Controversy surrounding college athletics history class at UNC

As the University of North Carolina continues to seek an end of the athletics controversy that has roiled campus for more than six years, the removal of a history class on athletics from the fall schedule has raised governance questions. I argued that much of the controversy at UNC centered around governance problems at the institution and the decision to cut the athletics course has many asking if UNC still has a governance issue on campus. In today’s post, I want to discuss the facts behind the case and the relevant governance issues at play in the case.

Controversy surrounding college athletics history class at UNC

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The current controversy is focused on the class, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present.” 

Jay Smith, a history professor and vocal critic of the university’s handling of the athletic scandal, created and taught the course last summer.

According to reports (here are the stories from InsideHigherEd and The Chronicle of Higher Education), the history department chair, Fitz Brundage, removed the course from the fall schedule after concerns were raised by senior administrators in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The stories and interpretations of what happened differ to some degree. Professor Smith believes his course was removed from the schedule because of administrative concerns about the course’s content. Faculty members in the department seem to agree as 45 faculty signed a statement that called the cancellation a serious infringement of academic freedom.

The dean and department chair suggest there were broader strategic concerns regarding the course.

To be sure, the responses from the dean and chair seem a little suspicious and it does not seem to be a massive leap in logic to suggest they did not want Smith teaching the class.

Frankly, I would agree with them. Smith’s teaching and research focus until recently have never focused on college athletics. Moreover, Smith’s behavior and notoriety in the scandal raise profound questions for me about the appropriateness of him teaching the class.

If I were a member of the history department or the department chair, I wouldn’t want him teaching the course.

That said, it is highly inappropriate for the dean’s office to step in and pressure a department to cancel a class in this way (if that’s what happened in this case). Rather, appropriate faculty bodies should be consulted if concerns regarding the course content or an instructor’s qualifications to teach a class are at question.

There are two key ideas relevant to the current controversy that are often thrown around in higher education (including in this case), yet often misunderstand.

Academic freedom and faculty governance.

First, academic freedom simply means that faculty have the freedom to research and teach ideas without influence, regardless of the how much the university’s leadership or outside groups may find the ideas distasteful. Academic freedom also includes the responsibility for the faculty member to avoid controversial material not relevant to the class and to base their ideas on their scholarly expertise.

Relevant to the UNC class, if the administration stepped in to stop the class because they didn’t like the content, then this would appear to be a violation of academic freedom and quite problematic.

Second, faculty governance or shared governance means that institutional decisions are shared by trustees, administrators, and faculty.

The longstanding norm across higher education is that matters of curriculum, instruction, degree requirements, and academic standards are the purview of the faculty.

Moreover, faculty have a significant role in determining the qualifications, hiring, and promotion of other faculty members.

This means that faculty should play the primary role deciding if the college athletics course should be offered and if Professor Smith should be the person to teach the class.

In essence, to preserve the academic integrity of the institution, the trustees and administrators cede decision making responsibility to the faculty.

The easy way to think about this is that those closest to the decision should make the decision.

In the UNC class example, the history department chair and faculty should be the primary deciders of what happens with the class.

The facts are not completely clear, but what should have happened?

The dean finds out about class and Smith’s role as instructor. He has concerns regarding the appropriateness of the class, Smith, or both.

He contacts the department chair and charges him with looking into the matter.

The chair, in consultation with Smith, makes a decision regarding the class.  Alternatively, the chair could send the question to the department faculty if he anticipates a controversial outcome.

Either way, the department faculty are asked weigh the decision and recommend upholding the chair’s decision or overturning it. They consider the circumstances of the case including the role of the course in the curriculum, the course content, Smith’s expertise and ability to properly teach the course.

As noted earlier, I would have objections if I were a faculty member in the department, but ultimately the history faculty are best in a position to decide on the matter.

If the faculty support the class and Smith’s continued teaching the class, the chair and dean should uphold this decision.

While the dean and chair probably have the authority to overrule the department faculty, I would agree this should not occur. An additional alternative is to send the decision to the college’s curriculum committee for another level of faculty review.

It is reasonable to raise questions about the class, but I would not be supportive of particularly the dean stepping in as apparently occurred here.

At the end of the day, teaching controversial subjects is a tremendous responsibility for higher education. In light of everything that has happened at UNC in recent years, a course examining the role of athletics could be a useful way to examine higher education, intercollegiate athletics, and several broader societal issues such as education, race, and economics.

I question if Smith has the expertise to conduct a class along these lines, but I would not seek to replace my judgement with those of his faculty colleagues.

Academic freedom and shared governance are central tenets to supporting the best that higher education can offer. It means that sometimes faculty and administrators are put in uncomfortable positions. Clearly, the history department chair was in a difficult position.

I don’t envy him in this role.

However, ultimately, our allegiance to academic freedom and faculty governance must take precedence. The original athletics case represented an academic and governance failure.

There are legitimate questions if the controversy surrounding college athletics history course at UNC is yet another failure.

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