At UNC, More Good News on Free Expression

Two new developments in the UNC-System warrant celebration and praise.

With new policies and a new school, the UNC System, the UNC Board of Governors, and UNC-Chapel Hill are making history. UNC is the first state university system in the country to consider a policy banning compelled speech. If the Board adopts the policy next month, it will put the UNC System, and UNC-Chapel Hill in particular, at the forefront of free-speech protections.

UNC is the first state university system in the country to consider a policy banning compelled speech.On January 18, the governance committee of the UNC Board of Governors took the first step by voting to approve a new policy prohibiting employees from soliciting or requiring an “employee or applicant for academic admission or employment to affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement. Nor shall any employee or applicant be solicited or required to describe his or her actions in support of, or in opposition to, such beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles.” (Read the full policy here.)

At that meeting, UNC-System President Peter Hans spoke in support of the policy, saying,

We cannot condition employment or enrollment on adherence to any set of beliefs, no matter how well intended. There’s a long list of good and worthy ideas we could require people to hold, but that’s not the role of the university. If we require students and employees to conform to a prescribed set of beliefs, that simply isn’t true to our tradition of free minds, free speech, and free thought.

Legally, intellectually, and morally, it’s our responsibility to protect students, faculty, and staff from compelled speech. It’s always easy to see threats to free expression or academic freedom when they come from your political opponents, and it’s always tempting to dismiss those threats when they come from your allies. Being committed to free inquiry means setting aside those temptations and standing up for principle. That’s exactly what this policy does, and I encourage you to support it.

Background information included in the meeting materials explained the rationale for the policy change:

Requiring a statement from an employee or applicant for academic admission or employment to demonstrate an ideological commitment cuts against the constitutional rights afforded within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 14 of the North Carolina Constitution. Contrary to the principles of free speech and free expression, these statements could be consulted when making hiring, admission, reappointment, evaluation, promotion, or tenure decisions.

The Board’s prospective policy change is in keeping with the principles of the University of Chicago’s 1972 Shils Report, which stipulates that the only criteria that can be used in appointment and tenure decisions are research, teaching, service, and contribution to the intellectual community. It specifies, “There must be no consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff” (emphasis added).

The new policy also echoes a statement made by the American Association of University Professors in 2018, pushing back against state anti-BDS laws. These laws required that invited speakers and contractors at public universities sign statements pledging that they did not endorse anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” actions, nor would they in the future. The AAUP stated,

[T]hese pledges … are nothing short of an attempt to limit freedom of speech and belief. Indeed, they conjure the specter of loyalty and disclaimer oaths, mainstays of McCarthyism.

In practice, the new UNC-System policy will disallow university employees from demanding such pledges. But the policy itself is content-neutral. It will also prevent hiring committees, tenure committees, and admissions offices from requiring applicants to submit “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” statements, the use of which has recently been increasing.

The new policy will ensure that faculty and students are evaluated on their merits, not their ideological commitments.With the adoption of this policy, the UNC System will be the public university leader in free-speech protection. Already, North Carolina has better free-speech policies than most states, including the Campus Free Speech bill passed in 2017, a systemwide commitment to free expression, and more “green lights” from FIRE than any other state.

The new policy will add to those protections, ensuring that prospective faculty and students are evaluated based on the merits of their work, not their political or ideological commitments. This is an important step to creating a climate of free thought and expression on campus. With this policy, the UNC System could serve as a model for other systems and institutions around the country.

UNC-Chapel Hill, the only public institution that has adopted the Kalven statement on institutional neutrality, can serve as a model for other schools. In addition to the university’s impressive free-speech protections, UNC-Chapel Hill trustees voted last week to create a new school of Civic Life and Leadership, which will embrace viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote, “Credit to the UNC board for fighting for those principles and free inquiry. North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the nation’s oldest public university, and if change can happen there, maybe it can happen anywhere.”

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, praised the plans for the new school, saying, “This is a proud moment for UNC-Chapel Hill and for North Carolina. I have no doubt that this new School of Civic Life and Leadership will be a model for others around the nation to follow. The unwavering pursuit of truth will flourish in Chapel Hill.”

The UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill are leading the way on free expression, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom. Over the last 10 years, the changes across the UNC System have been the most comprehensive in the country. It is indeed a good day to be a Tar Heel.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.