Resolution Affirming Academic Freedom Fails to Win Approval of U. of North Carolina Board
[The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 August 2002]
A college without the backbone to defend academia
By RICHARD MORGAN
Faculty leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are blasting the university system's Board of Governors after it failed on Friday to pass a resolution defending academic freedom. The vote came as the Chapel Hill campus is being attacked by state legislators for requiring incoming freshmen and transfer students to read a book about the Koran.
Although the vote was 18 for and 10 against, the measure failed because board rules require a two-thirds majority for resolutions that do not originate in a board committee.
The full text of the resolution read:
"Resolved, that the Board of Governors supports students, faculties and administrations of the university's 16 campuses in their commitment to freedom -- religious, academic and political; their exchange of ideas; their examination of different cultures; and their working to understand conflicting values of all kinds, with the confidence that thoughtful study and intellectual inquiry are fundamental to this university and the goal of this board."
J. Bradley Wilson, the board's chairman, said that most of the members who voted against the resolution did not do so because they do not support academic freedom, but because the measure had not gone through the "procedural politics" of the committee process. "They did not vote on the substance of the resolution," he said, noting that immediately after the resolution failed, the board set up a committee to explore the merits of academic freedom.
The controversy surrounds the university's selection of Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 1999), by Michael A. Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford College, for Chapel Hill freshmen to read this summer. Last week, the Appropriations Committee of the North Carolina House of Representatives voted to deny public funds to the reading program unless all other religions were added in an "equal or incremental way."
Although the resolution before the Board of Governors on Friday was for the support of academic freedom in general and made no specific reference to the controversial book about the Koran, Ray S. Farris, the board member who introduced the measure, said that he proposed the resolution in direct response to the House committee's action on Wednesday.
Mr. Farris said that some members of the board had voted against the resolution out of a fear that angry legislators would further trim an already lean university budget. The "potential animosity and perhaps some kind of budget problem for the university" convinced some members that "we don't need to go and say 'You're stupid.' That doesn't help us. We're not in the business of insulting people," Mr. Farris said.
Faculty members at the Chapel Hill campus were shocked at the board's action, which some professors found much more disturbing than the legislature's action. "I can think of no situation where [the board] should shrink and slink away from intellectual and academic freedom. The legislature has other priorities; fine. But the board doesn't," said Sue E. Estroff, chairwoman of the faculty at the Chapel Hill campus. "Procedural irregularities are not morally equivalent to the principles at stake," she said in reference to board members' frustration with the lack of committee process, adding, "Why do you need a committee to discuss academic diversity? What is there to discuss? It's synonymous with university."
Ms. Estroff said that professors were most nervous about the implication that the university's leaders had opted against rocking the boat until the state budget had passed. Some board members who voted against the resolution on Friday said that they would vote for it in October. "When the board says that they'll vote for something in October and not in August, and the only thing intervening is a state budget, draw your own conclusions," said Ms. Estroff. "If you believe in academic freedom in October, why not in August?"
"There's no rush to do this," said J. Craig Souza, one of the board members who voted against the resolution. "We didn't do any damage to academic freedom." In response to those who said the board caved to legislators, he added, "We are a political body. We have to be sensitive to the people who give us our money."
The resolution's languishing is a sign of a "failed" new guard in the university system, said William C. Friday, president emeritus, who ran the system from 1956 to 1986. The controversy is "very sad," he said, because "if there ever was a time to reaffirm academic freedom in universities, it is now. Politicians use situations like this to hurt other parts of the institution." He also said that the action was a result of the board being filled with "political appointments" and "professional lobbyists."
Board members' assurances that the academic-freedom resolution will pass in October are "just an excuse," Mr. Friday said, because the measure will have "no relevance once the legislature has gone home."
Mr. Friday -- who has read the controversial book and says that it is "in no sense in advocacy of anything" -- called the board's response "exactly contrary to the history of the university."
During the McCarthy era, the Chapel Hill campus faced numerous controversies over academic freedom, culminating with the state legislature's meeting in secret in 1963 to ban Communist speakers at state campuses. That law, which threatened the university system's accreditation, was fought by university leaders and eventually was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court -- but not before humiliating the university among academic groups.
"This is an embarrassment," Mr. Friday said. Academic freedom "needs to be reaffirmed," he added. "That's a basic for any American university. We stood up to the vilest of invasions in the past and, since then, adversity has been a teacher. But the board has failed to meet its responsibility."
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