Partisans and progressives who fear open, civil debate and free inquiry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have misstated the origin of its proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership — a misrepresentation the press has done far too little to correct.
Let’s set the record straight: The UNC-CH Board of Trustees, of which I am a member, did not introduce the idea for the school — the university’s faculty and administration did, over several years. Afterward, our trustees endorsed the idea and urged its acceleration.
The ensuing uproar among some faculty, partisan activists and numerous media commentators has obscured the origin of the proposed program, perhaps to avoid discussing its merits.
The true timeline
As university administrators explained during our last trustee meeting and at a subsequent meeting of the Faculty Council, both of which were public, the proposed new school is an outgrowth of the university’s Program for Public Discourse and its IDEAs in Action curriculum, which themselves arose from campus discussions dating to 2017. Their aims are to promote open, civil debate on campus and to equip students for success in our diverse nation and world.
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The Program for Public Discourse was presented to the faculty several years ago, after senior administrators reviewed similar programs at Arizona State University and Princeton University. The Faculty Council discussed the proposal twice, in September and October of 2019, and voted in favor of it both times.
The program is known for its speaker series, but it was always envisioned to include a curricular component to promote free and open democracy. The faculty discussed the concept, and how their teaching experiences might contribute to it, in three roundtables in the fall of 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic soon intervened, and the curriculum’s exploration was put on hold. Last fall, Jim White, the university’s new dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, requested funds that would finally move the full program forward as originally envisioned.
In December, university administrators prepared a draft state budget request for the proposed new school and an outline of its curricular components. They shared their budget memo with trustees, since part of our role is to advocate for greater university funding.
A month later, our bipartisan board endorsed the concept without objection and urged the administration to work with the faculty to accelerate long-awaited plans for the school. Anxious opponents are exploiting a false narrative to try to smother the civic-curriculum baby in its crib.
Trustees’ legal authority
The university belongs to all the people of North Carolina, not just to a few dozen faculty leaders or outside interest groups. Our state Constitution directs the elected General Assembly to provide higher education to the state’s citizens. The legislature established a Board of Governors to supervise the statewide university system and empowered boards of trustees to oversee individual campuses, including ours.
By law, campus trustees are to “serve as advisor(s) to the chancellor concerning the management and development of the institution.” The chancellor, in turn, “shall be responsible for carrying out policies of the Board of Governors and of the board of trustees.” The chancellor also is charged with recommending educational programs and personnel, again subject to BOG and BOT policies.
And at the campus level, we trustees help shape and approve our university’s annual budget.
Each of these facts makes it entirely appropriate for our board of trustees to have endorsed and urged the acceleration of a program, six years in the making, as proposed by the university’s administration and already approved by its faculty.
Recently, the Faculty Council reversed its two former votes in favor of the program, insisting that only it should consider such an idea, as if its multiple discussions and support of the program in 2019 had never occurred. But of course, as university administrators have said publicly, the PPD faculty, not we trustees, will develop and implement the program’s details.
What faculty leaders want, it seems, is not shared governance of the university after all, although the faculty already have that. Instead, they want total control of a major public asset that belongs to North Carolina’s almost 11 million diverse people. That’s unreasonable — and contrary to law.
The fury with which partisan progressives have torched a modest, worthy and long-overdue proposal to allow a diversity of viewpoints on campus and to teach students vital communication skills for our complex world shows why the program is so badly needed.