What Is Up with North Carolina?

By March 8, 2005

The recent injunction against UNC is only the latest development in a state that seems downright uncomfortable with basic freedoms. As I have often said on Viewpoints, a radio show in North Carolina on which I have frequently been a guest, North Carolina is a place where students and faculty are punished in violation of basic moral and legal principles right, left, and center.

The case of Gale Isaacs at Shaw University is one of the most dramatic examples I have seen of non-political repression at a college. As we wrote in our press release in February 2003:

At Shaw University during fall 2002, Gale Isaacs, long-time professor and chair of the Allied Health Department, was fired for co-authoring a faculty resolution that criticized the University’s president and Board of Trustees. President Talbert O. Shaw personally fired her for “faithlessness [and] disloyalty.” She had worked at the University for nineteen years. Four days later, Shaniqua Bizzell, a student who was preparing to graduate within a month, read aloud and distributed Professor Isaacs’ resolution in the student center. President Shaw summoned her to his office and expelled her without a hearing. Several days later, she received a letter from Vice President for Student Affairs Vaughan Witten that found her guilty of “causing damage to the reputation of those falsely exposed to the scurrilous accusations.” Although the letter rescinded the indefensible expulsion, she was given several days to “move out of housing.” Ms. Bizzell has secured legal counsel and is pursuing a case against Shaw University.

Seeing a letter signed by a university president that essentially said “criticism of my administration will not be tolerated” was one of the more exceptional moments of my career.

In 2004, FIRE announced another remarkable case in North Carolina, this time involving lefty speech:

Forsyth Technical Community College (FTCC) writing instructor Elizabeth Ito has been dismissed for taking a brief part of her class to discuss the war in Iraq. Ito criticized the Iraq war in a writing class on March 28, 2003, while the ground invasion was still underway. Her remarks, which later served as the basis for a writing assignment, lasted only ten minutes, but as a result administrators at the college decided not to renew her contract. FTCC President Gary Green subsequently ignored a request from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent on Ito’s behalf, for an explanation of the college’s actions.

In 2001, Professor Mike Adams, a friend of FIRE’s and an outspoken critic of higher education, was at the center of another controversy involving free speech:

In October, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNC-W) ordered the opening and examination of the private letters of a UNC-W professor’s email account. It is a remarkable story of abusive authority and hypocrisy. Four days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, a student sent the professor, and others, an email that blamed the United States for the attacks. She asked recipients to forward it to those interested in further “open” discussion. When the professor responded with criticism of her opinions, and when others to whom he forwarded her email responded with forceful criticism, the student demanded that the University grant her access to the professor’s private emails so that she could sue him. Although UNC-W’s own legal counsel twice acknowledged that the student’s claims are entirely without legal merit, the administration has nevertheless capitulated to her irrational demands and examined the professor’s private correspondence.

Add these to numerous cases I am familiar with that FIRE has not taken public as well as both of the cases at UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the most troubled states FIRE has dealt with.

I have wondered about what is going on in NC to cause so many abuses. Attorneys in the know in NC have told me it easier for colleges and universities to get away with punishing professors because employment law in the state overwhelmingly disfavors employees. But this legal explanation is not sufficient to explain many of the cases I have seen in NC. From my friends who live there I suspect that, possibly because of large demographic shifts in North Carolina, the state may be undergoing a mini-culture war all of its own. But this is only a guess. Could readers from North Carolina help me understand what is up with North Carolina? Seriously, I would really like to hear what you think.

Schools: Shaw University University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill