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Jun 7 2021
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Nikole Hannah-Jones vs the UNC Board of Governors: Academic Freedom for Whom?
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By Michael Munger

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By Michael Munger, Jun 7 2021
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hat is academic freedom, and who has it? I ask because near where I live in North Carolina there has recently arisen a controversy sparked by a process that is usually boring and bureaucratic, an academic tenure case. The University of North Carolina is recruiting Nikole Hannah-Jones as a new faculty member at the Hussman School of Journalism; she is an alumna, having graduated with an M.A. in Journalism nearly 20 years ago.
Many have offered arguments against her candidacy, and the 1619 Project she has co-founded. I was not privy to the materials in the dossier, so I have no view on the individual case. But the case raises some larger questions, about the obligations and responsibilities of non-faculty political appointees governing universities.
One reason to abstract away from the specific Hannah-Jones controversy is that there seems to be a misunderstanding of the mundane bureaucratic process of “Hurry Up and Wait.”
UNC was trying to process the appointment–the Knight Chair for Race and Investigative Journalism—in time for a start date in Fall 2021. But the hastily compiled dossier lacked information on undergrad teaching experience and academic publications that some members of the Board of Governors wanted. Because of the time pressure, the UNC Provost made a sensible decision, changing the offer to a five-year fixed-term appointment with the option for reappointment. There was no vote on the tenure case, because the dossier was incomplete
Unfortunately, the combination of events that—viewed dispassionately—could be explained as well within the normal boundaries of bureaucratic process resulted in inflammatory mischaracterizations. According to most sources, including the once-reliable (including the New York Times). Ms. Nikole-Jones had been “denied tenure.” That’s simply not true. She might have been denied tenure, if her supporters had resubmitted the file, but she might have been voted up. We’ll never know.
But let’s put those details to one side. The question I want to examine is whether a board of trustees, or other governing oversight boards of universities, are prohibited, allowed, or possibly even obliged to check and endorse the hiring decisions of faculty and administrators, and to evaluate and approve proposals made by faculty about curriculum. That brings me to Henry Manne, who gave a speech on this subject at the Foundation for Economic Education in 1971, exactly 50 years ago. In one part of the speech, Manne said:
There is no longer any way for trustees to keep faculty members “in line.” There is not even a “line” for trustees as such at all. Their interest in serving has become only the weaker need of community status or prestige. Instead of being directed by trustees, the modern private university has become “democratized,” with an almost total loss of trustees’ control over the three principal ingredients of university policy—student admissions, faculty hiring, and curriculum. (Manne, 1971)
“The academic universe has a number of norms and foundation myths that have become shibboleths, to the point where having the ‘wrong’ view results in ostracism.”
The academic universe has a number of norms and foundation myths that have become shibboleths, to the point where having the “wrong” view results in ostracism. One of the core beliefs of the modern academy is the necessity of “faculty governance.” This view would hold that outside “political” interference is (1) morally offensive, and (2) prudentially mistaken. The claim is that the best universities are those governed entirely by the faculty; more importantly, these elite units are best precisely because they are so governed. There is an irony here: the same faculty who advocate the strictest, most coercive political control of the private lives of citizens are indignant defenders of the right of faculty to enjoy the “academic freedom” to spend taxpayer money without oversight.  To paraphrase John O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review, “The trustee or board that governs best, governs least.”1
But is that (1) wise, or (2) consistent with the actual history of great universities?
The difference between the generic problem of control of non-profit management, and the particular problem of managing colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning (hereafter, IHLs),lies in the problem of managing expertise and initiative. Modern academics focus on research; we even call many of the most prestigious IHLs “research universities.” To judge research in a narrow field, one must be an expert in that field. But trustees are for the most part people who have actually managed organizations, or made things, rather than study academic publications. The result is the kind of information asymmetry that led William Niskanen to conclude that Congressional oversight of federal bureaucracies was a “stylized farce.” The only job oversight committees could accomplish, in Niskanen’s view, was to help ensure that the maximum politically feasible budget was passed, for each bureaucracy.
But the oversight of standard technocracies by Congress may not be a useful analogy. No one defends unelected federal bureaucrats as having “bureaucratic freedom;” their job is to follow the rules and enforce the law. IHLs are different, so much so that “academic freedom” and “faculty governance” are stand-alone norms. You can’t tell a bureaucrat, “Go discover something,” but that scope for creativity is the foundation of the global American excellence in IHLs. We must be doing something right, given that university education is one of the key “exports” of the U.S. economy, with tens of thousands of foreign students competing for the privilege of paying $250,000 or more each for a degree.
But the notion of academic freedom as a founding principle of universities is either a myth or (at best) an exaggeration. As Hofstadter (1955) describes in his magisterial history of the notion of academic freedom, the idea that faculty should be free to teach what they thought best was literally heresy until around 1850, since most private universities were associated with a specific religious denomination, and state institutions (including UNC-Chapel Hill, the oldest state university, holding classes since 1795) were always on the verge of collapse and bankruptcy.
Hofstadter described an 1856 incident that is highly instructive. A UNC- yes, that UNC- chemistry professor, Benjamin Hedrick, was asked by a student who he favored in the upcoming presidential election. Hedrick replied that he would likely vote for John C. Fremont, a Republican who opposed the admission of new slave territories. As Hofstadter put it:
Colleges were often chronically so near disaster that presidents or professors felt a moral obligation to resign when they became unpopular lest they bring upon their school its death blow. What is most interesting, in comparison with the modern professoriate, is the absence of the feeling that their professional competence gave them any right to cling to their jobs. The general feeling seems to have been that strong criticism obliged them to resign. A man like Benjamin Hedrick was thought to be exceptionally willful and stubborn because he refused to resign his post at the University of North Carolina under pressure, and forced the trustees to fire him. (P. 232; emphasis original.)
But there was a revolution in the offing. In the decade following the end of the Civil War, this view of the primacy of the college as an institution, to which the faculty were subservient, had largely been transformed. Hofstadter quotes President P.A. Chadbourne, in an address at Williams College in 1873, as saying: “Professors are sometimes spoken of as working for the college. They are the college.” (P. 274).
The difference between the treatment of Hedrick, who was expected to resign rather than embarrass UNC, is thus usefully juxtaposed with the current case. The supporters of Hannah-Jones expect that the trustees will now resign, rather than further embarrass UNC. How did that happen?
Henry Manne’s lecture from 50 years ago detailed how the origin of IHLs had required the “trust” form of organization, where donors had specific religious goals, or secular purposes such as establishing schools of medicine or sources for high school teachers. (My own employer, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was a combination of these two purposes, as described by R. F. Durden, The Dukes of Durham: 1865-1929, Duke University Press, 1975). Manne points out that the central role of “trustees” in managing a trust, ensuring that the goals of the donors are the primary, and in many cases the sole, reason for the existence of the IHL and the jobs of the professors.
In the modern IHL, according to Manne, the
… notion of ‘academic freedom’ has given the faculty effective power over subject matter in the university and over its curriculum. Especially in very technical fields, this was said to have represented merely the trustees’ deferring to the expertise of the faculty. But what that indicates is that the trustees had nothing significant to gain by exercising this power, and, therefore, it was no great loss to give it up to teachers who did have something to gain by it…
The last sporadic fights for the vestiges of control left in the hands of trustees are now being waged. These disruptions may frequently result in great losses of time, or embarrassment, or unfavorable publicity…. (pp. 7-8)
In Manne’s view, the main job—perhaps the only job with which they are still entrusted—of the trustees is fund-raising, “keeping the flow of money coming.” This has resulted in a derived change in the nature of the IHL’s top administration: the trustee will choose a president who understands that his or her job is to carry out the only remaining actionable goal of the trustees. The President is
… not supposed to bring his personal influence to bear on issues of educational policy. He was simply supposed to keep the money flowing in from outside sources. Thus, as the main source of funds began to shift from individuals to large foundations and government, the interest of presidential selection committees shifted to individuals with political know-how or good contracts in the government and foundation worlds. (p. 9)
Manne’s claim was that there are but three possible structures for governing IHLs: free market provision, dictatorship of the trustees through a president, and a cooperative partnership organized through faculty governance. The problem is that faculty governance, in most IHLs, is charged with deciding on hiring and the curriculum. But the faculty gain nothing from improvements, and it loses nothing from mistakes, since costs are being paid by endowment, and by the diligent and selfless efforts of the trustees and the president.
Since neither quality nor expense is a direct concern, the kind of faculty who survive and prosper in this “cooperative/collectivist” system of IHLs will be those who “inherently favor collectivist, statist, nonmarket attitudes” (p. 13). Manne speculates about a reform that might give faculty ownership “shares” in the university, to align incentives better—faculty would pay some cost for failure, reap some reward for success, and there would be a reason to solve collective action problems by empowering the President or trustees to take action.
There remains the third alternative, of course; the “dictatorship of the trustees” model has had some success. In the marvelous interview with Manuel Ayau, conducted by William Weston for Liberty Fund,2 Ayau discusses the founding (and still current) philosophy of Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquin University. The key factor was that there was no “conflict of interest” on the part of the faculty, who might be tempted to define the terms of contracts, the amount of pay, and the composition of the curriculum in terms that benefitted the faculty, rather than the students or (in the case of a public IHL) the citizens.
The Board [of Trustees] is involved in what’s being taught. And it is very much involved in checking the performance of the professors… We have a philosophy—and this will shock many academicians—that the university exists in the exercise of the academic freedom [pause] of the trustees, and the university hires the professors that agree with our views, and that we respect the freedom of professors to teach otherwise, and to teach contrary to what we believe [pause] elsewhere. (35:20 through 37:40; emphases and pauses added)
What does all this mean for Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the Board of Governors holding up a tenure case? My own view is that trustee boards lack the expertise to evaluate tenure cases on the merits, because division of labor has resulted in such a powerful set of advances in so many areas of knowledge. There is a knowledge problem, because no one can know enough to be able to evaluate the dossier in any detail. My own view is one that probably no one will find fully persuasive: even though it is true that faculty may want the “wrong” things, it is not a solution to substitute the concentrated power of political appointees, even if I personally agree with the views of those political appointees some of the time. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I would have voted “no” in a faculty meeting on Ms. Hannah-Jones (I’m not sure, because I have not examined the materials closely). Even in that case, I still would object to the Board of Governors vetoing the faculty decision, because the genie of political interference is not easily put back in its bottle, once it is released.
For more on these topics, see “The Economics of the Tenure System,” by Jeffrey A. Miron. Library of Economics and Liberty, September 24, 2001; and The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with Henry Manne with Fred McChesney, Online Library of Liberty. See also the EconTalk podcast episode Michael Munger on the Future of Higher Education; and Division of Labor, by Michael Munger in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
Does that mean that there is no role for the Board of Governors? Is there no oversight of IHLs, now that oversight boards have abdicated control? No, that’s going too far. I would still defend the right, and in fact impose the obligation, to make judgments about whether academic units are behaving in ways consistent with the core mission of the IHL. In the case of the UNC Board, members might decide that the Journalism School is no longer serving the citizens of the state of North Carolina. But short of eliminating the unit, the decisions of faculty in the unit about conducting their own affairs must be accepted.
References
Hamilton, J. G., and H. M. Wagstaff (eds), 1911, “Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick.” James Sprunt Historical Publications, Vol. 10, No. 1.  https://docsouth.unc.edu/true/hamilton/hamilton.html
Hofstadter, Richard. 1955. Academic Freedom in the Age of Colleges. New York: Columbia University Press.
Manne, Henry. 1971. “The Political Economy of Modern Universities.” Excerpt of speech given to meeting of trustees and guests of the Foundation for Economic Education. Printed by Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Washington, DC. Entire speech reprinted 1982 in Education in a Free Society, Anne Burleigh Husted (ed.), pp. 165-206. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Niskanen, W. 1971. Bureaucracy and Representative Government. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
Footnotes
[1] Eugene Volokh, “Who first said, ‘The best government is that which governs least’? Not Thoreau.” The Washington Post, September 6, 2017.
[2] The Intellectual Portrait Series: A Conversation with Manuel Ayau. Online Library of Liberty.
*Michael Munger teaches at Duke University and is Director of the interdisciplinary program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at Duke University. He is a frequent guest on EconTalk.
Read more of Michael Munger’s writing at the Econlib Archive.
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