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An Open Letter to UNC System President Peter Hans

On the naming of Lee Roberts as Interim Chancellor after the departure of Kevin Guskiewicz

Professors speak out on the University of North Carolina’s decision to deny tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones Photo by Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Hans,

I hope this letter finds you well. I write to you today to express first my deep disappointment in the appointment of Lee Roberts to the office of Interim Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and second my hope that this misstep can be corrected with the “nationwide search” for the permanent position that is reportedly in progress. I’d like to pre-empt something that I find somewhat silly in the discussion that’s taking place on this topic, so you know that I mean well and am serious: I do not care an iota that Roberts holds a degree from Duke. My sports fandom and allegiance to my alma mater does not blind me to the quality of a person or candidate for a job, and I think it’s ridiculous that people will assume malice based on a diploma. Beyond that, though I will soon discuss my personal stakeholding in public education, I do not believe that Roberts’ diploma from a private institution disqualifies him from caring about public education the way I do and would want UNC’s Chancellor to. Rather, my opposition is based entirely on observation of his career and of patterns in higher education decision-making in North Carolina and across the country.

Before I detail my reasoning, I would like to establish the stakes I hold in the making of this decision. I grew up in the state of North Carolina, attending public schools in Raleigh for elementary (Washington), middle (Fred J. Carnage), and high school (William G. Enloe). I enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013 and graduated in 2017 with degrees in Comparative Literature and Chemistry. Carolina was where I met some of my closest friends and favorite people: chief among them, of course, the person I was lucky enough to marry last fall — but also two of her bridesmaids, two of my groomsmen, and our officiant — adding my brother, also a Tar Heel graduate, more than 50% of the people around me at the happiest moment of my life were Tar Heels. Chapel Hill is where I learned about the kind of person I wanted, and still aspire to be; it is where I learned to be a person in and citizen of the world with all the empathy and curiosity that entails; it is where I was inspired by some of the best and brightest teachers on the planet to become an educator myself. I hold no illusions that my time at UNC was uniquely charmed, either. I was on campus when Our Three Winners were killed, over-committed and overworked myself into what I now understand was clinical depression the fall of my junior year, and experienced the despair of UNC’s shameful decision to ignore campus scholars and activists and place a moratorium on renaming buildings that desperately needed it — a decision that I was happy to see reversed in 2020 by the Board of Trustees that you now work with. Because I’m publishing this letter on a sports website (a privilege I could spend equally long waxing about and also wouldn’t have without my ties to the University), I’ll mention that I was also in Chapel Hill for the basketball-related but no less real heartbreaks of Dean Smith’s passing and the 2016 National Championship loss, followed of course by the euphoria of a championship win in 2017.

What I’m saying is that I know well that Chapel Hill isn’t a utopia, but it is, simply put, a place to which I owe myself. And since graduating, I’ve spent more time than is normal hoping, for the sake of them and the world they are coming into, that the same can be true of the people who follow me. As a fellow alumnus, I’m sure the same is true for you.

And thus, I begin my entreaty. If its leadership is handed to a career real estate investor with no roots in education at all, let alone public education, the UNC that you and I know will be ruined. I do not say this intending hyperbole. I have observed time and again what happens to education when it is conceptualized by people more interested in it as a privilege than a right, who see the language that educators use of “investing in our future” and twist it to understand education as a financial investment rather than a public good.

  • Programs are evaluated based on perceived value to the job market, artificially devaluing liberal arts educations. I’ve read your communications with the UNC Board of Governors and Board of Trustees that are available on your UNC System page. That includes your most recent remarks to the BOT, and while you’ve said things there I disagree with, in some cases vehemently so, I was pleased to see you correctly note that “Traditional liberal arts majors — such English, history, philosophy — also yielded clear value to graduates” in their search for employment; that “the skills and habits of mind you learn in college are valuable across a huge range of different careers;” and that “Most UNC System graduates are not working in a job directly related to their major. That’s a sign of success rather than a shortcoming.” I observe that we share an interest in UNC, and university education more broadly, providing something other than trade education, the latter’s value not to be diminished. Roberts, whose only interaction with education is in its budgets, does not appear to share this interest. I would not say this without proof, of course. This is a collection of meeting minutes of the UNC System Committee on Budget and Finance, which Roberts, of course, chairs. Among some genuinely good and useful accomplishments and goals for the system, including a long-overdue All-Funds approach, are several references to foregrounding financial sustainability ahead of investing in the educational mission of the system’s universities. STEM programs are privileged over the liberal arts, antithetically to your remarks. (That said, “STEM” appears to be a false alliance these days, in the wake of UNC Greensboro’s heartbreaking decision to dissolve its Physics and Astronomy department. Science and Math, in the ways that they are pursuits of knowledge rather than industry training, are just as disposable through such a lens) “Graduate education in... health professions” is referenced as an area needing increased investment to reflect the needs of the state, but “Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, and Veterinary Medicine” are excluded from such a model, which leaves basically only Medical Administration — the state, I can only conclude, does not actually need more and better healthcare providers, but more people to figure out how to maximize hospital profit by minimizing our residents’ insurance coverage and outright denying coverage to the needy. Such will be the approach to education with somebody like Roberts as UNC’s chancellor: The state does not need educated people so much as people who make it money. The former comes from an ideology that has powered the world’s best civilizations throughout history, up to and including our own. The latter comes from one that requires abstracting people into something less than human. I, and the vast majority of Carolina grads, know which one I’d rather my alma mater represent. Lux, Libertas.
  • Beyond the ideology and mission of a public, flagship university, workers are disserved by such an approach to education. It’s a recurrent pattern not just at universities but across industries — the first measure to save money is to decrease jobs and decrease pay. Across higher education, teaching jobs are increasingly given to contingent faculty rather than full-time workers, contributing to the precarity of the academic job market—existing graduate students have fewer and fewer places to go, prospective ones are scared off. To those who see the University as a financial machine, this is a feature rather than a flaw. To me, and I think anybody who wants to see UNC be a leader in research and academic excellence, it’s a tragedy and one to steer away from. This isn’t how a university produces knowledge. It leads to deteriorate learning conditions for students, a precariate class of educators, and a stagnant society. North Carolina’s educational reputation is low enough as it is due to myriad factors affecting K-12 education; UNC and the UNC system are and have been a beacon in an otherwise bleak landscape. People like Lee Roberts would destroy this; I have no doubts at all.

I could say more. I could point at more examples of dying universities, or at least universities losing the things that make education so great and noble, than I already have: Arizona State planning to turn to ChatGPT for instruction in Freshman Composition, universities at all levels of prestige becoming the targets of bad-faith agitation around the conflict in Israel and Palestine, WVU’s absolute decimation, the list is ever-growing. Instead, I will hope that these two points, joined in a chorus that’s begun on campus and spread beyond it, can move you.

I wish you the best and that you’ll make the right choice. Lux, Libertas.

Sincerely,

Akil Guruparan