better inform these students, at the outset of their studies, about the structures and systems that surround the institution.

“When there is synergy and there are stakeholders who identify strongly with the types of knowledge that graduate students aim to produce … students are able to grow, learn, and engage with an institution that often transcends the department they’re in,” he said.

Tori Ekstrand (‘03 Ph.D.), the Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster Distinguished Professor for Graduate Education, and an associate professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, moderated the discussion, and agreed with Swamy. She said that recent issues of pursuing tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Hussman School provided a real-world example of the complexities of shared governance and academic freedom.

“I had graduate students at my door saying: ‘What can I do?’ That sense of powerlessness really came through very clearly in that moment as a faculty member with students at my door.”

Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, said the AAUP has guided universities by developing statements that explain decision-making processes of universities and how faculty and boards delegate responsibilities. Tiede also said the task of board education can also be a useful step to take.

“For instance: Where does faculty voice prevail, and where is it overturned?” Tiede said. “What makes this moment particularly difficult for the academic profession is the current state of tenure.”

Tiede also said the AAUP aims to support universities as they undertake investigations of governance and climate.

“That is our goal, for that process to lead to a positive outcome,” he said.

Julia Sprunt Grumbles ’75, former member of the UNC Board of Trustees, said the University has goodwill across the state and an opportunity to continue to show its impact.

“We have such a great story to tell, and faculty is one of them,” Grumbles sad. “It’s one of our biggest, greatest stories.…We need to be better in touch with the great work that our University is doing and the taxpayer dollars at work. The state is our greatest, most consistent donor.”

Brinkley agreed and said he has met with leadership and constituents around our state in order to build relationships and foster connections.

“There is an immense well of love and affection for this institution out there among the people of North Carolina,” Brinkley said. “The further removed you are from Chapel Hill, the more of a pedestal you have it on. Pedestals are both lovely and troubling, because they come with a romanticized idea of what happens on campus and what it means to be a faculty member.”

The Royster Society of Fellows is the premier doctoral recruitment fellowship at The Graduate School. It supports myriad opportunities for its fellows, including interdisciplinary learning, networking, service, and professional development.

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