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New law requires NC colleges to have institutional neutrality on political controversies

Modernist building
W Edward Callis III
Wikimedia Commons
The North Carolina General Assembly's legislative building.

North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black college in Greensboro, has a storied place in civil rights history — most notably when four freshmen staged sit-ins at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter that refused to serve them. Their action inspired sit-ins throughout the South and Northeast.

That history helped inspire history professor Jelani Favors to accept the position of director of A&T’s new Center of Excellence for Social Justice, which opened in October.

“Yes, without question, we want to produce a new generation of A&T Fours,” Favors said.

The center’s mission statement says it’s a hub for students and faculty to identify and address issues affecting marginalized communities. That includes advocacy to champion social, economic and racial justice, Favors said. 

We wouldn’t have the social movements that we did produce in this country had it not been for Black colleges serving as incubators of not just activism but, more importantly, intellectual thought.”

Favors doesn’t know if the center’s mission violates SB195, which prohibits state-supported universities from taking official positions on “controversial political issues of the day.”

That phrasing is taken from what’s known as the Kalven Report. It was written in 1967 by a University of Chicago Committee — and serves as the foundation for the school’s policy to not take stands on political issues as an institution, while encouraging free expression of diverse viewpoints. It also supports faculty and students who participate in social unrest, but not on behalf of the institution.

There’s been a movement in the last decade to encourage colleges and universities to approve similar policies of free speech. Since 2015, 104 have done so, including the University of North Carolina System, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

In 2017, as demonstrations increased on college campuses, legislation was passed preventing state-supported schools from requiring students, faculty and staff to “ascribe” to university-mandated political and social views. The new law goes a step further by requiring these schools, as an institution, to remain neutral on controversial political issues of the day.

“I just find it very troubling,” said Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Guilford County.

Harrison was one of three legislators who voted against the neutrality law. She worries it’s subject to different interpretations — and as a consequence could have a chilling effect on campus speech. She wonders about a statement then-UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz made in mid-October, which said he “condemned the acts of terror in Israel by Hamas.”

“That’s potentially a problem. It’s probably going to be up to judicial interpretation. I mean, you could say that climate change has become political. Obviously, the Gaza situation, Israel situation is political. I think it’s going to be a big problem — bigger than what we even anticipated when the bill came up."

State Democratic Sen. Graig Meyer of Orange County voted for the legislation, but he says with reservations.

“I think almost everybody voted yes on that because it was embedded into a larger UNC omnibus bill, so it wasn’t a standalone bill just on that provision,” Meyer said. "This is already an expectation that any instrument of the state, including a university, should be neutral on matters of contemporary politics. So this was really a recodification of a lot of existing law and probably an attempt by Republicans to make a little bit of a political issue where there’s not one.”

Representatives of UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte and the UNC System either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Calls also were not returned from some of the legislation’s top sponsors. Onslow state Rep. George Cleveland who voted for the bill did not want to be recorded but said in a telephone interview that he supported the law because he sees no “reason for state-supported institutions to be embroiled in political conversations.”

There was also political controversy when UNC’s Board of Governors shut down the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity in 2015, amid accusations of advocacy. Its director had also been highly critical of Republican lawmakers, whom he and many others accused of pressuring the board to close the center.

North Carolina A&T’s Favors says he’s ready if there’s political pushback against the Center for Excellence and Social Justice. It’s not a fight he wants, but says it’s one he’s willing to have.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.