Institutional Doublethink at UNC

Peter Wood and Rachelle Peterson

In June, UNC-Asheville announced that it will divest a portion of its endowment from fossil fuel companies. As NAS pointed out in our 2015 report, Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels, divestment “is an attack on freedom of inquiry and responsible social advocacy in American higher education.” This is in part because “the movement’s abiding purpose has been to pressure governments to favor wind, solar, and hydro power”—an inherently political purpose that destroys a college's institutional neutrality.

UNC-Asheville's decision also raises concerns because of North Carolina's HB527, passed two years ago, which requires public universities in North Carolina to "ensure free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation" and seek to uphold institutional neutrality. 

In this letter to the Board of Governors of the UNC System, NAS President Peter Wood urges the Board to exercise oversight. He urges the Board's Committee on Free Expression to comment on divestment in its annual report on free speech and free expression, and suggests the entire Board use its legal authority to forbid UNC institutions from using their endowments or political purposes.


August 7, 2019

UNC Board of Governors
P.O. Box 2688
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Dear Members of UNC Board of Governors,

I am alarmed by the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s recent decision that $5 million “of its endowment … will be divested from fossil fuel investments.”[1] Fossil fuel divestment is an inherently political decision that violates UNC-Asheville’s institutional neutrality and undermines the free speech and expression of the students, staff, and faculty within the UNC System.

UNC-Asheville’s decision deserves the attention of the Committee on Free Expression (a.k.a., the Committee on University Governance) as it prepares its September 1 report, as well as the attention of the entire Board of Governors. I urge the Board to give strong consideration to forbidding fossil fuel divestment by any institution in the UNC System.

I write as president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). NAS is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in higher education. As part of our mission, we support academic freedom, intellectual diversity, and institutional neutrality throughout American higher education. We have thirty years of experience in providing support for the principles and the practice of institutional neutrality.

Institutional Neutrality

All institutions within the UNC System are required by North Carolina’s 2017 law, HB527, to seek to uphold institutional neutrality. Under the guidance of that law, the Board of Governors has adopted a policy stating that “each constituent institution must strive to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.” In part, this requires that “the constituent institutions may not take action, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day in such a way as to require students, faculty, or administrators to publicly express a given view of social policy.”[2]

But HB527 further describes what “institutional neutrality” entails, relying on the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report of 1967. The Kalven Report notes that colleges and universities, in order to retain their integrity, must meet a high standard: They “must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” This means there is a “heavy presumption against” the university “modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.”[3]

Political Goals

Fossil fuel divestment is by its definition a collective-action political movement in which institutions make investment decisions based on their ability to generate political change and foster political values. As NAS noted in our 2015 report, Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels, the divestment movement “is an attack on freedom of inquiry and responsible social advocacy in American higher education.” This is in part because “the movement’s abiding purpose has been to pressure governments to favor wind, solar, and hydro power”—an inherently political purpose that destroys the institutional neutrality of any college or university that decides to divest.[4]

Advocates of fossil fuel divestment have been clear about their political goals. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and the chief architect of the fossil fuel divestment movement, has called divestment “one powerful way to exert some leverage” upon the federal government. Divestment is collective political expression that communicates to “politicians that we need, say, a price on carbon.”[5] Kate Aronoff, one of the student leaders of the national fossil fuel divestment movement, praised divestment for “leveraging universities to …bring the fight to the steps of Congress.”[6]

Nor have advocates of UNC-Asheville hidden their political goals. In an op-ed in the student newspaper, The Blue Banner, student leaders of the UNC-Asheville divestment movement James Smith and Marion Bain touted fossil fuel divestment as a way to shame President Trump for declining to keep America within the Paris Climate Accord. Smith and Bain were clear that they hoped universities would lead the effort to change federal climate policies:

The responsibility for U.S. action on climate change lies on leaders in America with the power to make change. University endowments often invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry, so top-level administrators in higher education have the potential to be these leaders.[7]

Fossil fuel divestment requires the university as an institution to take a political stance and endorse political values. It expresses, on behalf of all staff, faculty, and students, an institutional opinion. This is inappropriate.

Collective Action

The Kalven Report also makes clear that a university “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”[8] But UNC-Asheville, by divesting from fossil fuels, has done just that.

UNC-Asheville has been upfront about its intention to use fossil fuel divestment as part of a collective action strategy meant to push more universities, particularly those within the UNC System, to join this political movement.

In an article announcing its divestment, UNC-Asheville quotes Chancellor Nancy J. Cable: “UNC Asheville leads the way among public universities in North Carolina and nationally, accelerating a growing movement in higher education.”[9] UNC Asheville’s Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance John Pierce, who is described as managing the university’s divestment, said, “This is a real achievement for the university, and it’s gaining momentum nationwide.” [10]

Sonia Marcus, Director of Sustainability, praised the student activists who pushed for fossil fuel divestment and “learned to work as … change-makers.” One of these “change-makers,” junior Kelsey Hall, declared that since UNC-Asheville announced its divestment, the fossil fuel divestment movement “has a lot of potential to gain more momentum in terms of UNCA or UNC system or others around the Southeast or the country to take more action in this direction.”[11]

Individuals may choose to act as “change-makers,” but the university as an institution must not. It must not set an agenda around which it seeks “change.” It must not itself adopt fossil fuel divestment. And it certainly must not seek to persuade other institutions to divest for political purposes.

As the Kalven Report makes clear, “The instrument of dissent and criticism [of society and politics] is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” Therefore, UNC-Asheville and all other institutions within the UNC System should permit students to advocate for fossil fuel divestment, just as it should permit students to advocate against it. But it should never itself adopt fossil fuel divestment.

University Values

Some at UNC-Asheville have attempted to cast divestment as a mere affirmation of the university’s values, and not a political statement. In this telling, the university is not choosing to reduce investments in fossil fuel companies, but merely adopting Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investment criteria that then result in reducing fossil fuel investments.

The student leaders of the UNC-Asheville divestment movement clearly link divestment to UNC-Asheville’s values. James Smith and Meredith Bain, in their op-ed, state “We are committed to ensuring the UNC System’s investments are aligned with its values.”[12]

UNC-Asheville does list “sustainability” among its core values.[13] And it commits to “ensuring” that these values “permeate everything that the university does.”[14]

If fossil fuel divestment is truly necessary for UNC-Asheville to live up to its values, then this raises serious questions about the propriety of the values UNC-Asheville has chosen. If it is true that divesting from fossil fuels is necessary in order for the “core value” of “sustainability” to fully “permeate everything that the university does,” then sustainability is not an appropriate value for UNC-Asheville to adopt.

Further, the North Carolina legislature, in HB527, indicates what it believes to be the core value of all institutions in the UNC System:

The General Assembly views freedom of expression as being of critical importance and requires that each constituent institution ensure free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation by students of constituent institutions.

“Sustainability,” which forecloses debate on climate policies, is a threat to the “robust, uninhibited debate and deliberation” that HB 527 called for. In NAS’s 2015 report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, we noted that sustainability sounds like “just a new name for environmentalism,” but its advocates use it to denote a “larger ideological territory in which curtailing economic, political, and intellectual liberty is the price that must be paid now to ensure the welfare of future generations.”[15]

Some members of the UNC Board of Governors may be among those who regard the sustainability movement in a positive light and further regard fossil fuel divestment as a sensible step towards limiting CO2 omissions or raising public awareness. But even those who hold these views should support institutional neutrality on this matter. Making a public university into an instrument to advance even a policy that you regard with favor erodes the central purpose of higher education. It tells the students, including the students who support the policy, that the university is just another billboard. It has no overriding commitments to the search for truth or fair play for those who disagree with the majority. Hard as it may be to forego an easy opportunity to advance an idea you like, or even an idea that you think is profoundly important, that impulse has to be checked. The public purpose of a public university is not to pick the winner in public debates, but to make public debates possible by guaranteeing a neutral place for intellectual disagreement.

The UNC Board of Governors should take a serious look at UNC-Asheville’s potentially compromising “core values.” It should do so, even if a majority of the faculty, students, and staff at UNC-Asheville support sustainability. Indeed, it is all the more important to do so if a majority of the faculty, students, and staff at UNC-Asheville do indeed support sustainability. A minority is in more need than a majority to be protected against compelled speech.[16]

Importantly, the Kalven Report emphasizes that even if a majority of those within the university or college support the same political position, the institution may not formally make that position its own: “If it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.”

Report on Free Speech and Free Expression

I urge the Committee on Free Expression to take note of UNC-Asheville’s divestment decision in the annual report on free speech and free expression. This divestment decision jeopardizes UNC-Asheville’s institutional neutrality. And because UNC-Asheville expressly seeks other universities, particularly those within the UNC System, to follow suit, it is crucial that the Board of Governors exercise oversight immediately.

Under HB527, your annual report must include “A description of substantial difficulties, controversies, or successes in maintaining a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues.” Fossil fuel divestment constitutes a “substantial difficulty” for institutional neutrality—if not making it completely impossible to maintain.

In the 2017-2018 Report on Free Speech and Free Expression Within the University, the Committee on Free Expression chose to survey the institutions within the UNC System and publish any “substantial difficulties, controversies, or successes” as self-reported by the constituent universities. UNC-Asheville, having decided to divest, apparently fails to see how divestment compromises its institutional neutrality, and likely will not report this as a “substantial difficulty” to the committee.

Therefore, the Committee on Free Expression must exercise oversight and report challenges to institutional neutrality even when they have gone unreported by the universities within the UNC System. UNC-Asheville’s fossil fuel divestment decision is such a case.

I also urge the Committee to use its legal authority to comment on the impropriety of this decision by UNC-Asheville.

Preventing Future Divestments

Given the way fossil fuel divestment threatens institutional neutrality and jeopardizes the central mission of the university, the UNC System Board of Governors should forbid fossil fuel divestment and any other divestments premised on political rather than fiduciary goals.

According to Chapter 100 of the Code and UNC Policy Manual, each of the endowments of the UNC System institutions is subject “to the requirements of state law and such terms and conditions as the Board of Governors may from time to time prescribe.”[17]

This suggests that the Board of Governors has the authority to forbid fossil fuel divestment by the constituent institutions. Given the threat it poses to institutional neutrality, I urge you to use this authority to reverse the UNC-Asheville divestment decision and prevent other UNC System members from adopting divestment decisions.

Conclusion

Fossil fuel divestment violates institutional neutrality, imposing on all students, staff, and faculty at an institution a publicly pronounced institutional opinion. This infringes on the free speech and expression of the individuals within the university. It has a chilling effect on free speech, and privileges the opinions and viewpoints of one part of the university community.

No university can maintain such a position and retain its integrity. UNC-Asheville and all within the UNC System must prioritize the free speech and expression and intellectual freedom of all students and faculty. They should commit to the high standards laid out in the Kalven Report. They must never adopt political stances that do not directly involve the very existence and fundamental purposes of the university.

I urge the Committee on Free Expression to take note of this divestment decision and the very presence of “sustainability” as a core value at UNC-Asheville in your annual report on free speech and free expression. And I urge the Board as a whole to consider forbidding fossil fuel divestment by all UNC System institutions.

Yours,

Peter Wood
President

 

[1] “UNC Asheville Commits to Environmental, Social and Governance Criteria for Portion of Endowment,” University of North Carolina Asheville, https://www.unca.edu/events-and-news/stories/unc-asheville-commits-to-environmental-social-and-governance-criteria-for-portion-of-endowment/.

[2] 1300.8 Free Speech and Free Expression Within the University of North Carolina, https://www.northcarolina.edu/apps/policy/index.php?section=1300.8.

[3] Kalven Committee, “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action,” http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/07/pdf/kalverpt.pdf.

[4] Rachelle Peterson, Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels, National Association of Scholars, 2015, p. 10. https://www.nas.org/storage/app/media/images/documents/NAS_insideDivestment_fullReport.pdf

[5] Bill McKibben, “Turning Colleges’ Partners Into Pariahs,” New York Times, February 11, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/01/27/is-divestment-an-effective-means-of-protest/turning-colleges-partners-into-pariahs.

[6] Kate Aronoff, “A Powerful Way to Galvanize Protest Over Climate Change,” New York Times, January 27, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/01/27/is-divestment-an-effective-means-of-protest/a-powerful-way-to-galvanize-protest-over-climate-change.

[7] James Smith and Meredith Bain, “UNC Systems Need to Divest Endowments,” The Blue Banner, March 24, 2019. http://thebluebanner.net/unc-systems-need-to-divest-endowments/.

[8] Kalven Committee, “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action,” http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/07/pdf/kalverpt.pdf.

[9] “UNC Asheville Commits to Environmental, Social and Governance Criteria for Portion of Endowment,” University of North Carolina Asheville, https://www.unca.edu/events-and-news/stories/unc-asheville-commits-to-environmental-social-and-governance-criteria-for-portion-of-endowment/.

[10] “UNC Asheville Commits to Environmental, Social and Governance Criteria for Portion of Endowment,” University of North Carolina Asheville, https://www.unca.edu/events-and-news/stories/unc-asheville-commits-to-environmental-social-and-governance-criteria-for-portion-of-endowment/.

[11] “UNC Asheville Commits to Environmental, Social and Governance Criteria for Portion of Endowment,” University of North Carolina Asheville, https://www.unca.edu/events-and-news/stories/unc-asheville-commits-to-environmental-social-and-governance-criteria-for-portion-of-endowment/.

[12] James Smith and Meredith Bain, “UNC Systems Need to Divest Endowments,” The Blue Banner, March 24, 2019. http://thebluebanner.net/unc-systems-need-to-divest-endowments/.

[15] Rachelle Peterson and Peter Wood, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, National Association of Scholars, 2015, p. 11. https://www.nas.org/storage/app/media/images/documents/NAS-Sustainability-Digital.pdf

[16] For the importance of viewpoint neutrality to prevent compelled speech, see collectively Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Wisconsin Sys. v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217, 229–30 (2000); Knox v. Service Employees Intern. Union, 132 S. Ct. 2277, 2288–89 (2012), and Kingstad v. State Bar of Wisconsin, 622 F.3d 708, 712–13 (7th Cir. 2010).

[17] Section 724 Endowment Fund, Chapter VII – Finances, Property, and Obligations, Chapter 100 The Code and Policies of the University, https://www.northcarolina.edu/apps/policy/index.php?section=100.1.7.

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