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The UNC System’s ‘institutional neutrality’ policy will promote inequality

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The UNC System’s ‘institutional neutrality’ policy will promote inequality

Jun 12, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Michael Schwalbe
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The UNC System’s ‘institutional neutrality’ policy will promote inequality
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The author says the UNC System's new "institutional neutrality" policy will have negative consequences for equality and academic freedom. Image: UNC System

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I occasionally taught workshops for local nonprofit organizations whose members wanted to learn how unconscious biases could lead to discriminatory behavior that maintains racial and gender inequalities. This was right down my alley as a sociologist. For years, I studied, taught about, and published about these matters, drawing on and contributing to a large body of knowledge social scientists had created over decades.

I never charged for these workshops. As a professor at North Carolina State University, I felt obliged to share my knowledge with any North Carolinians who thought it might be of value to them. If I could also help to make life fairer for people who had been historically marginalized or excluded, so much the better. I don’t think this desire to do good was unusual. Most professors in public universities hope to make the world a better place through their teaching, scholarship, and outreach work.

But under a new “institutional neutrality” policy adopted last month by the UNC System Board of Governors, the kind of outreach work I once did as a professor might now be prohibited. So might other kinds of faculty work aimed at remediating social problems. For example, the policy could also be interpreted as prohibiting a group of faculty members from creating, say, a center for climate change education and providing curriculum consulting to North Carolina public schools. All it would take to make the policy apply in this way is to define climate change as a “matter of contemporary political debate.” 

The new policy can be found in Section 300.8.5 of the UNC Policy Manual. Subsection VII of this policy is titled “Maintaining Institutional Neutrality.” Here is what it says:

Every employing subdivision of the University in both its organization and operation shall adhere to and comply with the strictures of institutional neutrality required by G.S. 116-300 (3a). Accordingly, no employing subdivision or employment position with the University shall be organized, be operated, speak on behalf of the University, or contract with third parties to provide training or consulting services regarding: matters of contemporary political debate or social action as those terms are used in Section 300.5.1 of the UNC Policy Manual; any prescribed “view of social policy” or “political controversies of the day,” as those terms are used in G.S. 116-300 (3) and (3a); or in furtherance of the concepts listed in G.S. 126-14.6(c)(1)-(13).

 

This sort of bureaucratic language can make one’s eyes glaze over. Which is why it can be hard to see the potential implications of these policy changes. An example might help.

Suppose a branch of state government in North Carolina paid me to teach a workshop on how to combat unconscious racial biases that impair employee mentoring. Further suppose that in this workshop I used the concept of privilege to refer to the many large and small benefits—usually taken for granted and thus invisible—enjoyed by members of a dominant group. This could be construed as “furtherance” of a concept that G.S. 126-14.6(c)(1)-13 forbids in the context of state employee training. The verboten idea, according to the statute, is that, “Particular character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs should be ascribed to a race or sex or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.” 

Depending on how this part of the statute is interpreted, it could be seen as a violation to say that white people enjoy any kind of privileges simply by virtue of being white—even in a society where so-called white people are dominant culturally, politically, and economically. Of course, no one who teaches about these matters would say that unearned privileges should be enjoyed by members of a dominant group; the claim, as made by social scientists, is descriptive, not prescriptive. If there is a moral principle lurking here, it is that no one deserves unearned privileges.  

But today it’s easy to imagine that claims which should be uncontroversial—white privilege exists and causes tangible harms—will cause discomfort and lead to complaints. In fact, it seems likely that this kind of “whitelash,” as it has been called, is one reason the idea of white privilege is on the list of Forbidden Concepts. The irony of this proscription is no doubt lost on right-wing legislators and members of the UNC Board of Governors. In trying to rid educational discourse of anything smacking of critical race theory, they have provided a useful example of what critical race theory seeks to highlight: how the rules by which institutions operate can protect white supremacy. 

What about my workshop example? Is it plausible? A defender of the institutional neutrality policy might say it’s not meant to apply to the speech of individual faculty members, either in the classroom, in public statements (op-eds, for instance), or in workshop settings. It is meant only to forbid the university, or any of its constituent units, from taking a position on matters of current political debate. Perhaps so, yet in the event that a professor’s use of a proscribed concept elicited complaints, fearful administrators might very well try to quash this potentially troublesome activity. Speech is free, as recent pro-Palestinian protests have shown, only when it does not upset powerful groups. 

What seems certain, however, is that organized efforts by faculty, efforts to address contemporary social problems, would be the targets of repression. We don’t need to speculate about this possibility; it’s happened before. In 2015 the Board of Governors shut down UNC’s Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity. In 2017 the same board barred the UNC Center for Civil Rights from engaging in litigation. Board members said these centers, which took the moderately liberal stands of fighting poverty and defending civil rights, were improperly partisan, though most observers understood that their real sin was being thorns in the side of right-wing Republican legislators in North Carolina.

The recently enacted and more explicit policy of institutional neutrality could be used to clamp down on other politically disfavored faculty efforts. Earlier, I used the example of a hypothetical center for climate change education. Would such a center, if the collective work of its members advanced the idea—as a matter of fact, not opinion—that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity, run afoul of the neutrality policy? Some Board of Governors members, in the grip of energy industry propaganda, might see it that way.

There are many matters of contemporary political debate on which faculty might seek to promote understandings, based on disciplinary knowledge and expertise, that some might see as partisan. To note a few obvious examples: gun control, drug legalization, police violence, abortion, the death penalty, racial disparities in health care, gains in productivity and innovation yielded by diversity. Faculty centers, institutes, or other units that sought to educate the public and weigh in on policy options in these areas could, if powerful groups found their work threatening, be muzzled on the grounds of violating the institutional neutrality policy.

According to UNC System President Peter Hans, speaking at the Board of Governors meeting at which the neutrality policy was adopted, “Our public universities are here to serve everyone and ideally to challenge everyone. That’s the job. Because we’re meant to host a wide range of ideas, concepts and theories, to be an intellectually rich forum for big and difficult questions, our public universities must take a stance of principled neutrality on matters of political controversy.” Hans reportedly said that he arrived at this position after hearing from students, parents, alumni, and legislators. But not faculty, apparently.

Hans went on to say that higher education isn’t about settling debates. “Our role,” he said, referring to the university, “is to host those debates, to inform them to make them richer and more constructive …. [W]e can’t fulfill it if our institutions are seen as partisan actors in one direction or another.” 

Part of the problem, it seems, is that Hans sees faculty contributions to public debate as mere “views.” Evidence, rigorous analysis, peer review, accumulated knowledge, and scientific consensus appear to carry no special weight for the university’s overseers. If climate scientists say anthropogenic climate change is real, while others say it’s a hoax, well, these are just competing views deserving equal respect. The university’s role is to provide a neutral platform for these views, not to say which is right. Turn back the clock a few years and Hans, channeling his inner Jesse Helms, might have accused university scientists of being unacceptably partisan for saying that smoking causes heart disease, emphysema, and cancer.

The deeper problem is that societal institutions are never truly neutral. This is especially clear when power is concentrated at the top, as it is in most universities. It is at the top that decisions are made about what is controversial or not, about which ideas and forms of expression will be celebrated or chilled, and about what kind of public-facing work faculty will be allowed to do. These decisions tend to be made in ways that protect the interests of politically and economically dominant groups. Under these conditions, an official policy of institutional neutrality serves mainly to mask imbalances of power.  

A policy of institutional neutrality that discourages university administrators from pontificating about every social issue of the day makes sense. There is no reason to think chancellors and provosts, let alone members of boards of governors or trustees, have profound insights to offer on all matters of public concern. But the new UNC System policy goes beyond reining-in chancellors. By potentially impeding the ability of faculty to draw on disciplinary knowledge and expertise to put some debates to rest, or to use concepts that unsettle powerful groups, or to do work on behalf of marginalized people, a policy of institutional neutrality will serve mainly to protect an unequal status quo.