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Education

Professor Can’t Teach His Pet Course, So Claims Attack on Academic Freedom

The athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina — many students were allowed to take fluff courses to keep them eligible for the basketball and football teams over a period of nearly 20 years — still reverberates in Chapel Hill. History professor Jay Smith, who coauthored the 2015 book Cheated that did so much to shine a light on UNC’s dark practices, created a course about college-sports scandals.

He got to teach it twice, but this year the university said, “no, not this year.” For that, Smith is claiming a violation of his academic freedom. In today’s Martin Center article, Jay Schalin looks at the controversy. While he applauds Smith for his key role in getting UNC to own up to its bad practices to the limited extent it did, Schalin concludes that UNC has the better case here.

First, it’s not true that UNC is denying Smith any “academic freedom.” He got to teach the course twice, and it’s not uncommon for courses to be offered every other year, or even less frequently. Moreover, Smith is free to say or write anything about college-sports scandals. The university is not muzzling him.

Then Schalin asks the key question — why allow such a boutique course at all? He writes,

Exactly why is Smith’s course part of the history curriculum in the first place? What important topic does HIST 383 address?

Answer: its importance is minuscule. HIST 383 may have value in a sports management curriculum, but not as a history course. In the history department, it is a vanity course based on the professor’s personal interests. As one looks through the courses offered by UNC’s history department, the number of missing topics that deserve inclusion far more than HIST 383 is infinite.

Professor Smith has done what many other college profs have done — turned their passions or hobbies into courses they like to teach. Too often, school administrators let them do that. The result is a curriculum cluttered with extremely narrow courses.

Schalin’s conclusion is a slam dunk: “The objective of a university is not to provide faculty employment, nor is it to permit faculty a chance to develop their own interests at the expense of more serious education of students.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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