“What the university…believes with all its heart, is that a teacher has a right to state the honest conviction to which he has come through his work, that he has the right of freedom of speech in teaching just as any other citizen has that right under the constitution. The university believes that if teaching is to be intellectually honest it must be free.”
-Harry Woodburn Chase, UNC President 1919-1930
It’s grey today, not as cold as it has been, but still wet and very grey. It’s fitting weather for February and for the mood on campus. “How are you?” I ask. “I’m okay,” everyone replies. I haven’t heard “good” or “fine” in weeks. It will not surprise those who are here for me to remark that campus feels drawn into itself. To fold in and cover is the natural reaction to what our community faces: the murder of three students, the loss of our most public hero, and a blatant attack from North Carolina’s political and financial elite against our academic freedom. I found myself on the phone with my friend, an alumna, trying to explain what campus feels like. “Nothing like the fallout from those first scandal reports or when the NCGA almost made Christianity the state religion that spring a couple of years ago,” I told her. “Not even like a bad Duke loss.”
I’ve been in the archives the last few days researching the first waves of agricultural progressivism at the University. I should say I have been hiding in the archives, my wifi disconnected purposefully, eyes flicking from wheat production numbers in Halifax County to Samuel Huntington Hobbs‘s farm poetry. I have been trying to keep my mind from being dominated by thoughts of how this recommendation falls into the line of challenges against academic freedom at UNC, against clinics at law schools across the country, and against progressive politics in the South. I have been trying not to think about how punitive action against any center at the law school will affect my partner, in his first year at UNC Law.
But then this, a quote from President Harry Woodburn Chase in support of the Bureau of Extension, appeared:
“A university’s service ought not to stop where its campus stops. The expert knowledge and skill assembled by a University campus ought to be daily at the disposal of the state. A University and its state must be in partnership with each other, and I believe in North Carolina they are.” -President Harry Woodburn Chase
It’s not Chase’s idea of course, but Edward Kidder Graham’s, who in his inaugural address in 1913 asked that the University’s students and faculty begin work to “make the campus co-extensive with the boundaries of the State.” At this moment of invocation begins UNC’s modern relationship with political advocacy and public work. By asking that the University begin working as a public servant for the state, Graham ensured that UNC would become the leading university in the South, which would attract the talents and expertise of faculty invested in studying and solving the state’s problems: Eugene Branson, Howard Odum, Louis Round Wilson, Albert Coates, Paul Green, Julius Chambers, Ruel Tyson, and Gene Nichol. I leave so many others off the list.
At the moment when Edward Kidder Graham asked that the University use its expertise to work for the state, he also opened up the political arena to the fight for academic freedom. The two–public service and academic freedom–are intimately tied. The idea of academic freedom as a necessity in a university’s search for truth began to emerge at the turn of the century. In his 1902 essay, “Academic Freedom,” John Dewey brilliantly surveyed the emergence of the modern university and academic freedom in tandem, writing that the modern university had to have the freedom to “investigate truth; critically to verify fact; to reach conclusions by means of the best methods at command, untrammeled by external fear or favor; to communicate this truth to the student; to interpret to him its bearing on the questions he will have to face in life–this is precisely the aim and object of the university.”
There have been cries for answers from the Board of Governors, pleas for transparency, for truth, justification for Tom Ross’s forced removal and now the recommendation for closures for three advocacy centers across the UNC system. It seems that the Board of Governors isn’t willing to listen to dissenting voices. And as I look backward across the stretch of UNC’s modern political history, it does not strike me as newsworthy that a conservatively-funded legislature would try to limit the academic freedom of those identifying, targeting, and working against those problems in North Carolina we are not proud of: 26% of our children live in poverty; we have experienced the greatest increase in concentrated poverty of any state since 2005; our largest city has the worst upward mobility of the country’s 50 largest cities.
In 1941, David Cohn wrote a truly lovely picture of Chapel Hill in The Atlantic Montly, citing its “oaks, hollies, cedars, redbud, dogwood, and flowering fruit trees,” “banana splits,” and “secondhand bookshops” as among Chapel Hill’s greatest attributes. But he ends the article in this way: the “intangible achievements of the University…lie in an unremitting and successful struggle for academic freedom in an area where the weight of lethargy, as well as the dynamics of industrial opposition and inherited prejudices operates against academic freedom. They consist in teaching students the truth about the South even when the truth hurts.” Is that not what the Center for Work, Poverty, and Opportunity is doing? Is that not our University’s mission statement? You can even take the South out of the picture if that’s objectionable–to teach the truth even when it hurts! I find so much hope in this, enough even to answer that I’m fine should someone ask me how I’m doing. The battle for public service, political advocacy, and academic freedom is not through.
At the bottom of the page where I found Chase’s quote was this:
The University of North Carolina is your University.
I will add: Protect it. Defend it. Speak for it. Use your voice as a student, a teacher, an administrator to tell the Board of Governors what the University means to you and why you stand with her.