Faculty members protest Board of Governors’ interference with UNC Press leadership

Faculty members protest Board of Governors’ interference with UNC Press leadership

BOG member says refusal to reappoint law professor Eric Muller is a message to students, campus leaders and faculty that they “are not in charge of the system”

[Note: This story has been updated to include excerpts from a draft faculty statement obtained subsequent to publication.]

The UNC-Chapel Hill faculty is opposing what they say is undue political influence on appointments to the UNC Press Board of Governors.

At a Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday night, faculty leaders began crafting a strongly worded statement on the conflict, the latest in a series of politically and racially tinged standoffs between faculty and campus-level leadership and the system’s top governing board.

Some suggested the UNC Press should separate from the university system entirely in order to maintain its independence.

As Policy Watch first reported last month, the UNC Board of Governors refused to reappoint UNC law professor Eric Muller to the governing board of the UNC Press. The nonprofit press, established in 1922 as the first university press in the South and one of the first in the nation, exists 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.”

Muller has served two five-year terms on the board of the Press and was unanimously reelected chairman earlier this year. During that time, he has been outspoken on the legality of the UNC System’s controversial handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument and UNC-Chapel Hill’s failure to deal appropriately with sensitive issues of race and history. Sources directly involved in the appointment process tell Policy Watch that enmity from conservatives on the board of governors derailed Muller’s reappointment.

In a draft statement obtained by Policy Watch, the Faculty Executive Committee frames Muller’s case as a threat to academic freedom and another example of the UNC System’s lack of transparency.

“As a matter of academic freedom and of UNC System policy, faculty members must be able to speak freely without fear of reprisal or retaliation,” the committee wrote. “We write to express our dismay about the UNC Board of Governor’s failure to reappoint Professor Eric Muller to the UNC Press Board, and failure to explain its rationale.”

The statement continued: “The UNC Press Board unanimously nominated Professor Muller for a third term of service, and unanimously reelected him to be its chair. His nomination was submitted to the UNC Board of Governors along with two others. The other two nominations were approved, but Professor Muller’s was not. The UNC Press Board asked the UNC Board of Governors to explain the non-reappointment. To date, no explanation has been given.”

“In the absence of an explanation for this action, we are concerned that the failure to reappoint Eric Muller, an esteemed public scholar and thought leader, reflects disapproval of his public statements related to the University’s disposition of the confederate monument and other matters related to race,” the committee wrote. “We expect decision-making to be accompanied by transparency so that affected faculty members and the University community understand why decisions were made. We expect decisions from our governing bodies to reflect mutual respect and regard for academic freedom, both at the Press and throughout the University system.”

“A bigger issue”

Muller, who did not participate in crafting the statement, said there appears to be no rational explanation for denying his reappointment that isn’t about reprisal for his being an outspoken academic voice on controversial issues.

Muller said that makes the issue bigger than him or the UNC Press.

“This is an instance, at least in my view, in which a faculty member of UNC-Chapel Hill is being retaliated against by the governing board of the university system for speaking about things that are within my area of expertise and research,” Muller said during a UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday night. Muller is a member of that committee.

UNC law professor Eric Muller

“This is very much like a situation, for example, in which let’s say, a pharmacist who was on the state pharmacy licensing board was removed from that board because of her position about  hydroxychloroquine or an abortion inducing medication,” Muller said. “Or in which somebody from the Journalism School was removed, let’s say from the board if there were such, of UNC Public Television because of his or her position about a gay character on Sesame Street.”

“This is not just about UNC Press,” Muller said. “This is about members of the faculty of this university being retaliated against for their expression of their views in their areas of scholarship and research and expertise and teaching.”

“What does the university do when governing boards go after faculty members not because they’re running around talking trash about the Carolina Hurricanes but when they’re talking about things that it is their job to study?” Muller said.

It’s also important, Muller said, that the things on which he has been outspoken have been issues involving race.

“The things I’m being punished for are talking about how the law applied to whether ‘Silent Sam’ could or could not be lawfully removed from the campus,” Muller said. “Whether it was or was not lawful to reach a settlement paying $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans on a bogus theory [that they had ownership rights to the statue].”

In February of last year, the Orange County Superior Court judge who initially approved that settlement scrapped it, agreeing with Muller’s legal assessment at the time. The decision was a public black eye for the board of governors and the UNC System, which had negotiated the deal in secret and defended it in court.

Neither the UNC Board of Governors nor system president Peter Hans have yet publicly explained their resistance to Muller’s reappointment. Policy Watch has sought comment from Hans and Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey and is still waiting for documents related to the matter that were requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

On Monday, faculty members said they expect the board to fall back on the logic that it hasn’t retaliated against Muller because it took no action rather than voting down his reappointment. That same logic was used by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure case, when a committee of that board repeatedly declined to vote on her tenure until an emergency meeting on the issue was instigated by Student Body President Lamar Richards earlier this month.

That explanation doesn’t hold up, Muller said.

“There was action,” Muller said. “Of course there was. Peter Hans, the president of the university system, was presented my name and he dropped it. He dropped it from the slate that had been presented to him. That’s an action. I don’t think that distinction washes particularly well.”

The situation with Muller and the UNC Press is part of a pattern of political machinations in university governance that is troubling, said Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty.

“There’s such a pattern right now,” Chapman said. “It is closely related to this idea of [the UNC Board of Governors] getting involved in matters on the campus they’ve never been involved in before.”

“A reality check”

Appointments to the UNC Press Board originate with the board itself, but are submitted up to the UNC Board of Governors for approval. Until now, the board has followed the recommendations of the campus-level nominating committee and the chancellor.

David Powers, UNC Board of Governors

When the UNC Board of Governors’ University Governance Committee met in May, members approved two of the three reappointments submitted to them and refused to consider Muller for reappointment. The committee and its chairman, David Powers, gave no public explanation.

The move was, according to members of the UNC Press Board, completely unprecedented. But, they note, it bore similarities to the way in which the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recently decided to take no action on the tenure application of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, essentially killing it in committee.

That’s a tactic frequently seen in politics but rarely in academia, where up-or-down votes even on controversial issues and appointments are the standard.

“When I came onto the Press it was described to me as a rubber stamp,” said UNC Press Board vice chair Lisa Levenstein, at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee meeting Monday night. “You waited for that to happen, but it always happens. Our nominees are always approved, because who would know better who should sit on the board of the press than the board of the press? We’re the people who vote on this and decide.”

But the political appointees who make up the UNC Board of Governors and the boards of trustees at UNC System schools have, in the last few years, asserted control over many areas of university governance traditionally left to faculty or campus-level leaders. The term “rubber stamp” has been used pejoratively by board of governors members and trustees who argue that they, as appointees of the North Carolina General Assembly, have the power to make all appointments and major decisions without input from (or in defiance of) the will of faculty groups or campus leaders.

The Republican majority of the North Carolina General Assembly handpicks the members of the board of governors and, together with those individuals, the members of each school’s board of trustees. As a result, the composition of the boards tend to be significantly more white, conservative and male than the campuses and communities they serve. Many members are also former Republican state lawmakers and active conservative lobbyists and activists, setting up an ideological tension with students, faculty, staff and campus leadership.

A member of the UNC Board of Governors spoke to Policy Watch on the reappointment issue this week. They asked not to be identified so that they could speak to internal discussions of the board, including information from closed sessions.

“There’s the way things have traditionally been done, but that’s not to say that’s necessarily the best way,” the member said. “For many years the board of governors were sort of caretakers but they left a lot of the governance of the system and the university to the staff and the campus leaders and the faculty. The General Assembly obviously does not like the results that has gotten the state in a number of ways. They want to see some changes in the system and in the universities and I think they’ve been clear about that.”

“The elected leaders of the state appointed people who are willing to exercise their powers and take the reins and change things,” the board member said. “That’s what’s happening now, as simply as I can put it. The students and the campus leaders and the faculty are not in charge of the system and the schools and how these things are done. They may have thought they were for a long time. But they weren’t. Now they’re just being reminded of that. It’s a reality check.”

That’s a more frank assessment of the situation than any board members or UNC System leaders have been willing to offer publicly and for attribution.

On March 24, UNC Chapel-Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a letter to Hans approving the nominating committee’s recommendation for the reappointment of Eric Muller, Linda Hanley-Bowdoin and Elizabeth Engelhardt.

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

The University Governance Committee asked Guskiewicz to advance another name for the board, but not Muller. Guskiewicz declined to do so, but did not tell the UNC Press Board or the director of the UNC press that he’d gotten this request.

The UNC Board of Governors and its committees met on May 26 and 27, approving Hanley-Bowdoin and Engelhardt but did not take up Muller’s appointment. That led Levenstein to write to Powers and Hans on June 2 to ask why Muller was not considered and suggest his reappointment be considered at the University Governance Committee’s next meeting.

Neither Hans nor Powers responded directly. Instead, UNC System General Counsel Andrew Tripp wrote a reply on Hans’s behalf in which he declined to “speculate” on the motives for the board in approving two of the names forwarded for consideration but not Muller. The UNC System president’s role in the process is simply to forward names to the board of governors, Tripp wrote in an email obtained by Policy Watch.

Powers, chair of the committee, said the board wanted to “change the membership on some of these boards more frequently,” according to a system email obtained by Policy Watch.

That explanation didn’t make sense to UNC Press Board members or others directly involved in the appointment process. Muller was being appointed to a third term on the UNC Press board, but so was Hanley-Bowdoin. Englehardt was being appointed to a second full term. The committee expressed no problem with either of their appointments. Powers, the chair of the university governance committee, is himself on his third term on the UNC Board of Governors.

A move to promote diversity?

Marty Kotis

Marty Kotis, a Greensboro businessman and developer just joined the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees after two terms on the UNC Board of Governors, echoed Powers’s explanation in an interview with Policy Watch, waving away the idea that the board’s failure to reappoint Muller was political.

“He’s served two terms on the board,” Kotis said. “That’s ten years. He was chair of the board his last term. It seems like that’s long enough to serve on a board. These aren’t lifetime appointments.”

Wouldn’t that logic also apply to Hanley-Bowdoin, who was reappointed to a third term?

“We’ve been trying to get more diversity on some of these boards,” Kotis said. “Not reappointing a woman on the board wouldn’t help with that. With Muller, it’s not reappointing another white man.”

But the University Governance Committee did not ask Guskiewicz to advance the name of a woman or non-white person. It asked for a candidate who was not Muller. If diversity is now a priority on boards appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly or its appointees on the UNC Board of Governors, progress appears to be incremental at best over the last few years.

In 2019, the board of governors approved four members of the UNC Press Board of Governors.

Three of those four were white men. Two of those white men were new appointments. One was a reappointment.

That pattern of little progress toward diversity, or even less diversity on governing boards, is apparent on many boards across the system.

Ironically, Muller chaired the UNC Press board at a time when it became more diverse in terms of race, gender and geography. Of the board’s 16 elected members, seven are now women and seven are people of color. The board, historically dominated by members from Chapel Hill and N.C. State, now has members from UNC Greensboro, Appalachian State University, North Carolina A&T and N.C. Central University.

His leadership has been celebrated by authors, his fellow UNC Press Board members and campus leaders.

In Monday’s Faculty Executive Committee meeting, UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin said he understood the faculty’s frustration. “Do you have a right to be upset?” Blouin said to faculty members Monday. “I certainly think that you do.”

Blouin asked about the depth of the financial ties to the university as some faculty members suggested the press should seek to become entirely independent. “It is feasible for the press to become independent,” Levenstein said. “But it would be a hit, for sure.”

UNC Press is doing very well financially right now, Levenstein said, in no small part because of Muller’s leadership. But book publishing is a tough industry, she said, and there is a range of opinions on the UNC Press board as to what the next step should be.

The UNC Board of Governors will meet in committees on Wednesday of this week and hold its full board meeting on Thursday. There is, as yet, no public discussion of the UNC Press issue planned.