Faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill are among a large group at southeastern campuses who are concerned about conservative attack on academic freedom. Photo: Clayton Henkel
University faculty members in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Texas say they wouldn’t recommend their state to other academics, according to a new survey from the American Association of University Professors. Many of them want to leave their campuses for jobs in other states or abandon the profession altogether, citing a hostile political climate for higher education and threats to academic freedom.
The survey of 4,250 faculty members in the four states, fielded in August, found low morale and concern for the future among respondents. Nearly two-thirds said they would not recommend their state as a desirable place to work for colleagues. Almost a third said they are actively considering interviewing elsewhere in the coming academic year.
In North Carolina, 20% of respondents said they have interviewed for other teaching jobs since 2021. Of those, more than 86% said they were applying outside of the south or southeast, where Republican legislative majorities have sought to end the academic tenure system, prescribe what professors can teach, and outlaw certain educational philosophies, books and lessons.
Of North Carolina respondents seeking jobs elsewhere, 78% said they applied for jobs in the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic, New England, and the east and west coasts.
None of that should be surprising, said Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and president of the North Carolina AAUP.
“There are just a handful of protections, a handful of freedoms that are absolutely vital to the work of professors and the people who do research — particularly people who do research that can in any way be construed as controversial,” Smith said. “You have to have the protection of your institution, you’ve got to have tenure, you have to be able to enjoy academic freedom.”
Last year, the AAUP took the rare step of condemning the UNC System and its board of governors for a pattern of political interference and detailing its concerns in a scathing 38-page report. The organization warned then that the UNC system’s reputation could be damaged, and that it could become difficult to retain top faculty and recruit new, rising stars. Since then, a number of prominent professors across the UNC System have taken jobs in other states or at private institutions that are largely outside of the influence of the General Assembly and its political appointees on the system’s board of governors and campus boards of trustees.
In April, Newsline reported on a bill that would effectively end the granting of academic tenure in the UNC System and subject research conducted at its universities to greater political scrutiny. The bill stalled after facing strong opposition and sparking concerns about the possibility that research funding would dry up, which has occurred in states that have made similar moves.
“You can see in the survey data that some of the faculty in states like Florida and Texas, where they’re ending tenure, would actually like to come to North Carolina right now,” said Smith. “Now, some of them may want to come to private institutions in North Carolina, but at least we’ve dodged the bullet with the tenure bill here, for now. But in many ways, we’re still under continual assault.”
Perhaps the highest profile of those assaults came in 2021, critics say, when the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees refused to vote on tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had been courted by the university. The episode made national headlines, as did Hannah-Jones’s decision to go to Howard University after public pressure forced a vote in her favor.
Beyond the Hannah-Jones controversy, the AAUP has pointed to several actions that have jeopardized academic and intellectual freedom: ousters or politically motivated resignations of system presidents and chancellors, new rules governing the installation of new system and campus leaders prompted by political appointees; and failed responses to the toppling of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at UNC-Chapel Hill and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has also highlighted a lack of diversity on governing boards, among the faculty at most UNC system schools, and incidents in which faculty members said they were singled out for retribution for criticizing the university or conservative leaders in the state.
Since last year’s report, the General Assembly has required UNC System universities to report their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts to a Republican majority hostile to such practices. The UNC System has banned any questions in hiring or enrollment processes about one’s “beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action.” The move effectively prohibits “DEI statements” — either asking students or prospective hires for their view on diversity, equity and inclusion or asking that they commit to the institution’s values on the subject.
North Carolina is one of many southern states where political interference in higher education is common.
“We can definitely see from the responses in these four states that we have a regional problem,” said Matthew Boedy, a professor at the University of North Georgia and president of AAUP’s Georgia conference. “I think one of the things we wanted to do was to get that regional story. Who was moving, where are they moving to, but also, to get faculty in the South to recognize that other faculty in the south are having problems.”
“We are not unionized in Georgia,” Boedy said. “Neither is Texas, neither is North Carolina. Florida has a union, but they’re being decimated. So we wanted to get that non-union picture out there for people who are unaware.”
The problem amounts to more than philosophical differences between liberal faculty members and conservative lawmakers, Boedy said. It’s an existential question about higher education and the ability of public universities to survive political assaults on their values.
“I think you do have a situation in several of these states where the reputation of the university or the university system is strong,” Boedy said. “But would it be so strong if these things that they’re now stripping away didn’t exist?”
A conservative defends tenure
That’s a question Mark McNeilly, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, has been asking in his own way.
McNeilly, an outspoken conservative, says his politics make him a minority among Chapel Hill’s faculty members, but recent conservative assaults on academic tenure had him examining the question for himself. He had often heard colleagues say tenure is necessary to ensure professors have academic freedom to express themselves without fear of losing their jobs. But, he said, he’s also observed that relatively few tenured faculty speak out as often as he — a non-tenured, fixed-term faculty member — does.
That made him skeptical that tenure, a concept he never encountered in the private business world, was essential. But he decided to look closer.
“When I’m trying to decide what I think about something, I usually try to look at data,” McNeilly told NC Newsline this week. “And in this case, the data changed my mind.”
In a recent piece for the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, McNeilly looked at data from last year’s Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression survey of faculty opinions on free speech and expression. What he found surprised him. FIRE’s data showed that as a protection against termination and sanction, tenure might actually be more important to conservative professors than liberal ones, with 55% of sanction attempts designated as coming from the political left and 39 percent from the political right.
“To me, tenure is a necessary but insufficient condition for speaking out,” McNeilly said. “I don’t want to lose my job. I also don’t want to be the person that department that, when I walk in the room, everyone leaves or just rolls their eyes. You have to fix both things.”
Fixing that isn’t easy, he said. It takes dialogue, compromise and civility. Discarding the essential pillars of academic freedom isn’t going to get you there.
“Tenure does matter for academic freedom” McNeilly wrote. “If conservative politicians want to encourage diversity of thought and protect the minority of moderate and conservative professors in academia, tenure is an important asset.”
To the degree that the potential loss of tenure is a concern to faculty members, McNeilly said, it could drive them to states where legislatures aren’t threatening it. But he also pointed out that salary was one of the top concerns identified in the AAUP survey.
Roughly half the AAUP survey respondents said salary issues drove their decision making while just over half cited threats to academic freedom. More than 40% mentioned issues of tenure and DEI policies.
“There are a lot of reasons why someone might leave a position, or take a position in another state,” McNeilly said. “Some of these things in the survey I think are on the minds of faculty. But you have to look at the whole picture.”
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