Academic Freedom and Accreditation: Don't Settle for Less

Neetu Arnold

CounterCurrent: Week of 2/13/23

What a time to be on the side of higher education reform. We have seen multiple positive developments in the fight for liberal education over the past several weeks. The National Association of Scholars’ investigations into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies have already made tsunami-level waves: last week, Texas Tech University dropped DEI statements in faculty hiring after our own John Sailer exposed these despicable practices in the Wall Street Journal. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed an all-star team of higher education reformers to turn the tides on wokeness at the New College of Florida.

Things are looking up. But with every step in the right direction, we can expect temper tantrums and roadblocks from defenders of the woke status quo. That is the current battle the University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Trustees has found itself in after announcing a new school that—gasp!—preserves free inquiry.

Here’s what happened: In January 2023, the UNC Board of Trustees voted 12–0 to develop the School of Civic Life and Leadership. The School would hire its own dean and 20+ professors from across the political spectrum to teach in areas such as history, political science, and religion. This is significant. Walk on any college campus, and you will seldom find a conservative faculty member in the humanities and social sciences. Adding political litmus tests like DEI statements ensures that these departments continue to support only one set of views.

Of course, universities should already be havens of free inquiry. State universities, especially, have an obligation to uphold the First Amendment as they are funded by the public. But the politicization of the academy has been decades in the making. Undoing the effects of the radically left-leaning policy will take time, and it must be done with care and precision to avoid introducing other perverse incentives. The Board of Trustees recognizes this challenge.

But since the Trustees’ announcement, the situation has escalated. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), threatened UNC’s accreditation status. As James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal President Jenna Robinson documented:

During her presentation, Wheelan told commissioners, “UNC-Chapel Hill’s board is going to get a letter because of a news article that came out that said that the board, without input from the administration or faculty, had decided they were going to put in this new curriculum offering. Okay. Explain that, because that’s kind of not the way we do business.”

Later in the discussion, she elaborated, “We’re gonna see the committee and talk to them and help them understand it and either get them to change it, or the institution will be on warning with [SACS], I’m sure.

Losing accreditation status spells trouble for universities: they lose access to federal student loan money, which can cripple institutions. Wheelan previously tried to intrude in university governance when Florida State University sought a new president (Governor DeSantis mandated that Florida universities disassociate from the accreditor as a result).

As the UNC Board of Trustees continues on with this battle, it should follow Florida’s lead: do not give in. Do not settle for less.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Colin Rowley on Unsplash

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