Can a Single Course Jeopardize an Academic Department?

June 08, 2017

The chairman of the history department at the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says higher-level administrators raised concerns about a class taught by a prominent faculty critic. The class was then canceled.
It’s been nearly six years since investigations began into what became one of the largest academic scandals in modern higher education, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But as university officials prepare to appear before an NCAA infractions committee this August, another academic controversy has emerged — this time, involving the cancellation of a history course on college athletics that has seemed to pit a department against top administrators.

Titled "Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956 to the Present," the course covered, in part, the UNC athletics scandal, in which thousands of students took advantage of sham classes that never met, and some people in the athletics department funneled athletes into the classes to keep them eligible to compete.

Courtesy of Jay Smith
Jay Smith, a history professor at the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the cancellation of his course, which includes material on the university’s recent fake-classes scandal, is a violation of academic freedom.
Jay Smith, a history professor who created and taught the course, has been a prominent critic of how UNC administrators have handled the athletics scandal. In 2015 he wrote a book about the saga, Cheated, with the whistle-blower Mary Willingham, who had leaked key documents to The News & Observer, a local newspaper. (The newspaper has also offered the most extensive reporting on Mr. Smith’s canceled course.)

Mr. Smith said he does not know — and has still not been told — why his course, which he has taught twice before, was not scheduled for the fall semester.

"One of the most shocking aspects of this entire experience for me is how unprecedented it has been," said Mr. Smith, who has taught at Chapel Hill since 1990. "Our courses are often topical, and they often contain material that some would construe as controversial, but we have never heard real pressure from anyone in the administration to alter a course, to keep it off the books, to delete it — nothing like that."

‘Serious Infringement’

Mr. Smith was informed in November by the department chairman, Fitz Brundage, that the course would not be scheduled. Shortly afterward, 45 members of the history department signed a statement calling the cancellation a "serious infringement of freedom of inquiry."

Mr. Brundage confirmed to The Chronicle that higher-level administrators had approached him with concerns about the course, and that it was the first time in his four-year tenure as chairman that that had happened over a single course. When Mr. Brundage was asked to clarify the reasoning behind the cancellation, he said he had made the decision for "programmatic and strategic reasons."

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, confirmed to The Chronicle that he and the senior associate dean, Jonathan Hartlyn, were the administrators who had approached Mr. Brundage with concerns about the course. Mr. Guskiewicz said the only reason he had raised concerns about the course’s being taught in the fall semester of 2016 was that it had replaced an honors history course that Mr. Smith had originally been scheduled to teach that semester.

But Mr. Smith said that because only four students had signed up for the honors history course by May 2016, he thought it would be a more "strategic" move to cancel that course and offer the college-athletics course instead.

Mr. Guskiewicz, an expert on the effects of concussions on athletes and a guest speaker in previous iterations of Mr. Smith’s college-athletics course, stressed that he had no reason or desire to "censor" the course, especially not one that had been previously taught and approved through the proper academic channels.

Mr. Guskiewicz told The News & Observer that he had not been pressured by anyone, nor had he pressured anyone, about Mr. Smith’s course. A UNC spokeswoman, Joanne Peters Denny, said in an email that "Carolina offers hundreds of courses on a wide variety of subjects. We always stand by the rights of our faculty to express their views in the spirit of academic freedom."

Mr. Smith’s course is hardly the first to stir controversy. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a class called "The Problem of Whiteness" this spring drew criticism from a state assemblyman, David Murphy. Mr. Murphy, who called the course "garbage," threatened the loss of state funding if the university stood by it.

Still, the university defended its right to offer the course, and the course’s professor, Damon Sajnani, told The Chronicle in an email that UW was "100% supportive" of him.

A course on gay marriage at Seton Hall University faced a backlash from John J. Myers, archbishop emeritus of the archdiocese of Newark, N.J., who said it promoted a train of thought contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Father Myers, a member of Seton Hall’s Board of Regents, pressured the university, unsuccessfully, to not offer the class.

Never Felt Pushback

Mr. Smith’s case is unusual in that his course dealt directly with a tarnished aspect of the university’s recent past. While it’s not immediately clear whether the content of the class explained why it was not scheduled for this fall, Mr. Smith said the decision was still unjustifiable.

“You would think that administrators here would want to take every precaution to make it seem as though they're supporting the academic mission of the institution.”
"You would think that administrators here would want to take every precaution to make it seem as though they’re supporting the academic mission of the institution," he said. "But on the contrary, they’ve made this almost outlandish move to get a course on the history of big-time college sports off the books because they are evidently sensitive to discussion about these issues."

The class caused tensions even before he was informed that it would not be offered this fall.

In April 2016, Mr. Smith asked UNC’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, whether students in the class would be able to tour the Loudermilk Center for Excellence, a facility for athletes. According to emails obtained by The News & Observer, Mr. Cunningham suggested that he, not Mr. Smith, would be "better suited" to teach the course, citing his 20-year experience in intercollegiate athletics and his M.B.A.

Several department chairs at public research universities told The Chronicle that they had never felt pushback from higher-level administrators over a course offered by their department, and they certainly had not been asked not to schedule it.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for the American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, said it would be "at odds with principles of academic freedom" if a course were canceled because the subject it covered was controversial.

Imperiled Resources

But professors also acknowledged that departmental resources and funding for faculty searches, hires, and academic travel could be imperiled if a department chose to proceed with a controversial class — a risk that could be particularly harmful to humanities departments, which are increasingly underenrolled.

"In an era of scarce resources, you want to have access to resources, and if you can’t make the claim that you need resources because of increasing student enrollment, then on what basis can you do it?" said Mr. Brundage, chair of Mr. Smith’s department. "You can do it by being a good campus citizen."

“In this kind of environment, I think you can well understand how departmental administrators would be anxious about doing nothing to jeopardize access to resources.”
"In this kind of environment," he said, "I think you can well understand how departmental administrators would be anxious about doing nothing to jeopardize access to resources."

But Brian Ogilvie, the history chair at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said it was "fairly implausible" at his institution for administrators to threaten resources in that way, given that UMass has a "strong and vocal" faculty union.

"They would be quite up in arms at any perceived attempt to retaliate if the administration didn’t like some course or other activity the department did," Mr. Ogilvie said.

Mr. Brundage confirmed that UNC was scheduled to offer Mr. Smith’s course in the fall of 2018, should he still wish to teach it. When asked why he thought Mr. Smith’s course had prompted administrators to raise concerns with him for the first time, Mr. Brundage said he had "no idea whatsoever."

"And that’s very sincere," he said. "I don’t have a clue."

Correction (6/9/2017, 10:07 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the semester about which Mr. Guskiewicz raised concerns regarding Mr. Smith’s course. He said it was the fall 2016 course, not an iteration to be taught in 2017.