The University of North Carolina System Board of Governors is again being accused of having a role in blocking a faculty member from a position because of political considerations, only a month after the system sparked a national scandal by breaking precedent and not granting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure.
Eric Muller, a law professor at UNC Chapel Hill, was not reappointed as chair of the UNC Press governing board. He had held the position for years, and media outlet NC Policy Watch said he was supported by the nominating committee and the university’s chancellor.
The system board has long attracted criticism for its partisanship, which has caused scandals in recent years.
A report from NC Policy Watch, a project of the progressive North Carolina Justice Center, roiled the higher education world last month. It detailed how the Chapel Hill trustees, under pressure from the system governing panel, declined to vote on giving Hannah-Jones tenure status. This was a departure from usual practices, as the trustees typically follow the recommendation of the tenure committee, which enthusiastically backed her.
The decision to effectively deny her tenure was related to her work reporting on racism, according to NC Policy Watch, specifically “The 1619 Project,” a deeply unpopular work in many conservative circles.
Fallout has been immense. The system has been widely criticized, Hannah-Jones’ lawyers threatened legal action, and the Chapel Hill chemistry department lost out on a lauded recruit, a Black professor who said she found the trustees’ decision “hard to overlook.”
More recently, another Chapel Hill faculty member wrote a letter to high-ranking campus administrators, which was shared publicly on Twitter. It described the situation at the institution as “dire” and stated that the “continued exodus of faculty of color and indigenous faculty has become a veritable brain drain.”
Certain to compound these issues is the news Muller was blocked from the chair position. NC Policy Watch credits Muller with diversifying the press board by race and gender, and with bringing in representatives from institutions across the system.
Muller, in a public statement on Twitter, drew attention to his past critiques of the system’s decisions. They include commentary on a $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans to preserve the Silent Sam monument formerly located on the Chapel Hill campus, a deal that a judge overturned.
NC Policy Watch, in a news story about Muller being rebuffed, quoted an anonymous system board member who said Muller had a “target on his back” for speaking out against the system. The outlet reported a Board of Governors committee confirmed two other representatives on the press board who were up for new terms at the same time as Muller.
A system spokesperson did not respond to Higher Ed Dive’s emailed request for comment Tuesday.
This is not the first time the system governing board has been accused of playing politics. The state’s Republican-dominated legislature appoints the board. The result over the last decade has been massive turnover among system and campus leaders, in addition to other controversies. In particular, Chapel Hill’s attempt to reopen campus during the pandemic last fall was hamstrung by the system governing board’s actions.