Legislature Mandates Rapid Action On Controversial UNC School

Faculty and administrators at Carolina are grappling with a new mandate from the

North Carolina General Assembly – “because we have to,” as one said.

Today we present two reports on the “School of Civic Life and Leadership” that legislators

and trustees are pushing.

In the 1,400-page state budget passed last month, the legislature inserted a provision that:

  • Appropriates $4 million for the school.
  • Requires that 10-20 faculty members be hired from outside the university.
  • Requires that a dean be hired by the end of this year.

The Coalition for Carolina has expressed our concern about political interference

that can damage the University’s reputation for academic excellence.

We’ll be watching what happens with the school. We’ll keep you posted.

While presenting both reports makes for a longer than desired newsletter, we’re including both posts to conveniently give you the full perspective. 

Goldstein: Lemons to lemonade – The UNC School of Civic Life

(This was originally posted by Higher Ed Works on October 19, 2023)

By Buck Goldstein

CHAPEL HILL (October 19, 2023) – I’ve attended many faculty meetings at UNC Chapel Hill over the last 20 years. I assumed I had heard everything.

Between the athletics controversies, the removal of Silent Sam, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure application and now the School of Civic Life and Leadership, the faculty seems to have touched all the bases. The meetings are characterized by challenging questions, off-the-wall reactions, and carefully lawyered statements.

But on October 6, I got an unexpected surprise. Jim White, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, was concluding a status review of the new School of Civic Life and Leadership when an obviously angry faculty member asked, “Why are we even doing this?”

White paused for fully five seconds.

Then he looked up and said, “Because we have to.”

The response was deafening silence. White’s candid, clear, and transparent response was so powerful there was nothing else to say.

THE BACKSTORY to this jawdropping moment of candor began when the UNC Board of Trustees –  without any consultation with the faculty or the Chancellor – announced the creation of a School of Civic Life. Members of the Board followed up with a series of media interviews that humiliated the Chancellor and the faculty, ignoring the basic norms of shared governance.

The Trustees made no attempt to hide their objective. They intend to hire conservative professors to balance out their perception that UNC students are being brainwashed by liberal faculty. To top it off, the North Carolina legislature chose to get into the weeds and included in the new state budget instructions on the number of faculty to be hired, the administrative structure, and a timetable for implementation, among other details.1

As it turns out, while legislators were tinkering with matters they knew little or nothing about, UNC faculty and administrators concluded they could turn the lemons they were handed into lemonade.

CHANCELLOR KEVIN Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens decided at the outset that the new School would be housed in the College of Arts & Sciences and its leader would report to the Dean of the College.

Dean White then convened a group of faculty thought leaders and told them the new School must be faculty-led and built to last beyond the current political climate.

They responded by defining the school as: (1) providing a home specifically for the study and practice of public discourse, civic life and civic leadership; (2) providing an intellectual grounding in democracy and the American political experience; and (3) serving to support conversations and research on these topics.

The day before Dean White’s presentation to the faculty, he named an acting director of the new School and nine distinguished professors who will begin teaching classes in the spring. They include:

  • A history professor who writes for both academia and The New York Times on religion;
  • A music professor who receives funding from the State Department to bring American hip-hop artists to Africa;
  • A philosopher who studies the ethics of artificial intelligence; and
  • A communication studies professor who advises Republican political campaigns.

Sadly, the inaugural faculty does not include any professors of color. It has been reported that none applied or agreed to be nominated.2

At the end of his presentation, Dean White stressed that by adhering to basic university processes and norms, the new School will be built to last. By attracting distinguished professors who are also great teachers, the School will appeal to a broad range of students. Embedded in the College of Arts & Sciences, the School has been embraced by professors from the disciplines that are foundational to a liberal education and therefore will be perceived as a serious endeavor.

Hopefully the hard work to make the new School a reality will be recognized for what it is – a goodfaith effort to embrace what began as a declaration of war with the faculty – and turn it into something worthy of the nation’s first public university.

This good faith was demonstrated by the new acting Director, Sarah Treul Roberts, who told a reporter: “This is an amazing opportunity, as a faculty member, to get to build something and develop an entire new school from more or less scratch. It’s one of those opportunities that I think there will be ample interest in across all viewpoints, across all backgrounds, across all ideologies.”3

At the end of Dean White’s presentation, someone asked, “Do you think you will be able to pull this off without interference?”

His answer: “I certainly hope so.”

Buck Goldstein, a Professor of the Practice in the School of Education and University Entrepreneur in Residence at UNC Chapel Hill, retired from the faculty June 30.

1 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/House/PDF/H259v7.pdf, pp. 161-162.
2 https://ncnewsline.com/2023/10/12/unc-chapel-hills-controversial-new-school-moves-forward-with-new-faculty/.
3 Ibid.

The uncivil origins of the School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC

(This was originally posted by NC Newsline on October 19, 2023)


Civil discourse in a democratic society must entail more than a polite exchange of views. It must also entail honesty, freedom from coercion, and commitment to rules that all participants understand and agree to, and which are not subject to unilateral change by one party seeking advantage.

Ironically, all of these characteristics have largely been absent from the process through which UNC-Chapel Hill’s new School of Civic Life and Leadership has been created. The very process through which the school has come about was both undemocratic and contrary to basic principles of civil discourse.

The new school was swathed in dishonesty from the start. As far back as 2017, the UNC system Board of Governors, a group consisting mainly of Republican political appointees, began entertaining the idea of creating a “conservative center”—to use UNC Provost Chris Clemens’s words—to offset a perceived liberal bias among UNC faculty.

In 2017, the board invited Princeton University professor Robert “Robby” George, described by New York Times Magazine as America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker,” to talk about the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions that George had founded at Princeton.

Professor George advised against creating a program that might look like no more than a safe space for conservative snowflakes. Better to promote such a program, George suggested, as aimed at “expanding the range of viewpoints” on campus. But this language was a bit of public relations legerdemain, as George surely knew.

Two of the principal funders of George’s James Madison Program, the ultraconservative John M. Olin Foundation and the equally far-right Bradley Foundation, knew what they were getting for their money: a conservative beachhead in academia from which to wage battle against liberal ideas. 

But right-wing ideological warriors knew that a frontal assault would provoke stronger opposition. James Piereson, executive director of the Olin Foundation, advised a strategy of depicting these conservative outposts as benign efforts to add new voices and criticize reigning orthodoxies. Piereson went on to say that the best infiltration strategy is to co-opt a handful of sympathetic faculty members to push proposals from the inside, using claims of academic freedom to fend off objections from other faculty.    

Talk of balance and “expanding the range of viewpoints” was thus always rhetorical camouflage, not an honest description of what was afoot—at Princeton, at other universities around the country, and later at UNC-Chapel Hill. This language, however, does more than mask its users’ true intent. It also distorts the conversation by seeking to compel agreement about the dubious claim that there exists a lack of balance or viewpoint diversity in academia. Anyone who rejects this claim enters the conversation on the back foot and must do extra work to show that what others presume to be true is not.  

Of course, the point was never to have an open-ended discussion of what was really going on in the university, as was demonstrated time and again when UNC faculty politely argued that the conservative framing of the situation was inaccurate—and were ignored. The point was to promote conservative ideology against imagined liberal foes, and to minimize resistance by using dishonest and manipulative language.  

Dishonesty continued to blot the process of creating the school. When the UNC Board of Trustees passed a resolution in January 2023—much to the surprise and consternation of UNC faculty and administrators—directing UNC administrators to get busy creating the new school, the trustees’ defense of the proposal used the language of “promoting democracy” and “building skills in public discourse.” But this was just more smoke blown in faculty faces, though clearly a few were willing to inhale

A little over two months earlier, at the board’s fall 2022 retreat, trustees were tutored by Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA touts itself as non-partisan and committed to supporting liberal arts education, upholding high academic standards, and safeguarding the free exchange of ideas on campus. Again the language is tuned to charm academics.

But ACTA, like the James Madison Program, is funded by the same group of right-wing donors—the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Koch Foundation, among others—whose true interests are economic. The freedom they’re seeking is to create academic spaces in which to promote free-market fundamentalism, small government, privatization, and lower taxes on corporations and the rich. They also hope to obscure their own efforts to undermine public discourse in U.S. society. 

To these economic actors, democracy matters only in as much as it threatens their power. One way to manage this threat is to create islands in universities, under the guise of championing viewpoint diversity, to help train conservative intellectuals—or at least inoculate students against critiques of corporate capitalism and free-market ideology. ACTA’s role in the process is to encourage trustees to aggressively pursue the curricular changes necessary to make this happen. After the UNC trustees passed the resolution that fast-tracked the School of Civic Life and Leadership, ACTA proudly took credit for inspiring it. 

A glimmer of truth shone through the cracks shortly after the resolution was passed. David Boliek, chair of the UNC Board of Trustees, told Fox News that there is “no shortage of left-of-center, progressive views” on the UNC campus and that the School of Civic Life and Leadership “is an effort to remedy that.” As if that wasn’t enough to give away the ruse, Boliek and trustees vice-chair John Preyer boasted to the Wall Street Journal that the new school would end “political constraints on what can be taught in university classes.” A subsequent WSJ editorial lauded the victory. 

Sadly, though not surprisingly, well-paid administrators at UNC have joined in gaslighting the faculty. In an email announcing nine faculty appointments to the new school, Jim White, dean of UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, described the creation of the school as a “faculty-driven process.” Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Faculty balked from the start, for the obvious reason that courses, curricula, and degree programs are the proper domain of subject-matter experts—faculty—not political appointees. As former UNC chancellor Holden Thorp said when asked to comment: “The board doesn’t have the ability to propose a class, to propose a degree, or—for God’s sake—to propose a school.” A true conservative, with due respect for the traditional governance structures of academia, would know that Thorp is right.     

So what rule of civil discourse can be inferred from how the UNC Board of Governors, the UNC Board of Trustees, and UNC administrators have behaved in this affair? Perhaps the rule is this: the powerless shall listen civilly when those who have captured the reins of the state proclaim that black is white, up is down, day is night. 

That’s actually an old rule, one that dominant groups have often used to discredit angry complaints from below. “Not that we’re going to do anything differently,” the subtext goes, “but if y’all aren’t going to be polite when you complain, we won’t let you speak at all.” Thus is the exercise of power covered with a veneer of civility. 

We might ask why university professors, hardly an oppressed group by historical standards, don’t react more militantly when they’re being snowed. One answer is that faculty, by virtue of training and inclination, retain a touching faith in genuine civil discourse—a belief that reason, evidence, and respectful argument will prevail. And so faculty participate politely, misled by a façade of civility into believing that what they say will make a difference. 

Not all faculty are so naïve, of course; and even those who might appear naive know that, vis-à-vis legislators, boards of governors, trustees, and administrators, they are not participating in a process of civil dialogue as equals. Which is to say, they are participating in a process under conditions that make real civil discourse impossible.  

Why? Because one side—in this case, the side of right-wing legislators and their minions—can coerce the other into agreement. One side controls the purse strings; one side is backed by the state; one side can materially hurt the other in myriad ways. This isn’t paranoia; it’s simply a recognition of how the system works. Faculty at UNC who watched the Board of Governors shut down the UNC Center on Work, Poverty, and Opportunity and prohibit the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating for civil rights know full well how things can play out when push comes to shove. 

Under these conditions of inequality between participants in a supposed process of civil discourse, an open sharing of views is not possible; reason can always be trumped by power; and demands by the powerful for civility amount to demands that the less powerful graciously accept their subordination. 

Earlier I mentioned a third condition necessary for civil discourse to occur: commitment to rules that all participants understand and agree to, and which are not subject to unilateral change by one party seeking advantage. As soon as the trustees stepped out of their lane and ordered the creation of courses, curricula, and a whole school, this rule was violated, as Holden Thorp pointedly noted. That’s why some faculty reported being “flabbergasted” by the trustees’ resolution.  

The party seeking advantage, in this case an ideologically-driven faction seeking to weaponize higher education in North Carolina, changed long-established rules in midstream, leaving faculty and some equally baffled administrators looking around and wondering what had happened. A few months later, Republican legislators cemented the victory by inserting funding for the new school into the state budget. By the time faculty realized they had brought a wiffle bat to a hardball game, the game was over. 

To call it “ironic” that a school supposedly dedicated to civic discourse has come about through an uncivil process is perhaps too nice. Irony, after all, can arise when bad luck perverts good intentions. But that’s not the case here. The intentions all along were to misrepresent what was being created and to use institutional power, not the force of honest, principled argument, to override objections. What this shows, yet again, are the limits of reason in the face of power and the need, sometimes, for impolite disruption. 

Stop the Dangerous Sneak Attacks on UNC Accreditation

Dr. Jerry Lucido from Coalition for Carolina’s Accreditation Webinar

With no notice and no debate, the North Carolina General Assembly pushed through a controversial change that will hurt Carolina.

Higher Ed Works recently reported that “as most of North Carolina [were] sifting through 1,400 pages of a new, $30 billion state budget, Sen. Michael Lee slipped a provision from an unrelated bill into HB8 to require North Carolina colleges and universities to change accrediting agencies every cycle.” (Follow this link to read more.)

This is alarming, concerning, and requires outreach to legislators and the governor to stop it.

In the above video, Dr. Jerry Lucido describes how the NC legislature’s attempt to force an accreditor change on UNC System Schools would be extremely damaging to Carolina and others.

The move appears to be a continuation of NC Senate efforts to push an extremely costly, unnecessary, and burdensome change to the accreditation process on all UNC system schools and such a move could put Carolina’s accreditation at risk.

In May of this year, the Coalition held a webinar to explain the dangers of such a move.  Please follow this link to access the recording from our accreditation webinar.  During that webinar experts explained the dangers of forcing this change–along with the pros of staying with the current accreditor.  Additionally, Dr. Holden Thorp explained what might be motivating the NC Senate to make such a dangerous move.  Here is a clip of that explanation.

Dr. Holden Thorp from Coalition for Carolina Accreditation Webinar

What can you do to stop this dangerous, extreme, political and costly action? 

Contact Governor Cooper if you do not support the accreditation change requirement in House Bill 8 and ask him to veto House Bill 8 (HB8) where Senator Lee snuck in this requirement.

Contact legislators if you do not support the accreditation change requirement in HB8 and let them know that you would like any veto to be sustained.

 Here is a link to help you find your legislators.