Opinion

Lessons from the UNC tenure debacle

When I was asked to join the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005, I never dreamt of asking for tenure, even though I was a national, if not global, thought leader in a major and growing field of study. I was hired to create and teach the MBA courses on corporate governance. I had a masters’ degree from Harvard. I had served as director of corporate finance and corporate governance policy for the U.S. Treasury Department. I published a groundbreaking book on corporate governance, “Short-term America” (Harvard Business School Press), which was named one of the top 10 business books the year it came out, and received favorable reviews in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Financial Times, and Nikkei Business, among others. I had received the Corporate Governance Award from CalPERS, the global expert on corporate governance, and nation’s most influential institutional investor at the time.

But there were important boxes I could not check. I did not have a terminal degree such as a Ph.D. My part-time role at UNC would not be my primary career commitment, and I had limited experience teaching in the classroom of a major university. Nicole Hannah-Jones could not check any of these boxes either.

Regrettably, UNC’s Board of Trustees allowed the narrative in the Hannah-Jones case to morph from an academic matter into one of racial justice.

American universities are at a tipping point, where their very mission is being reconsidered. In prior decades and centuries, the mission of “the academy” was to discover truth. One could not hijack a debate if their position was not grounded in truth.

Today many, if not most academics see the mission of our institutions of higher learning as social and racial justice. As liberal academic Jon Haidt warns his political bedfellows in his profound work “The Coddling of the American Mind,” pursuing truth and social justice are mutually exclusive missions. They are both undeniably vital. But when they come into conflict at universities, one of the two must prevail. And if it is the pursuit of social justice, where will society go to discover and debate truth?

One of the most esteemed members of the UNC faculty, in lamenting the depths of where the culture of colleges has sunk, told me of an instance where he had a student come up to him after class and openly lecture him on why he needed to stop making statements as fact when he was just exhibiting his white supremacy. This was an undergraduate student chastising a highly acclaimed physics professor who was teaching irrefutable scientific principles.

This recent chapter in the school’s history produced no winners, as Hannah-Jones opted out of the mess at UNC, even after winning the tenure battle. The board damaged the school’s reputation in the minority community and raised questions about its oversight of tenure decisions.

The governance of UNC is broken. The board of trustees is run by people that liberals don’t respect, producing outcomes conservatives don’t like.   There is a serious deficiency of domain expertise among the school’s trustees on how major universities operate. There is a difference between governance and politics.

By backing down to the faculty and protesters after all the reputational damage had been done, the board pleased no one. We need people serving as trustees who understand how the university operates, have current in-depth knowledge of the culture and issues on campus, and have a clear enough vision to stand up to a faculty that has gone off the rails. As I taught in my governance classes, an “accomplished person” is not sufficiently qualified to be on a board.

The faculty rightly demands that there be diversity in their ranks. But having women, people of color, and alternate genders all teaching the same worldview is not “diversity.” A university trades in thinking. Diversity at a university should mean diversity of thought.

The single most under-represented minority among Tar Heel faculty is conservatives. Of the UNC faculty registered to vote, only 4% are registered Republican, among the lowest in the nation. This is at the leading public university in a state where an equal number of voters support each party.

How can a student be expected to respect diverse perspectives when they are only exposed to a single viewpoint in the classroom and fear being canceled if they express a contrary belief?  The faculty selection process needs an overhaul. Conservatives shun academia for many reasons, especially because of a well-founded fear of how they would be treated by their peers. Department chairs need to start developing, recruiting and serving up tenure candidates that won’t raise the volume in the echo chamber with the same fervor they invest in attracting other under-represented minorities. Or stop professing to care about diversity.

Michael Jacobs taught part-time at UNC-Chapel Hill for 13 years and received numerous teaching awards.