Local & State Voices

Faculty: The problem with a conservative new UNC program

From a fundraising brochure for the new Program in Civic Virtue & Civil Discourse at UNC Chapel Hill.
From a fundraising brochure for the new Program in Civic Virtue & Civil Discourse at UNC Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina

As a recent editorial made clear, administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill have been developing a program in “Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse.” Planning documents obtained through a recent Freedom of Information Act request reveal the agenda behind this innocuous-sounding title. The initiative came from the Board of Governors — the same Board that closed the Law School’s Poverty Center and undercut the mission of its Center for Civil Rights.

In 2017 the BOG hosted a lecture by Robert George, the prominent conservative who founded a program on “American Ideals and Institutions” at Princeton. Members of the BOG had already contacted leaders at Chapel Hill about creating a similar program at UNC. When administrator Chris Clemens was assigned to pilot UNC’s Program, he immediately reached out to George. In an email, Clemens expressed excitement about “our administration’s interest in housing a conservative center on campus.” Clemens remained in close contact, eventually persuading George (with a nine-month $20,000 stipend) to chair UNC’s advisory board. Clemens also recruited Paul Carrese to join up; he directs Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought, a lawmaker-ordered conservative institution.

The board also includes UNC BOG and Board of Trustees members as well as Harvard academics Jacqueline Rivers and Cornel West. A handful of UNC faculty were invited to join. This group set about planning a program to address UNC’s alleged “impoverishment” due, as an early fundraising document puts it, to a dominance of “liberal voices.”

What’s the problem? One is the replication of existing courses. Program leaders want to influence UNC’s new General Education curriculum, directing attention to “the classical and Enlightenment thought of America’s founders and leading statesmen,” “our system of governance and its mechanisms,” and the “historical and philosophical foundations on which it was built.” But Plato, Aristotle, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, Tocqueville—all identified as favorites of the program—are prominent in scores of courses at UNC-CH. Why pay $350,000 a year to a faculty director, and launch a $11.2 million fundraising campaign, in pursuit of redundancy? The duplication is an insult to faculty and staff whose salaries have stagnated for a decade.

Then there’s the lack of transparency around the program’s development. When faculty submitted a FOIA request asking who provided the seed money, they were blocked on grounds that the university’s fundraising arm is private. Faculty asked to attend the program’s advisory board meetings in August but were told it was closed to “outsiders.” UNC faculty are “outsiders” to curricular discussions? This stance violates the bedrock American Association of University Professors principle — and UNC-Chapel Hill policies—that faculty must control curricula.

Administrators worked in secret because the ideas behind the program were incubated far away from faculty.The program’s leaders will influence UNC’s curriculum by recruiting internal faculty to develop new courses that “share a common purpose with Program goals.” Robert George, according to a dean’s appointment letter, will help recruit and hire the faculty director in a “nation-wide search.” UNC also aspires to hire other faculty to teach courses that will advance “Program goals.” Departmental hiring priorities will thus be ignored in favor of a plan initiated by administrators.

UNC faculty do not need external faculty or BOG and BOT members telling us what to teach or how to shape our campus culture. If they understand that our faculty must control our curricula, administrators will remove outsiders from this program’s board. Then faculty could organize a campus-wide discussion about curricular needs in Arts & Sciences and the intellectual climate at UNC. That won’t cost a cent.

Jay M. Smith is Professor of History. Karen M. Booth is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies. They wrote this on behalf of 85 UNC faculty who signed a letter of support supplied to the editorial board.