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Did politics keep UNC BOG from reappointing outspoken professor to UNC Press Board?

Eric Muller

Eric Muller

UNC School of Law

The UNC System Board of Governors did not reappoint a distinguished law professor to the University of North Carolina Press Board of Governors last month — a move that some say is politically motivated.

UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Eric Muller said he hasn’t been told why he’s been singled out, but “would hate to think” it’s because he’s been outspoken about matters of law, race and history within the UNC System and at UNC-Chapel Hill. Muller made his comments in a public statement Monday.

Those controversial issues include “the law on removal of Confederate monuments, the abortive $2.5 million legal settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the moratorium on renaming UNC buildings, or the removal of the portrait of slave-trading judge Thomas Ruffin from the courtroom of our state’s highest court,” Muller said.

Muller said these matters are within his “expertise as a legal scholar and historian, the very stuff of the work I do as a university professor.”

UNC System officials could not be immediately reached for comment Monday afternoon.

UNC Press is a premier academic publishing organization whose mission is to advance “the research, teaching, and public service missions of a great public university by publishing excellent work from leading scholars, writers, and intellectuals and by presenting that work to both academic audiences and general readers.”

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The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. LEONARD ORTIZ KRT

Surprised and disappointed

Muller has served on UNC Press’s governing board for more than a decade and served as its chair for the past six years. He said he was surprised and disappointed that the UNC System board would not be acting on his reappointment, while two colleagues were reappointed to the board.

In his statement, Muller noted he’s proud of the improved diversity on the UNC Press Board that was achieved during his time as chair. He said it now has “the greatest racial, ethnic, and gender representation it has ever known” and includes members from previously unrepresented UNC System schools.

NC Policy Watch reported Monday that sources say the UNC System Board of Governors’ refusal to reappoint Muller is because of his “public statements on the legality of the UNC System’s controversial handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument” and UNC-CH’s mishandling of issues of race and history. The UNC System’s settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans was later overturned in court.

In May, the UNC Press Board had three vacancies for five-year terms to be filled by the UNC System Board of Governors.

UNC System President Peter Hans nominated Elizabeth Engelhardt and Linda Hanley-Bowdoin for reappointment, following the recommendation of UNC Press and UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

‘Ominous sign’

At the May 27 BOG meeting, the BOG Governance committee, headed by David Powers, approved the two nominees and the full board voted to approve their reappointment.

Muller was not included in the slate of candidates presented to the full BOG. However, he was on the list approved by UNC Press and Guskiewicz that was sent to Hans, PolicyWatch reported.

Muller said it would be an “ominous sign” if the BOG were to “single out faculty members for punishment for voicing their views on matters within their expertise and research.”

He doesn’t know if they did that, Muller said, but they never asked about his service on the Press Board or leadership as chair.

“So it’s hard to imagine a different reason,” Muller said.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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