Jay Schalin of the Martin Center explores the controversy involving a UNC-Chapel Hill course devoted to the history of college sports.

The Raleigh News and Observer recently published a contentious exchange between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s history professor Jay Smith and vice chancellor of communications Joel Curran concerning Smith’s course “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956-Present.”

The course, History (HIST) 383, grew out of Smith’s involvement in UNC’s lengthy academic scandal as a critic of the university. He co-authored a book with Mary Willingham in 2015, entitled Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports.

After reading the current exchange between Smith and Curran, the first thought that sprang to mind was the oft-cited saw—attributed to a great variety of people, from Samuel Johnson to Henry Kissinger—that “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”

Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the squabble contains two very important issues. The first one is explicitly stated in support of the university’s case and concerns academic freedom. The second is not mentioned by either party but exposes the university’s abdication of responsibility in important curricular matters. …

… Now, it would be hard to find more persistent critics of the UNC system and UNC-Chapel Hill than the Martin Center over the years—and I have certainly been one of the more aggressive members of the Martin Center when it comes to pointing out UNC’s failures and follies. But in this case, it seems that the university’s case is quite strong.

Indeed, it almost seems as if Smith is spoiling for a controversy with which to bludgeon UNC into submission for past antagonisms that occurred during the athletic scandal. Or perhaps he is looking to induce a landmark case for academic freedom that establishes the rights of professors over the authority of the school.