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UNC Charlotte Professor Speaks Out on Systemic Issues at the University

An exterior shot of UNC Charlotte
Members of the local AAUP chapter say Charlotte struggles with issues systemic in the UNC system. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

On April 28, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a 38-page report that exposed a glimpse of what some professors within the University of North Carolina (UNC) system are calling a crisis of systemic racism, burnout and lack of academic freedom. The AAUP initially chartered the report with only UNC-Chapel Hill in mind, but soon expanded its breadth to other schools including UNC Charlotte, as well as Appalachian State, Fayetteville State, East Carolina and Western Carolina universities. 

Titled “Governance, Academic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the UNC System,” the report discusses the ways in which political pressure and top-down leadership have obstructed meaningful faculty participation in the UNC system, jeopardized academic freedom, and reinforced institutional racism.

In 2019, professor John Cox, director of UNC Charlotte’s Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies, led efforts to revive UNC Charlotte’s AAUP chapter with the help of colleagues including associate professor of anthropology Nicole Peterson, who now serves as the chapter president.

The Charlotte chapter has been speaking out for faculty who have felt frustrated with COVID-19 protocols and the general work environment on campus since well before the report was released. 

Queen City Nerve sat down with Peterson to discuss where UNC Charlotte stands with these issues in light of the report’s recent publication. 

Queen City Nerve: What drove you to revive the UNC Charlotte chapter of AAUP?

Nicole Peterson: We don’t have many options in terms of representation, either through the university or more broadly, so the goal was really to find another space for faculty and others affiliated with us and talk about the challenges we’re facing and try to address them. We’ve got the more formal route through faculty governance, like the university’s Faculty Council [which is comprised of one elected voting member from each academic unit and a number of ex-officio members who manage curriculum and conduct the affairs of the faculty]. But it seems like that route wasn’t as helpful as we had hoped, so we tried to find some other ways to work on these issues.

UNC Charlotte professor Nicole Peterson
UNC Charlotte professor Nicole Peterson. (Courtesy of Nicole Peterson)

What triggered this report, and how did it take shape?

I understand that Nikole Hannah-Jones [who left UNC-Chapel Hill and took a position at Howard University after a dispute over tenure in 2021] was one of the big reasons that [the AAUP] started looking into things. But basically, they established a committee, that committee contacted different chapters and asked people to talk with them about their experiences in the UNC system. 

So the report says they talked to about 50 faculty from the system. I don’t know how many are from UNC Charlotte … I do know they talked to people who were in leadership positions that had the kind of perspective of what faculty generally were experiencing. But it wasn’t 50 randomly chosen faculty who have their own little idiosyncratic views of the world; these are people like me who talk to a lot of faculty about their issues and concerns and are in a position to see the trends across the university. 

What’s important to address is the systemic nature of this. It’s not happening to individual people or individual departments or even individual campuses. Across the whole system, there’s this trend that’s really troubling. I think that’s the advantage of this report is that they were able to pull all of this together in a way that, even with a focus on Chapel Hill, you hadn’t seen before. 

What does this report say about UNC Charlotte?

It’s a system-wide set of issues. Some are more applicable to UNC Charlotte than others. Some of the particular things we’ve seen at UNC Charlotte have been the challenges of faculty governance. The faculty feel like they haven’t been involved in the decisions. More recently, I’ve been really interested in the COVID-19 response and the inability of our university to tailor its response to the local conditions. The system dictated what we could do. 

I really want to make it clear: We don’t want to teach online. Most of us don’t find that to be an optimal way to teach. It’s not like we’re a bunch of lazy people in our pajamas all day (laughs). But we also recognize that in extraordinary circumstances, we do have to figure out the best way to do things. So when the system is telling us we can’t do what’s safest … it’s really frustrating. I think there are frustrations around the modalities of teaching during the pandemic, but also the kinds of topics you can teach. Those things are what people are really concerned about.

Tell me more about that other piece. What frustrations do you have about teaching certain topics?

We’re nervous about teaching certain topics. Do [professors] think they’re going to be attacked or criticized? Are they gonna end up on some website? I think those are real things that need to be talked about. 

I have to say: I teach topics around food and racism, and I wonder what response the students are gonna have. I am not unafraid of being in the classroom sometimes. Even as a white woman, I feel that there’s some pushback against certain topics, in the UNC system and at our university. And I think faculty who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or other historically minoritized groups see real disadvantages that come with that. That’s something I’ve seen with colleagues of mine. They receive different treatment. That’s a big problem at every university system. 

So while [UNC Charlotte] doesn’t have a case like Nikole Hannah-Jones or a Confederate statue, we struggle with a version of those things. I think that’s why the report is so relevant to UNC Charlotte. Obviously, UNC-Chapel Hill has the big stories, but I think that the reason lies in the system and not just UNC-Chapel Hill. These are problems that we see everywhere. The issue is how do we address that.

So how can Charlotte address that? [The report] gives suggestions like diversifying the board, increasing faculty governance and participation in that, working within the university … to really make decisions in the best interest of the university. The university is a really special place in that way. Historically, it’s been really democratic. And yet [democratic decision-making] is also one of the challenges that the report identifies. 

How has the UNC system responded?

I’ve seen a couple of quotes [from UNC System officials in the News and Observer] basically disputing that this report was actually submitting any evidence at all. And as a social science qualitative researcher, I think the argument of what constitutes evidence is always politically motivated. Like I said, it’s not 50 random people, it’s not everyone. We could do a survey! But I don’t think you’re gonna like the results.

Nicole Peterson speaks at an event in Chapel Hill
Nicole Peterson speaks at an event in Chapel Hill following the April release of the statewide report. (Photo by John Cox)

It sounds like the report is far from the only project your chapter has been up to. What else have you been focusing on as an organization this year?

[UNC Charlotte] has kept us busy during the pandemic. We’re changing our general education courses, we’re possibly reorganizing one of the colleges, we applied to be a R1 university [a doctoral university with “very high research activity” as determined through the Carnegie Classification System] … 

We’ve felt exhausted for a lot of reasons. We had a lot on our plates these past couple years that I don’t know that we needed. But we’ve been keeping busy, definitely — thinking about compensation, thinking about adjuncts … those have been two things we’ve been pushing this past year. 

But there’s also just the immediacy of the fact that people are burned out; there’s very low morale. That’s something in the report that I’ve seen firsthand. People are leaving. People are retiring early. Several of my colleagues even this past month have been leaving the university to go elsewhere — other universities or even other careers. A lot of us are looking for new jobs. It’s not a very supportive environment right now. 

I think that’s a big issue: When everyone gets to the point of beyond their usual exhaustion and there’s no recognition. Or if there is, it’s, “Y’all did great online with COVID! Now we’re gonna move everyone into in-person [instruction], and make all these decisions for you.” I think the combination of all that has been profoundly difficult for people. 

Would you say the events themselves — Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC-Chapel Hill, COVID-19, and so on — prompted that burnout? Or the system’s response?

It’s not the event itself that really defines it for people, I think. It’s the response. We know horrible things happen all the time. The question is, how are we gonna handle it? The faculty morale has been affected because we’re seeing all these things happen and the response is “work harder for less.” I think that’s what leads people to go. There’s this impossibility of continuing business as usual given everything that’s going on. 

Regardless, I think it’s getting brushed under the rug. It’s not surprising that they want to ignore this. But still: this is about the future of the system. We have the opportunity to address these issues and to make it a better system for the faculty, staff, students and alumni. For everyone. And if we don’t take that chance, then we are going to have a bad time. The system is on a precipice.

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