UNC faculty, student leaders caught off guard as Trustees announce new School of Civic Life

Michael Perchick Image
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
UNC faculty caught off guard as new School of Civic Life announced
The School of Civic Life and Leadership is intended to provide equal opportunity for political and social views to be taught at the university. the Board Chair said.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is garnering national attention over a vote last week from its Board of Trustees to develop the School of Civic Life and Leadership.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal published just hours after the vote, Board Chair David Boliek and Vice Chair John Preyer, are quoted as stating the idea was to end "political constraints on what can be taught in university classes."

Boliek further delved into the topic during an appearance on Fox and Friends, saying during an interview:

"We clearly have a world-class faculty that exists and teaches students and creates leaders of the future. We however have no shortage of left-of-center, progressive views on our campus, like many campuses across the nation. But the same really can't be said about right-of-center views. So this is an effort to really remedy that with the School of Civic Life and Leadership, which will provide equal opportunity for both views to be taught at the university."

However, current student and faculty leaders expressed they were excluded from any conversations about the plans.

"I had not known anything about it prior to last Thursday when the (Board of Trustees) passed this resolution, and to my knowledge, no other faculty members had been briefed on this either," said UNC Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman.

Sam Robinson, a junior, who serves as Student Body Undergraduate Vice President, added. "Shared governance and the idea that our students and our faculty have a hand in decisions that get made here is essential, and it's essential to our campus culture. But our faculty has the final say on proposed curriculum, schools, and those ideas. So the fact that our faculty was not consulted before this resolution was put forward and passed is concerning."

Both Chapman and Robinson had questions about the decision-making process, as well as alternate voices in the conversation.

"You want to be at a place where you feel like you can have an influence in the organization and your voice is valued," Chapman said, when asked about the potential it could negatively affect faculty recruitment efforts.

"Unfortunately I think, this is another example of the trust in the trustees being broken. Right alongside Nikole Hannah-Jones, right alongside Silent Sam, right alongside a number of these other concerns," added Robinson.

The resolution cited a goal of adding 20 faculty members for the School of Civic Life and Leadership, though lacked specific details regarding timeline, administrative oversight, and scheduling; Robinson cited financial considerations as the university addresses other budgetary requirements.

"If we're talking about an intersectional kind of program, like the PPE Department, which is Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and it's housed within the College of Arts and Sciences, that's a very different situation than a totally separate school outside the college. That encompasses massive salaries for deans, (a) number of administrators, space concerns, the office concerns, so on and so forth," said Robinson.

In a university-wide email a day following the vote, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote in part:

"Any proposed degree program or school will be developed and led by our faculty, deans, and provost. Our faculty are the marketplace of ideas and they will build the curriculum and determine who will teach it, just as they determined the capacities laid out in our new IDEAs in Action Curriculum. I will be working with our faculty to study the feasibility of such a school and the ways we can most effectively accomplish our goal of promoting democracy in our world today."

"The Board (of Trustees) has one job. They're supposed to decide who the leader of the organization is, and then they're supposed to do everything they can to support that person. They did not do the latter in this case," added former Chancellor Holden Thorp.

Thorp, an alum who served as Chancellor from July 2008 to June 2013, has been publicly critical of the vote.

"The policies of the Trustees of the University of North Carolina say that the faculty have to propose classes, and have to propose faculty hires and vote on faculty hires and that the Board then approves those, not the other way around. So the fact that the Board is not following its own policies is always a sign that there's trouble," Thorp explained, and he added that he could not recall one instance during his tenure in which he was not informed of a vote prior to it taking place.

In a statement to ABC11, Boliek wrote:

"The resolution reflects our support of the continued development of a program that would teach our students how to engage in civil discourse, debate and public speaking, which are all vital skills for students regardless of their chosen profession. This need has been in discussions for a while and will build on the great work already happening around campus, especially in the Program for Public Discourse, and it will accelerate this important part of the IDEAS in Action general curriculum."

Some are embracing the new developments as a victory for freer speech.

"The skills and the ideas we're talking about aren't just political science. They're also communication skills, they're in some ways history and civics," said Jenna Robinson, a UNC graduate school alum and President of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

She applauded the proposal, saying she believed it would lead to more open dialogue on campus.

"It is explicitly going to be committed to an unfettered free expression and open inquiry, which we don't see culturally across the institution. Students say that they self-censor, that they are intimidated by saying things in front of their peers," she said.

She echoed Boliek's assertion regarding a dominant presence of left-leaning faculty across the campus.

"If fills a real need at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I think from what I've heard so far, it's going to be a positive development and a really good outgrowth for the Program for Public Discourse," she said.

The resolution comes amidst a growing national debate about representation in higher education.

"Is this really a problem or is it something that's just being invented for political purposes? It's certainly the case right now that it's a very useful political talking point for Republicans to mock and try to undermine what they see as the woke ideology of higher education," Thorp said; Sam Robinson also pushed back over widespread concerns regarding open political discussion on-campus, citing personal experience.

The Board of Trustees is comprised of 13 members - eight of which are elected by the UNC Board of Governors, four of which are appointed by the State Legislature, and the student body president, ex officio.