UNC professor lectures on government interference in higher ed


Drawing on his experiences as a University of North Carolina professor, Gene Nichol on Wednesday discussed how government and university leadership can undermine academic freedom and free speech in higher education.

Delivering the 28th annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture at Hutchins Hall, Nichol highlighted examples of political and legislative interference with the publication, study, inquiry and research designed to explore the efficacy or propriety of governmental policies and practices.

“Such interference sins against both our public academic institutions and our appropriately heralded form of government,” said Nichol, the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at UNC. “The threat of such core intrusion, I’ll claim, on the public university and American democracy is more substantial than I would have thought.”

Nichol also argued that higher education institutions’ “resistance to unacceptable intrusion is less robust and uniform and steely” than he would have assumed.

He said some of the reasons for this weakness are tied to how institutions operate, including the ways in which trustees and board members are selected, how university leaders are compensated, and the frequent “marginalization and fragility” of faculty governance.

Photo of Gene Nichol delivering the Academic Freedom Lecture
University of North Carolina professor Gene Nichol the 28th annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture on Wednesday. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

Nichol spoke at the annual lecture honoring three former U-M faculty members — Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson — who invoked their constitutional rights and refused to testify when called before a panel of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954. All three were suspended from U-M. Markert subsequently was reinstated, and Davis and Nickerson were dismissed.

In his opening remarks, Neil Marsh, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, said the annual lecture is a reminder that values and rights regarding academic and intellectual freedom “are constantly vulnerable to efforts to censor unpopular ideas or to silence criticism by those in power.”

In 2015, Nichol said, the UNC Board of Governors carried out the demands of legislators by closing the university’s poverty center — of which he was director — because it published reports and articles critical of the state General Assembly’s poverty policies.

After he continued to publish articles about North Carolina poverty policy, Nichol said the legislature took up actions to cut the UNC law school’s budget.

In 2016, Nichol said, the legislature created the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at UNC Chapel Hill.

“The Senate majority leader said he expects the collaboratory to produce environmental research on North Carolina issues that is more congenial to the deregulation goals of the North Carolina legislature,” Nichol said. “More congenial than the internationally recognized scholarship of UNC’s Institute for the Environment.”

Previously, during his tenure as president of the College of William and Mary, Nichol said the Virginia legislature summoned members of the Board of Visitors to “grill” them about decisions he had made seeking to protect students’ first amendment rights.

Nichol also touched on ways higher education institutions are structured and operate, which have potential ramifications on academic and intellectual freedom.

“The worst possible way to select a governing board, particularly if you’re concerned about legislative interference with academic freedom, is to have a governing board selected by the legislature itself, like we have in North Carolina,” he said.

Nichol also referenced the high compensation of several university presidents across the country. He referenced Richard Vedder, professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University, who had argued “that once compensation becomes extraordinarily high it can serve to inhibit rather than to foster effective leadership.”

“Chancellors and presidents, the theory goes, are less inclined to act boldly, or operate with required candor and fealty to academic values, when it might cost them millions of dollars they’ll be unlikely to command again if they are dismissed,” Nichol said.

In closing, Nichol said U.S. public universities are the marvels of the world, but they cannot thrive “without a vibrant, secure and zealously guarded sanctuary of intellectual freedom.”

“And democracies cannot meaningfully function — at least this one can’t — without rigorous, skeptical, probing, unfettered, unfearing and sometimes even annoying public universities.”


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