When board members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill unanimously passed a resolution recently to accelerate the creation of a School of Civic Life and Leadership, some faculty members were shocked. The issue hadn’t been on the agenda or even, some professors said, on the radar — even though such initiatives are expected to be initiated and led by academics.
The resolution requested that the administration work to develop a school, with a dedicated faculty team, that would promote public discourse — an idea some conservative media quickly hailed as a way to create a safe haven of sorts for right-leaning thinkers on a campus full of leftists.
“Like many of you, I am flabbergasted,” Mimi Chapman, chair of the university faculty, said at a meeting of faculty leaders Monday, given that faculty members apparently had not been informed about the new school, much less engaged in its development. “It is deeply upsetting and unsettling.”
At a time when many are worried about culture wars and political interference in classrooms across the country, the board resolution triggered some strong reactions.
The university’s provost also told faculty leaders that he was surprised by the resolution, but sought to convince openly skeptical professors in the meeting that it had originated as a faculty idea, and was one they would shape and carry forward.
“Our vision is not about making a political statement,” Christopher Clemens, UNC’s provost, said of the proposed school that would teach public discourse, which he strongly endorses. Rather, it’s about “creating a school that will focus on preparing our students with the skills and capacities to help make democracy work better.” He said the idea had emerged from internal budget talks in December and he shared it with some stakeholders.
“We want to equip our students to open their ears, find their voices,” he said. “That is not a left issue. That is not a right issue. That is not a liberal issue. That is not a conservative issue.”
Chapman said the vast majority of faculty at UNC are already very skilled at fostering constructive dialogue among students. “To me,” she said, “this is a solution in search of a problem.”