Email trove reveals new details of UNC Board of Governors’ refusal to reappoint popular UNC Press Board chair

By: - March 31, 2022 6:00 am

More than nine months after a UNC Board of Governors committee refused to reappoint a widely respected UNC Law professor to the University of North Carolina Press Board of Governors, the UNC System has released hundreds of pages of email communications Policy Watch requested in connection with the conflict.

Professor Eric Muller’s public statements questioning the legality of the UNC System’s controversial handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument made him a target for the conservative political appointees on the system’s governing board, sources directly involved with the appointment process told Policy Watch.

Newly released documents, which Policy Watch originally requested in June of last year, shed further light on tensions over the appointment process. This includes the relationship between the UNC Press and the conservative-dominated UNC Board of Governors and what members of the Press board call a “culture of intimidation” that continues to threaten academic freedom across the university system.

“We were put in a position where we basically had to accept them rejecting the reappointment of our unanimously elected chairman,” one board member told Policy Watch this week. The member asked not to be identified because they said they still fear political retribution by members of the UNC Board of Governors.

“They never satisfactorily explained the rejection and they refused to publicly debate or vote on the reappointment,” the board member said. “I think everyone on our board knew it was wrong, but we also knew that the harder we fought this, the more damage the Board of Governors could do to the Press. There was a strong chance that other programs and projects we are involved with individually would be targeted in retribution. Eric’s own case proved that and they have shown a willingness to go after people who oppose them time and again for years now.”

Muller ultimately resigned from the UNC Press Board rather than drag the organization through a grueling public — and possibly legal — fight with the Board of Governors. Policy Watch reached out to Muller for comment for this story. He declined. But UNC Press Board members and academics across the system warned the incident set a worrisome precedent: Conservative political appointees on the system’s governing board could ignore established procedure and assert complete control over groups and processes with which they are meant to share governance with faculty, staff and students.

“Nothing but a black box and questions”

The UNC Board of Governors approves all appointments to the governing board of the UNC Press, whose mission is to advance “the research, teaching, and public service missions of a great public university by publishing excellent work from leading scholars, writers, and intellectuals and by presenting that work to both academic audiences and general readers.” 

Until last year, the Board of Governors had always followed the recommendations of the campus level nominating committee and the chancellor.

Members of the UNC Press Board had no reason to believe last year’s appointments would be any different.

UNC law professor Eric Muller

Muller had served two five-year terms on the board, the last six years as chairman. He was so well regarded by his fellow board members that he was unanimously elected to another term as chair.

Authors, campus leaders and his fellow board members have hailed Muller’s leadership, particularly how under his leadership the board became more diverse in terms of race, gender, geography and the system’s colleges and universities that were represented.

On March 24, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent the customary letter to UNC System President Peter Hans approving the nominating committee’s recommendations for the reappointment: Eric Muller, Linda Hanley-Bowdoin and Elizabeth Engelhardt.

But on May 19, the UNC System office informed Guskiewicz the University Governance Committee would only consider Engelhardt and Hanley-Bowdoin.

When the UNC Board of Governors’ University Governance Committee met that May, they approved two of the three reappointments submitted to them and refused to consider Muller for reappointment. The committee and its chairman, David Powers, offered no public explanation when asked by the Press board and its leadership.

The committee didn’t vote to reject Muller. It simply chose not to vote on his nomination, effectively bottling it up in committee and preventing his appointment without ever actually having to go on record on the matter.

It was essentially the same political move used by a committee of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to prevent a vote on offering tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. When the details were revealed, it generated national headlines and months of controversy for the university, ultimately leading Hannah-Jones to instead accept a position at Howard University.

“That kind of move is not a profile in courage,” said Brooks Fuller, attorney and director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. “This is a similar pattern of behavior we’ve seen in some other personnel matters at the university, especially high profile ones that draw attention.”

NC Open Government Coalition Director Brooks Fuller

This method of avoiding an up-or-down vote — or even public debate — on a controversial issue isn’t a new one, Fuller said. It’s common on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and on Jones Street in Raleigh, places where many of the political appointees now serving on the UNC Board of Governors have served as political operatives, lobbyists and state lawmakers. It’s the equivalent of a “pocket veto,” Fuller said, which in this case allows political appointees to force an outcome without the public knowing how or why they did so.

“It’s better for the people who serve North Carolina’s citizens to state and deliberate quite plainly what their justifications are for major decisions that come across their desk,” Fuller said. “This is a great example, where the public is left with nothing but a black box and questions.”

Conflicts of interest and of philosophy

While the public and even many directly involved were in the dark on what was happening with the appointment process, at least one member of the Press board did know what was going on.

Newly released emails reviewed by Policy Watch show Vin Steponaitis, a UNC Press Board member and professor of archaeology and anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussed the issue with Guskiewicz. The two spoke shortly after the chancellor was informed the BOG committee wouldn’t vote on Muller’s reappointment and requested that he provide another name for nomination. The chancellor consulted Steponaitis on details and possible next steps in the appointment process. Neither shared what was going on with the other members of the Press board.

When they learned of this, several UNC Press Board members told Policy Watch this week, they didn’t understand why Steponaitis chose not to inform them.

UNC Press Board member Prof. Vin Steponaitis

Steponaitis has not responded to phone calls or emails from Policy Watch this week.

In early June 2021, as the UNC Press Board and UNC-Chapel Hill faculty opposed the committee blocking Muller’s appointment, Steponaitis had a tense email exchange with Muller in which he defended keeping the information to himself.

“In my role as Secretary of the Faculty I speak with the chancellor regularly, and it is not unusual for him to ask my advice,” Steponaitis wrote on June 11. “In this case, knowing that I serve on the Press’s board, he asked me how the process of nominating members of our board worked — specifically whether he, as chancellor, could supply an additional nominee as he has been asked to do.”

“I pulled up our bylaws and told him what they said: our board nominates, and the system board elects, which meant that he couldn’t,” he wrote. “At that point, I had no control over the situation and had no idea how the process would play out. I trusted that those involved would communicate with each other directly. I do not believe that I did anything wrong by supplying the chancellor with the information he requested. As far as I know our bylaws are a public document, and any member of the board is entitled to read and interpret them. And I had no inside information as to why the chancellor had been asked to put forward another nominee. I generally treat my conversations with the chancellor as confidential, and my not disclosing that conversation has had no material impact on the way things have played out.”

Steponaitis was arguing that Muller, then the UNC Press Board’s elected chair, should not participate in deliberations over how UNC Press should react to the reappointment controversy. As the subject of the struggle, he argued, Muller faced an unavoidable conflict of interest. Steponaitis argued Muller should remove his name from consideration for reappointment to alleviate the conflict. Once Muller had done that, other board members pointed out, the Board of Governors committee would have accomplished its goal and there would be no need to further discussion, with or without Muller as a participant.

In later emails, Steponaitis opposed the language contained in draft letters of support for Muller from the UNC Press Board and the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee. Steponaitis argued the Board of Governors was within its powers; opposing how it exercised those powers wasn’t the business of these groups. In at least one instance, Steponaitis justified the committee’s rejection of Muller’s reappointment for reasons even members of the Board of Governors never publicly offered.

This put Steponaitis in the minority on the Press board, his fellow board members said.

“I think that philosophically, Vin [Steponaitis] always believes in avoiding conflict with the administration and the board of governors at nearly all costs,” one board member told Policy Watch this week. The board member asked not to be named so that they could freely discuss deliberations of the board that were not public.

“As we have seen for years now, the board of governors and administration at some of the universities do not believe in avoiding conflicts with students, staff and faculty,” the board member said. “As we have seen them push further into areas that really threaten shared governance and academic freedom, many of us have found ourselves in positions where we felt we had to stand up and defend some of these things and defend our colleagues. Vin would argue this would only make things worse and we should figure out some other, more quiet way to deal with things.”

This frequently put him at odds with Muller, several fellow board members said. The two men fundamentally disagreed over whether it was the role of such groups to wade into contentious political issues facing the university, the board members said: from the Silent Sam Confederate monument conflict to what many saw as the increased politicization of the UNC System.

“Eric [Muller] believed we had to speak up on these things now, to make people aware and to take a stand on all of this or it would just become normalized,” one Press board member said. “Vin believed that was dangerous and would just lead to more conflict. In a way they were both right, because Eric got targeted and lost his position for speaking up and a lot of this really is becoming normalized. Everyone is right and everyone loses.”

But while Steponaitis clashed with Muller, Muller still enjoyed the broad support of the rest of the Press board.

UNC Press Board member Prof. Claude Clegg

In a June 12 email Claude Clegg, a Press board member and historian at UNC-Chapel Hill, agreed Muller should step away from planning a response to the Board of Governors committee to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. But he expressed the board’s strong conviction that he should be reappointed.

“Eric: you should rest assured that the UNC Press Board of Governors—based on our original unanimous vote and all of the conversations that I have been privy to—stands squarely behind your reappointment (and I assume that you are still interested in achieving this outcome),” Clegg wrote.

Policy Watch contacted Clegg this week for further comment but he has not responded.

But seeing the contentious nature of some of the email discussion on the issue, Clegg also suggested board members stop discussing it through email.

“At this point, I think that we have exhausted the usefulness of email as an appropriate medium for discussing these rather sensitive matters,” Clegg wrote. He went on to say he was “concerned that the electronic trail that we are now generating via email is not helpful” to the cause of getting Muller reappointed.

Business done in the dark

In the hundreds of pages of documents released this month, there is no substantive email discussion among UNC Board of Governors members about the handling of the Muller reappointment.

That indicates those discussions were handled verbally, Fuller said, either face-to-face or in phone calls.

“What that does is deprive the public of a record of how important decisions about the University of North Carolina were made,” Fuller said. “It’s unfortunately the default for people who are high up in the university system to discuss things as much as they possibly can off the record.”

“It’s not good for the citizens of North Carolina to have their business done in the dark,” Fuller said. “But unfortunately, I think it’s par for the course — especially on politically charged or hot button issues.”

A member of the UNC Board of Governors confirmed to Policy Watch this week that members prefer not to discuss university business in writing if it can be avoided. The member asked not to be identified so that they could discuss board deliberations, including those held in closed session.

“We have seen our emails in newspapers enough times that most of us have learned our lesson on that one,” the board member said. “If reporters can just request our emails and read through them, it’s a lot better of an idea to just pick up the phone. We’re not breaking any laws or anything. We’re not taking votes that way. But you can have conversations with one or two other people and that’s not a problem.”

“That’s how the sausage gets made, whether you want to admit it or not,” the board member said. “We’re not going to have all our discussions in public, especially if there’s going to be a lot of disagreements. That’s just smart. Get yourself together, then we’ll have a meeting. Then we’ll have a vote. We don’t have to have all the dirty laundry out there.”

“Is this the hill we want to die on?”

Last summer, as the UNC Press Board also struggled with how much of its dirty laundry it wanted aired, its members were carefully weighing how far they should fight for their chosen appointments and what that fight might cost them.

“I would say that philosophically, we knew that this was a violation — letting the board of governors reject our nominations without even a vote, without even a discussion,” one board member said. “That’s effectively letting them choose who is on the board themselves. They don’t have to justify rejecting someone, they don’t have to deal with their qualifications, they can just veto it in a way until they get some names they like.”

But that wasn’t the whole equation, the board member said.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the hill we want to die on?’” the member said. “I think a lot of us are thinking, we don’t really want to be in this political conflict in the first place. We don’t think we should have to be. But here we are. Do we go all the way in fighting it, or do we wait to do that until they’re actually trying to interfere with what we publish? We hope that never happens, but it’s not impossible to foresee that day coming.”

The Press board operates by consensus. That was difficult to achieve on the question of where to draw this particular line in the sand, board members told Policy Watch. If they pushed for a public, up-or-down vote on Muller, some wondered, would they suddenly find all of their nominees rejected? Would the political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors accuse the Press of partisan activism and begin trying to actively manage which books it published and why? Would they face retaliation on their individual campuses for “poking the bear?”

Muller made it clear he believed it was a fight worth having now rather than later. But once he stepped away from deliberations on the issue to avoid a conflict of interest, he wasn’t privy to how the difficult issues were being weighed.

In August, Muller resigned from the board to spare it further conflict.

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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.