The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will work to develop a School of Civic Life and Leadership to teach students in an age of cancel culture and censorship how to develop the knowledge and skills needed to advance and support a healthy democracy.
The Board of Trustees voted 12-0 on Thursday to support the creation of the school, with Chair David Boliek stating prior to the vote the school would ideally embed within the campus community an environment in which to learn from one another rather than to see each other as “foes to vanquish.”
“The curriculum would be anchored in the study of core texts with particular attention to the foundations of the American experiment and all that comes with it,” Boliek said. “…The school would create the space for free speech [and] a culture of civil and open inquiry.”
Boliek said UNC Chapel Hill, the nation’s oldest state university, is “leading by example” by establishing the school, which he hopes will also teach students key virtues such as “intellectual humility, curiosity, charity and self-criticism as they seek the truth about the fundamental questions of political life, economics, ethics, religions and aesthetics.”
The trustee resolution stated the school would likely start with about 20 dedicated faculty members as well as various degree opportunities for undergrads.
Funding could come from a variety of possible sources, including state coffers, tuition support, grants and private donors, said W. M. “Marty” Kotis, a UNC Chapel Hill trustee, in a telephone interview Friday with The College Fix.
“One of the most critical things facing our society as a whole and the university is the concept of having a civil dialogue with each other,” Kotis said.
“What we are trying to do is embrace the fundamental concepts of the university, which is the exchange of ideas, and you can’t do that if you’re yelling and screaming at each other,” he said. “You need to be able to take the time to have that dialogue and understand there’s various perspectives out there; that’s the whole point of learning, not just to be in a bubble, but explore outside that bubble.”
Kotis said establishing the school is the natural progression to build on the success of the university’s already established Program for Public Discourse.
Onlookers praise decision to form school
The decision to launch the school was praised Thursday in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, which said campus leaders are willing to take on the “university echo chamber.”
The Journal editorial cited College Fix reporting from last fall which found Democratic professors outnumber Republican ones at UNC Chapel Hill by a ratio of 16 to 1 across 14 different humanities and STEM departments.
“Most Americans have read about professors denied tenure for their political views or visiting speakers shouted down,” the editorial stated. “Students too often feel obliged to self-censor for social as well as academic reasons, and those who do speak know they can face harassment on social media as well as disciplinary action for words that offend dominant political sensibilities.”
One university is trying to revive the academic ideal of a campus as a haven for free inquiry and debate. https://t.co/6VNS9mhSEP
— Wall Street Journal Opinion (@WSJopinion) January 27, 2023
But at UNC, its leaders are working to change that, said Jenna Robinson, president of the North Carolina-based James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
In August, she praised trustees for approving two sweeping free speech and academic freedom resolutions, arguing in a piece for her think tank that “UNC-Chapel Hill now has some of the best free-speech policies in the nation.”
The latest decision to launch the school just builds on that momentum, she told The College Fix via email Friday.
“With the creation of the school of Civic Life and Leadership, the UNC Board of Trustees has once again demonstrated its commitment to free expression, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity,” Robinson said. “Once it’s established, I hope it can be a model for reform in public higher education.”
Some concerns loom
Some observers remain only cautiously optimistic.
“On its face, the UNC School of Civic Life and Leadership seems like a great idea, and I applaud the university’s Board of Trustees for taking this bold action to keep the spirit of inquiry alive on the UNC campus. But I have a few concerns,” said Jay Schalin, a higher education policy expert for the Martin Center, in an email Friday to The College Fix.
“There’s the old saw: ‘personnel is policy.’ Unless the key people in the new school are ardent supporters of open inquiry—who will stand firm in the face of opposition—it may gradually slide into being just another left-leaning academic unit on a campus that is already dominated by the left,” he said.
“This goes for future generations of the school’s leaders as well; too often, the initial appointments are great, but later ones fall into ‘business as usual’ mode and the original intent is defeated.”
Another higher education watchdog who weighed in on the development with hedged optimism is San Diego State University emeritus Professor Stuart Hurlbert.
“The new school seems likely to spark a ‘resist’ movement in a large portion of the ‘left’ side of campus, and at least temporarily lead to increased political frictions,” he said via email.
“Proponents of the new school will need to have their ducks well lined up, be strategic, and define the new school as a ‘classical liberal,’ not ‘progressive,’ entity, if it needs a label at all.”
IMAGE: Eugene B / Wikimedia Commons