This story was originally published online at NC Policy Watch.

Faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill have often spoken their minds—but in some cases, they have done so at their own peril.

Political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors have targeted academic centers whose work they oppose. They have allegedly meddled in faculty hiring decisions for political reasons. And they have exacted reprisals against faculty members who speak publicly on political controversies of the day.

This month, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council passed a resolution affirming the right of faculty members to speak freely and the university’s duty to protect their speech.

“[Faculty members] should be encouraged to provide thought leadership, to be public scholars when their work gives them meaningful insight,” said Mimi Chapman, a professor in the School of Social Work, during the meeting. “This is what faculty at a great research university does. They weigh in. They share their knowledge and experience. We shouldn’t be intimidated into hiding our light under the proverbial bushel.”

The faculty resolution comes after the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees adopted both the Chicago Principles and the “Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” in late July.

The Chicago Principles, crafted at the University of Chicago in 2014, affirm free expression as essential to university culture. Dozens of colleges, universities, and student and faculty groups have adopted them, including the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council in 2018.

But the principles are not without controversy. Political conservatives, many who believe right-wing speech and ideology are suppressed in academia, support the principles. Some educators believe they preserve free, open, and rigorous debate on campuses. Yet others say they fail to address some of the thorniest issues about free expression on campus and can be used to justify ignoring or curtailing student activism.

Far more controversial is the Kalven report, a product of the tumultuous political environment on campuses in the late 1960s. Few colleges or universities have adopted the conclusions of the report. Its critics at UNC System schools say it’s easy to see why: the report emphasizes that a university should stay neutral on controversial political issues.

In adopting the Kalven report, the UNC Board of Trustees said it “recognizes that the neutrality of the University on social and political issues ‘arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.’”

The report “further acknowledges ‘a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day,’” the trustees wrote in their resolution of support.

Had the UNC Board of Trustees’ resolution been in place in 2018, when students toppled the Silent Sam Confederate monument—and some system leaders insisted on re-erecting it—university leaders could have felt constrained from publicly commenting on several aspects of the controversy: on the statue’s meaning to Black students and faculty, on the propriety of having such a monument on campus, on the contentious (and ultimately scrapped) deal the UNC System struck with the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Now that the trustees adopted both the principles and the report, it’s unclear what university leaders and faculty members can say about current controversies, such as the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

As Policy Watch reported in July, many people at UNC-Chapel Hill felt frustrated by the university’s silence about the end of the constitutional right to abortion, even as other major colleges and universities issued statements.

In the absence of an official statement from UNC, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health released its own about the ruling’s impacts on the day it was announced.

Chapman, as head of the faculty, issued her own statement. She later said she had a dream she had been fired for doing so.

“I am not prone to anxiety dreams,” Chapman said.

In her statement about the Roe v. Wade reversal, Chapman was careful to say she was speaking only as an individual, not a representative of the university. That sort of disclaimer may be increasingly necessary, a legal expert told the Faculty Council last week, as professors and instructors struggle to preserve their ability to speak as subject experts but without being seen as speaking for the university itself.

Faculty members under pressure

In June, after the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted to condemn the UNC System for political interference, Chapman held a series of listening sessions with faculty members.

What she heard from more than 50 faculty members tended to back up the AAUP’s concerns that the political environment within the UNC System threatened academic freedom, chilled speech, and perpetuated systemic racism.

“Through this process I was alerted that faculty were getting, at best, mixed messages about their ability to speak out on their research and scholarship as pertains to issues of the day,” Chapman said.

Among the stories Chapman shared, while preserving faculty member anonymity, were the following:

• A person was recruited to the university but has since found the curriculum they were brought in to teach has been “put on ice” to avoid political controversy.

• Another person’s website was taken down without discussion or consultation after someone from outside the campus complained to a state legislator.

• A junior faculty member, excited about a book they have coming out, now worries it will anger some people, including “some quarters of the power structure.” They wonder what that might mean for tenure, promotion, and even their personal safety.

“There is confusion about what constitutes political activity, which may be curtailed when using university time or resources, versus speaking about issues that have become politicized,” Chapman said. “These are very different things. Anything can become politicized. That doesn’t mean, if I have expertise or relevant practice experience in an area, I shouldn’t speak about that.”

Michael Gerhardt, a professor at the UNC School of Law and a nationally recognized constitutional law scholar, spoke to faculty at last week’s meeting about the tension between freedom of speech and the university’s concerns over who represents the institution.

Gerhardt understands that tension well. In 1998 he testified in then president Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. He was called to do so again in 2019 during the impeachment proceedings against then president Donald Trump.

“I cannot tell you how much hate mail I got after I testified in the 2019 impeachment hearings of Donald Trump,” Gerhardt said. “Enough to warrant police protection.”

The university helped him navigate the difficulties with some alumni who called for him to be fired, Gerhardt said, but he didn’t initially feel much public support from the university.

Nonetheless, he said, he knew he was protected by the U.S. Constitution.

As private citizens, faculty members have a First Amendment right to speak on politically controversial issues of the day, Gerhardt said.

As government employees, it’s trickier. It is constitutional, for example, for an entity that provides funding to a professor or department to place conditions on that money that could silence the recipients on controversial issues.

Gerhardt said it is part of a professor’s job to both educate in the classroom and help educate the public, such as through media interviews and court testimony. But to protect themselves from challenges about whether they should speak on a subject, faculty members should make it clear they aren’t spokespeople for their institutions—even if it is obvious they are speaking to an issue firmly within their area of expertise.

“These days it’s really hard to find a subject that won’t irritate somebody,” Gerhardt said.

Professor Eric Muller, a colleague of Gerhardt’s in the law school, said it seems illogical for faculty members to have to make that distinction when speaking as subject matter experts.

“It seems to me that if I post a restaurant review, make a political donation, or speak on behalf of a candidate, that has got to be me as Eric and not as a law professor at UNC,” Muller said.

But if asked to explain something about abortion law, for example, Muller said it seems odd to have to make the distinction.

“It’s not that I’m speaking on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” Muller said. “I’m just doing my job. And so it seems to me it would be an odd thing for me to have the affirmative obligation, when I’m doing my job, to say I’m not speaking on behalf of or representing the institution. I don’t do that in the classroom. I don’t get up and say, ‘I want everybody to know that this is just us, I’m not speaking to you about Roe v. Wade on behalf of the university. I don’t do that in my research.”

The resolution ultimately adopted by the Faculty Council did reflect Gerhardt’s distinctions about professors speaking for themselves versus the institution. But the council also emphasized that the university must defend its faculty members’ rights to do this essential part of their jobs.

“Public expression on matters of local, regional, national, and international importance is a core component of the jobs of many members of the faculty and must not be suppressed,” the resolution read. “Faculty members should be entitled to indicate their university affiliation in all expression related to their research, teaching, and service, so long as they do not indicate that they speak for the University as an institution. The University and its leaders must actively and publicly advocate for and defend the rights of faculty members to speak and write on all matters within the ambit of their research, teaching, and service.”

Part of the faculty’s—and the university’s—mission is speaking truth to power, Gerhardt said.

“Sometimes even the power doesn’t like to hear it,” he said. “But I think that’s partly why we’re here. Otherwise we will not be able to advance knowledge, critical thinking, or improve the world in any shape or form.” 

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