Year in review: In higher ed, higher stakes as the UNC system becomes more politicized

By: - December 27, 2021 6:00 am
(Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

It was another tumultuous year for one of the largest public institutions in North Carolina — the UNC System.

While the COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 dangerous and unpredictable, 2021 was defined by a much more familiar threat — political influence. A series of highly political controversies revealed the ways in which the direction of the UNC System is, from major policy decisions to single hires, determined by conservative political appointees and wealthy private donors.

1) The Nikole Hannah-Jones saga

No story this year better illustrated the influence of politics in the UNC System than UNC-Chapel Hill’s failed hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The university pursued Hannah-Jones, a star alumna, New York Times Magazine reporter and creator of the No. 1 New York Times best-seller The 1619 Project, for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

But as Policy Watch reported in May, Hannah-Jones’ tenure confirmation was bottled up in a UNC Board of Trustees committee, after influential conservatives objected. The committee, whose members were appointed by the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly and their appointees on the UNC Board of Governors, prevented a vote on the tenure question for months,. This led the university, in a departure from the past practice with other Knight Chair professors at the school, to offer Hannah-Jones the position without the tenure.

The story generated international headlines and sparked a movement by students, faculty, staff and alumni to force a straight up-or-down vote on Hannah-Jones’ tenure. Stretching throughout the summer, the controversy led to revelations of conservative megadonor Walter Hussman’s behind-the-scenes pressure over his objections to The 1619 Project and Hannah-Jones’s writing on the issue of reparations for Black Americans.

The Knight Foundation and other major funding partners joined thousands of alumni in pushing for a tenure vote. Rallied by Student Body President Lamar Richards, several trustees forced a board vote. Compelled to take up the issue publicly, the board ultimately voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure. But the episode — and the failure of UNC-Chapel Hill administration to publicly stand up to the political pressure blocking the vote — led Hannah-Jones to turn down the offer and instead begin a new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University.

The episode — the latest example of the ongoing politicization of the university and its decision making — did real and lasting damage to the university. The campus lost top faculty recruits and high profile faculty decamped to other schools. It also further strained faculty, staff and student confidence in university leadership in ways that will continue into 2022 and beyond.

For an in-depth postmortem on the Hannah-Jones story, how it happened, and its impact on the school and the system, listen to this episode of Slate’s “What Next” podcast with Policy Watch Senior Investigative Reporter Joe Killian.

2) New ‘Silent Sam’ revelations contradict past public assurances offered by UNC Chancellor Guskiewicz

Silent Sam Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship university, political interference in high profile campus-level decisions had become the norm well before the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy.

In January, Policy Watch reported on new revelations regarding the Silent Sam Confederate monument that showed Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz had misrepresented campus leadership’s role in a deal with a neo-Confederate group over the toppled statue.

From that story:

In December 2019, Kevin Guskiewicz, then the new UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, appeared before a concerned and angry Faculty Council.

The UNC System had just announced its Board of Governors had settled a lawsuit with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans. The settlement would not only give the group the controversial Silent Sam Confederate monument but also $2.5 million in trust to care for it.

The agreement felt like an affront to many faculty members and students who had fought for decades to legally remove the statue. Protesters toppled it in 2018.

Faculty members wanted answers. Were UNC administrators in on this deal? Had they helped to craft it, consulted on it, given approval?

“No, we were not asked to approve the Board of Governors’ settlement,” Guskiewicz said. “And therefore no, we were not consulted. Therefore, weighing in on the $2.5 million trust? No.”

According, however, to documents released this week as part of a lawsuit Guskiewicz was not accurately describing the situation.

Clayton Somers, vice chancellor for public affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill, was among four people who negotiated the deal, according to a signed statement from UNC System.

Before joining the UNC Chapel Hill administration in 2017 — in a new position created by the General Assembly — Somers had served as chief of staff to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, one of the state’s most powerful Republican leaders.

This revelation comes after UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, agreed this week to settle its lawsuit against the UNC System over the handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument controversy.

DTH Media Corp, the parent company of the student paper, had sued the UNC System and its Board of Governors, arguing the board had secretly crafted the deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and presented it without holding public meetings or discussions.

In a written statement, UNC System officials claimed five members of the Board of Governors did not actually negotiate the settlement, as they had previously asserted.

Instead Somers, UNC System attorneys Tom Shanahan and Ripley Rand, and Boyd Sturges, a lawyer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, negotiated the deal “on or about November 21, 2019” — shortly before Guskiewicz appeared before the Faculty Council and denied UNC administrators were involved.

Representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill said they have no comment beyond what exists in the settlement documents.

Josh Ellis, UNC System associate vice president for media relations, said a written statement released as part of the settlement “details steps taken in 2019 to prevent the Sons of Confederate Veterans from holding gatherings or displaying flags on any UNC campus.”

“These discussions were in full compliance with the state’s Open Meetings Law,” Ellis said in a statement. “All along, the efforts sought to resolve the disposition of the monument, with the goal of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff, and visitors on campus.”

Somers’s direct involvement in the deal creates further tension between Guskiewicz and the faculty — a group that has often felt deceived or excluded from major decisions.

“It’s really disappointing to know that there was an upper-level UNC-Chapel Hill administrator who was involved in the…lawsuit and the idea of settling for $2.5 million,” said Eric Muller, a law professor and member of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee.

Somers’s role in crafting the deal would not have been surprising if he was lobbying the legislature to amend the monuments law allowing the statue to be returned to campus, Muller said. After all, Somers has strong ties to the legislature and doing so would have been within the scope of his job.

But his involvement in a “bogus lawsuit” is a different matter, Muller said.

“That he would continue in those discussions is surprising given the university’s values,” Muller said. “And it’s surprising that senior leadership, the chancellor, would maintain we had no involvement in it when it appears we did.”

The possibility exists that Somers was involved in discussions of the lawsuit without the chancellor’s knowledge, Muller said.

“Which would be concerning in a different way,” Muller said. “Because it was a long time coming. This wasn’t something that was hatched overnight.”

3) UNC Press now in the crosshairs of Board of Governors, which is refusing to reappoint professor who criticized handling of Silent Sam monument

The years-long Silent Sam issue has had ripple effects beyond the chancellor’s office.

In June, Policy Watch reported that Eric Muller, a law professor and member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee, would not be reappointed to the UNC Press Board of Governors.

Though Muller had the support of the board, which unanimously reelected him as its chair, conservatives on the UNC Board of Governors refused to consider his reappointment when it was advanced by the chancellor.

From that story:

A source close to the process provided emails related to the decision to Policy Watch and characterized discussions of which they had direct knowledge. They asked that Policy Watch not identify them so that they could describe closed-session discussions at the committee and UNC Board of Governors level.

“By any metric, Muller has done a remarkable job on that board and as chairman of the board,” the UNC System source said. “There is no defensible reason not to reappoint him that is related to the actual work he has done and the work of the UNC Press. But he’s also been outspoken on some sensitive political issues for the Board of Governors, especially on the Silent Sam deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, on the renaming of buildings on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.”

UNC law professor Eric Muller

“He’s recently been outspoken on the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure issue in his role on the Faculty Executive Committee at Chapel Hill,” the source said. “The decision was already made to get rid of him by then, but this is the kind of thing they don’t want someone in that UNC Press role speaking out about. Just strip him of that and he’ll either learn to shut up or the next person in that position will think twice about speaking out against them.”

The move is part of a larger strategy to remove dissenting voices from prominent positions across the UNC System, the source said.

“The thinking is that if the board of governors makes these appointments, they would be stupid to continue appointing people who are going to be critical of decisions they are making for the UNC System as appointees of the North Carolina General Assembly,” the source said. “There was a time when these things were thought of as separate and not connected to the politics. But the way they’re looking at it now, they have no use for anyone who is going to be a critic to be in a prominent position if they can prevent that. It’s just ‘You want to criticize the people who are running this system now and how they’re doing it? You can do that, but you’re not going to do it from inside the tent. There are going to be consequences for that now.’”

Muller has been reluctant to speak on the board’s decision not to reappoint him. But on Monday he provided a written statement to Policy Watch.

“If there is a reason for singling me out in this unprecedented way, the System Board has not shared it with me or with the UNC Press Board,” Muller wrote. “I would hate to think it had something to do with my public commentary in recent years on matters of law, race, and history, such as the law on removal of Confederate monuments, the abortive $2.5 million legal settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the moratorium on renaming UNC buildings, or the removal of the portrait of slave-trading Judge Thomas Ruffin from the courtroom of our state’s highest court,” Muller wrote.

“I would hate to think it had something to do with my focusing public attention on ways in which the law has ignored and harmed the interests of African Americans –and still does,” Muller wrote. “These are matters within my expertise as a legal scholar and historian, the very stuff of the work I do as a university professor.”

“It would be an ominous sign for the values of a leading research university and of a celebrated academic press if our System’s Board of Governors were to single out faculty members for punishment for voicing their views on matters within their expertise and research,” Muller wrote. “Did they do that here? I’d like to hope not. But they knew nothing else about me. They never asked about my service as a Press Board member. They never asked about my leadership as Chair. So it’s hard to imagine a different reason.”

4) PW special report: How did Darrell Allison cut in line to become the new chancellor at Fayetteville State? It’s a secret.

In February, Policy Watch reported that Darrell Allison, a lobbyist and member of the UNC Board of Governors, was resigning from the board to become the new chancellor at Fayetteville State University.

Allison’s hire came through UNC System President Peter Hans, who Allison helped hire as a member of the system’s governing board, and the board members with whom he served.

Officials at FSU and the UNC System prevented those involved in the hire from speaking on-the-record about the process and whether the school’s search process would have advanced Allison as a finalist without outside influence, fueling speculation that Allison’s political connections made the difference in his getting the job.

As Policy Watch reported:

“Sources close to the process, including several FSU trustees and those directly involved at the UNC System level, told Policy Watch that Allison was far from the most qualified of the more than 60 applicants, which came from all over the country. Nonetheless, Allison’s close political and personal relationships on the board of governors and in the North Carolina General Assembly ultimately got him the job, sources said.

‘It would be fair to say that he was no one’s first choice in the selection process,’ said one FSU trustee, who asked not to be named so that they could discuss details of the confidential search process. ‘But it was obvious that he would be the first choice of [UNC System President] Peter Hans and the board and he has support from the General Assembly.’

Another trustee was even more frank.

“You do a 50-state search and you get 60-plus applicants,” the trustee said. “And the decision is that the best possible person is someone who happens to have just left the UNC Board of Governors to seek this job. That person is then selected by the President of the UNC system, who the applicant voted into that job when he was a board member. Then the applicant is voted on by the board that he just left. Does anybody think that sounds like a system that is designed to objectively pick the best leader for any school? Would any intelligent person believe that?”

5) UNC Board of Trustees approves “outspoken conservative” voice as new provost

Chris Clemens (Photo: Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In another hire that led to questions about political philosophy as a prime leadership qualification, this month the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted to approve Chris Clemens as the university’s new provost.

Clemens has described himself as one of the most outspoken conservative voices on the faculty, a fact members of the search committee said played a role in embattled Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz advancing his name to a board on which any candidate would need conservative support.

From that story:

Clemens has been at the center of controversy over the creation of  a program at Chapel Hill called the “Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse,” which Clemens and others described as a “conservative center” going back to its inception in 2017.  Clemens has since denied the program will be explicitly conservative.

Clemens has described himself as “among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years, sponsoring  the college Republicans, Carolina Review [UNC’s self-described ‘conservative & libertarian voice’] and several other student organizations.”

Some faculty, staff and board members said they believe that played a role in his choice as the school’s next provost.

Two UNC Board of Trustees members and one member of the search committee confirmed to Policy Watch that Clemens’ conservative credentials made him an attractive choice for the Board of Trustees and UNC Board of Governors with close ties to the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Both trustees asked not to be identified so that they could discuss a confidential personnel process.

“No one would think that we would even be having a conversation about any faculty member or applicant who has bragged about their liberal views and ties to liberal political organizations,” said one member of the Board of Trustees.

“That would be absolutely disqualifying for a vote that had to come from the Board of Trustees and the people who appoint those board members at the UNC Board of Governors and the General Assembly level. But a candidate who calls himself one of the most outspoken conservative voices on campus and is part of putting together a program that he himself has described as conservative? That is a winning resume for a leadership position at UNC and in the UNC System right now, with the leadership we are seeing.”

The board also voted on Clemens’ hire in a manner which appeared to be a textbook violation of the state’s open meetings law, leading the trustees to reconvene days later to take the vote again.

After the second vote, Student Body President Lamar Richards took to Twitter to explain why he had been the one “no” vote on the hire as the board’s student representative.

“I voted no on Chris’ appointment simply because I don’t believe he’s the right person or the job,” Richards said. “Simple. After interviewing every candidate and reviewing every CV, Chris came nowhere close to being a top-contender (IMO). This is not about him as much as it is those in the pool.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.