New bill targets tenure, calls for scrutiny of research at UNC System campuses, community colleges

By: - April 19, 2023 5:58 am

Aerial over the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Photo: Ryan Herron/Getty Images)

Faculty tenure at UNC System universities and community colleges would end under a new bill filed Tuesday.

House Bill 715 would “prospectively eliminate academic tenure and establish uniform contracting procedure for faculty at constituent institutions and community colleges.”

The bill, filed by Rep. David Willis (R-Union), would make all faculty members at UNC System universities and community colleges at-will employees or employees working on contracts ranging from one to four years. It would compel the UNC System’s Board of Governors to adopt a policy in line with this change in statute.

Willis is chair of the N.C. House’s standing Committee on Education – Community Colleges.

If enacted into law, the change would apply to faculty hired on or after July 1, 2024.

“No faculty member hired by a constituent institution of The University of North Carolina or a community college on or after that date shall receive academic tenure,” according to the bill.

Under the tenure system, some professors earn indefinite appointments that can only be terminated under specific circumstances and through an established system. It has for years been a target of political conservatives — including some of the political appointees on UNC’s Board of Governors.

Rep. David Willis (R-Union) is the sponsor of HB 715

Tenure is intended to protect academic freedom, allowing professors to conduct research, publish papers and books and engage in speech that might make them political targets.

“Tenure provides the conditions for faculty to pursue research and innovation and draw evidence-based conclusions free from corporate or political pressure,” according to the American Association of University Professors. The national academic group’s work on the issue going back to 1915 was instrumental in forming the modern conception of tenure in America.

The most recent prominent example of tensions over the concept of tenure in the UNC System was the 2021 battle over the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ refusal to vote on the question of tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Board members and conservative alumni of the school, including mega-donor Walter Hussman, objected to the school hiring Hannah-Jones because of her views on reparations for Black Americans due to slavery and her creation of The 1619 Project. In letters to school officials and board members, Hussman specifically said tenure may protect Hannah-Jones’s ability to continue to publish controversial work while teaching at the university. As a political work-around, the university attempted to hire Hannah-Jones as a contract employee instead.

Public pressure from faculty, staff, students, alumni and academics around the country finally led to the board of trustees voting to offer Hannah-Jones tenure. She instead elected to take a tenured position at Howard University, one of the most prestigious of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, where she raised more than $20 million to create the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

Faculty members have pushed back against assaults on the tenure in the UNC-System for years, saying its elimination would be a blow to academic freedom, shared governance of the universities and could create a chilling effect in terms of research done by professors.

Noninstructional research also under review

That research also comes under scrutiny in the bill.

Among a number of other higher education changes – including changes to the power and duties of boards of trustees and establishing minimum class sizes – the bill would require every university and community college to prepare a report of “all noninstructional research performed by higher education personnel at the institution.”

The report, which would be due March 15, would go to the UNC Board of Governors or State Board of Community Colleges and would require descriptions of the research, the subject area of study, an explanation of all funds used in the research and the costs and benefits of that research. It would also require “recommendations to increase instructional time for students and faculty at each postsecondary educational institution.”

A number of UNC system schools engage in high levels of research – a draw for both students and faculty.

After a similar review mandated by the General Assembly in 2015, the UNC Board of Governors voted to close three academic centers with which its politically appointed members disagreed: The Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill; the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central University.

The UNC Board of Governors meets this week, holding committee meetings throughout the day Wednesday and a full board meeting on Thursday, both at UNC-Pembroke.

[Editor’s note: The original version of this story referred to Howard University as “the most prestigious” of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. Prestige in academia is subjective. The text has been amended to refer to Howard as “one of the most prestigious” HBCUs in the country.]

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.