Last week was my last week at UNC.
I never thought I would leave; I’ve loved my 20 years on the UNC faculty. I was hugely fortunate to be hired at UNC directly out of graduate school, and I’ve stayed since. I’ve had fantastic students (undergraduate and graduate), amazing colleagues, and great opportunities to learn and grow. Despite the seemingly never-ending string of crises UNC keeps facing, particularly since some big changes around 2010 (more on that below), it’s a wonderful, truly mission-driven, important place, and I’m proud to have been part of it.
I’m leaving because of wonderful opportunities for myself and my wife. I’ll be joining the SNF-Agora Institute (a major, brand-new interdisciplinary effort for the study and promotion of democracy) and the Sociology Department at Johns Hopkins University as one of the early SNF-Agora endowed faculty as a distinguished professor of sociology. My wife, Eliana, will be a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Primary Care in the schools of medicine and nursing there. For the two of us both to have such great positions at a great place at the same time, in the wake of the hot mess of 2020, was too hard to pass up. I’m really excited about working at Johns Hopkins with great colleagues in sociology and in helping to build SNF-Agora into the best place for studying, learning, and promoting democracy.
But back to UNC. At its heart – and at the core of both what’s great and what’s difficult about it – is the fact that UNC focuses at once on being truly public and truly excellent. From early in my time there, I felt drawn to that combination; I am far from alone. When things are working well, UNC “punches above its weight,” accomplishing wonderful things in research, in education, and in serving the public way out of proportion to the perpetually tight budget. That’s because the relatively compact campus, the dedicated people, and the culture of Carolina lend themselves to collaboration and to a feeling of common purpose. (I think this also explains one of the frustrating downsides: what one staff survey called “toxic positivity” – the tendency for self-congratulation even in the face of really tough challenges.)
And there are really tough challenges. As I said, the budgets are always tight and the salaries comparatively low. More importantly, the external governance structure is burdensome even when it’s running smoothly: a Board of Governors overseeing the 17-campus UNC system; a Board of Trustees responsible for UNC-Chapel Hill; a substantial systemwide administration; and a state legislature closely monitoring the university. That’s a huge oversight structure.
With the Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2010, though, that burdensome structure became a partisan weapon. The legislature consolidated the power to appoint members to the Boards of Governors and Trustees in its own hands and wielded that power to appoint a Board of Governors that has interfered brazenly in university activities it doesn’t like for political reasons. The Board of Trustees changed more slowly, but (as the Nikole Hannah-Jones case shows) it too has been willing to sacrifice quality and principle to partisan preferences.
All this means that UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the world’s great intellectual institutions and a beacon of top-quality public higher education, is governed by four boards or bodies whose attitudes toward the university’s core missions range from skeptical or overly politicized on their best days to outright hostile on their worst. In my view, that is by far the most important impediment to UNC’s long-term health. The university’s leadership, from Chancellor Guskiewicz down, is caught in an impossible bind between these external powers and the increasingly discouraged but dedicated faculty, staff, and students.
Last fall I convened a small group of dedicated faculty to discuss those big challenges and think about ways to work constructively toward solving them. It is a great group, and I hope you’ll hear more about our work as they bring recommendations to campus forums and the public over the rest of the year. The group will continue under the leadership of Pat Parker, professor of communication and the new director of the Institute for the Arts & Humanities. Our hope was to find ways to place diversity and equity at the center of campus decisions; improve faculty voice and input; integrate scholarship and leadership to leverage local expertise; and reform and better engage external governance.
UNC has a lot going for it, even now as things seem so difficult. It attracts wonderful students, including many first-generation and low-income. It has extraordinary faculty across nearly every area of academic, professional, and creative endeavor, so it offers those students access to world-class teaching and research. And it enjoys popularity within North Carolina and a great reach and reputation globally. It’s got a capable, devoted, and thoughtful leader in Chancellor Guskiewicz, and a lot of people still willing to pour energy and time into making the university better. Mimi Chapman, the current Chair of the Faculty, is outstanding – a great combination of moral courage, listening, and grasping the complexities. Lots of institutions would gladly swap their level of commitment, public support, and faculty and staff devotion for Carolina’s. And lots of smart scholars around the world would gladly trade their precarious employment for a faculty position here.
But all of that is in jeopardy, in large part due to the untenable external governance structure. I don’t see how, in the long term, a top-tier university can survive under governing boards that are hostile to its goals or legislators determined at once to starve and politicize it.
Despite all these worries, I plan to remain a Tar Heel, though I will do so from Baltimore, and I’ll be eagerly cheering and supporting my Carolina colleagues as they work to fix these problems with such a wonderful institution.
I’ve learned so much from Carolina, and from the many colleagues, staff, students, alumni, administrators, and boosters I’ve been privileged to work with in the past two decades. From the faculty-athletics reform committee to the reforming the honor system committee, the awesome Sociology Department, to the new IDEAs in Action curriculum and Carolina Seminars, I’ve been involved in working to help UNC live up to its promise. And a special shout out to the phenomenal Institute for the Arts & Humanities, which has been a central part of my intellectual life since I arrived, and which I was thrilled to be able to lead for the past two years.
I really hope in the coming years that Carolina will find a way to stay proudly public, academically excellent, and truly inclusive. That’s the promise of UNC—a truly important, even essential, institution for North Carolina and the country. I will always be grateful for the opportunities UNC opened for me and supportive of the promise UNC represents. #GDTBATH