Once again, some members of the UNC Board of Trustees aren’t shooting straight with the University community.
This time, it’s about origins of the ideologically driven “School of Civic Life and Leadership” that the trustees rammed through – with the support of politicians in the state legislature – without informing and adequately consulting the University’s faculty and administration.
Trustee Perrin W. Jones from Greenville has twice written articles, the latest on May 22, claiming that the idea for the new school “goes back years—and has involved faculty input from the beginning.” (Link below.)
That is what Abraham Lincoln once called “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse.”
Here is what really happened.
Beginning in 2017, then-Chancellor Carol Folt and others at the University initiated discussions about a proposed “Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse.”
But early conversations suggested that the goal was to create a new, donor-funded center that would explicitly embrace political, right wing ideas. Many faculty members strongly and vocally opposed that.
In 2019, Interim Dean Terry Ellen Rhodes announced the establishment of the Program for Public Discourse in the College of Arts & Sciences, to bring in various speakers and offer students a forum for debate.
Some faculty members still had questions and concerns, and a resolution to delay implementation of the program was presented to the Faculty Council.
The resolution failed, but that vote certainly didn’t represent faculty endorsement of the program. And the faculty clearly never endorsed creating a course-offering, degree-granting entity like the School of Civic Life and Leadership.
It certainly isn’t right to claim that what the faculty did then is an endorsement of what the trustees are doing now.
David Boliek, chair of the trustees, made clear the political purpose of the School of Civic Life and Leadership when he was interviewed on Fox News in February, introduced as someone “who helped create the school.”
He acknowledged “we have world-class faculty” at Carolina, but added, “We however have no shortage of left-of-center or progressive views on 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 try to remedy that.”
Now, legislators want to spend $2 million in taxpayer money on the school in each of the next two years – to promote “right-of-center” viewpoints.
Trustees and legislators shouldn’t be creating new degree programs and deciding what is taught at public universities like UNC, especially if the motivation is purely political. Whatever motivated the board of trustees, the process they deployed wound up shutting out the faculty and administration.
Further, we don’t know if a Faculty and Administration designed and implemented School of Civic Life and Leadership is a good idea or not. Certainly, if its purpose is to promote a particular political agenda and viewpoint it is not.
Faculty members are reliable, professional and have been proven leaders for decades. That is a major reason that Carolina is great. Any new program must include the faculty and administration from the beginning.
That didn’t happen here.
No “specious and fantastic arrangement of words” can prove this horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse.
The bill to force an accreditation change is now moving through the NC House. Please contact your NC House Representatives and let them know whether you want to force this dangerous and costly process of continuous disruption in the accrediting process on North Carolina colleges. Here is the link to who the house representatives are: https://www.ncleg.gov/Members/MemberList/H Please copy and paste this link into your browser.
It will only take you one hour to view the recording, but if you want to get a sense of what was discussed, Joe Killian does an excellent job summarizing the discussion in a piece published in NC Newsline. Here is an excerpt of what Killian writes:
“A bill that would compel UNC System universities and community colleges to change accreditors flew under the radar in the recent flurry of higher education legislation at the General Assembly. But as Senate Bill 680 clears legislative hurdles on the way to becoming law, the public should pay attention to the “in the weeds” issue of accreditation, a panel of experts said Wednesday.
Accreditation has become a hot-button issue among conservative lawmakers and their political appointees. But the potential harms of making seismic changes to the long-established process are important to understand, the experts agreed.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think anybody’s paid much attention to it,” said Sallie Shuping-Russell, a former member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, of the bill during the Wednesday panel organized by the non-profit Coalition for Carolina.
“Who the heck understands accreditation?” she said.But the issue is “really vitally important,” said Shuping-Russell, who also served two years as a public representative on the board of
In the 18 months since the Coalition for Carolina was formed, more than 22,000 people have joined our email and social media networks.
We are alumni, friends, family, faculty, students, staff and supporters of the University. Many of us live in North Carolina, and others live in Utah, Maine, Florida, New York, other states, and overseas.
When I had the honor of serving on the Board of Trustees (2003-2011), trustees put party, politics and personalities aside. We put the University first. Times certainly have changed.
I feel compelled to correct statements Marty made that aren’t true. Marty said I am a Democrat. No, I have been a registered unaffiliated voter for a number of years.
He said our coalition is a partisan vehicle. No, we are Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
He said the University, its administration and former trustees mismanaged finances and failed students and the State of North Carolina. No, that is demonstrably false.
He is correct that when I was a trustee and board chair (2007-2009), Carolina faced severe budget challenges. That’s because the legislature imposed draconian budget cuts on all universities after the 2008 recession. We overcame that challenge.Carolina became one of the nation’s top five university recipients of federal research dollars, $2 billion in revenues. We attracted faculty members who do groundbreaking research that fights AIDS, Covid, genetic diseases like Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and other diseases.
We worked across party lines to secure permanent funding for the Lineberger Cancer Center, which has saved countless lives of North Carolinians and their families. We funded the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), which brings together researchers, government, and industry to develop and deploy advanced technologies that enable research discoveries and practical innovations.
Applications for admission to UNC have soared in the last two decades. Over 57,000 students applied for 4,800 slots in the Class of 2026. These students and their parents don’t think Carolina is failing.
The bipartisanship – truly, the nonpartisanship – behind that success is jeopardized by partisan attacks like Marty’s.
His is part of a national pattern of far-right political attacks on public universities, led by Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida, Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Greg Abbott of Texas. Marty’s essay ran in the North State Journal, a conservative publication with close ties to the public relations firm that he and the trustees hired, apparently to attack our Coalition.
They won’t stop us from shining a light on what several of the current trustees are doing. Instead of supporting and advancing the University, they are sowing disruption and disrespect.
Before we tell you what happened, let’s review what a college accreditor is and, specifically, who SACSCOC is and what their relationship is to Carolina.
A college accreditor is an independent organization that evaluates the quality of education provided by colleges and universities in the United States. These organizations are responsible for assessing whether an institution meets predetermined standards for student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, institutional resources, and other relevant factors.
The job of a college accreditor is crucial because it ensures that higher education institutions are maintaining high academic standards and providing quality education to students. Accreditation is necessary for institutions to receive federal funding and for students to be eligible for financial aid programs. Without accreditation, students may not be able to transfer credits to other institutions or pursue certain careers that require a degree from an accredited program.
Overall, college accreditors play a vital role in maintaining the integrity of higher education in the United States and promoting educational quality and excellence.
So what is SACSCOC? Founded in 1895, SACSCOC is an acronym for The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. According to their website; “SACSCOC is the body for the accreditation of degree-granting higher education institutions in the Southern states. It serves as the common denominator of shared values and practices primarily among the diverse institutions in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Latin America and certain other international sites approved by the SACSCOC Board of Trustees that award associate, baccalaureate, master’s, or doctoral degrees. The Commission also accepts applications for membership from domestic institutions in the other 39 states, as well as international institutions of higher education around the world.”
And SACSCOC’s relationship with Carolina? SACSCOC granted UNC Chapel Hill accreditation on January 1, 1895 and has been Carolina’s accreditor for over 128 years! It is, literally, SACSCOC’s job to ask questions about how and why any new school or curriculum at Carolina is added so they can ensure that it meets accreditation standards. When the new “School of Civic Life and Leadership was proposed in an unorthodox way, the president of SACSCOC had some questions. Unfortunately, in response to her questions, a group of NC politicians drafted and sent her the following letter:
This is not the first time that Wheelan and SACSCOC have come under fire from politicians and governing bodies unhappy with her attempts at oversight. In 2022 SACSCOC requested information about a potential conflict of interest at Florida State. Florida legislators responded by passing a law requiring Florida public colleges to switch accreditors. Inside Higher Ed covered this unusual and surprising development. They reported;
“Florida’s requirement to switch accreditors seemed to grow out of concerns raised by SACSCOC, which accredits numerous state institutions. Before the legislation passed, the accreditor had requested information about a potential conflict of interest at Florida State University, which considered Richard Corcoran for its presidency despite his role on the system’s Board of Governors. SACSCOC also raised questions about the University of Florida, which initially prevented professors from testifying against the state in a legal case challenging voting rights restrictions before changing course amid criticism. Critics have accused Florida lawmakers of pushing the accreditation legislation in response to SACSCOC oversight.
What do you think the intention of the letter was? What effect will it have?
DeSantis’ assault on Florida universities shows the need to protect the UNC System | Opinion
Ned Barnett describes the perilous situation facing NC public higher education and highlights the opportunity for the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public University to be a “rescue mission”. Follow this link to read more.
That is the question pondered by Inside Higher Ed. The piece begins like this; “The University of North Carolina system is grappling with accusations of partisan overreach by state legislators and their governing board appointees, fueling concerns that the system is headed down a dangerous path.” Inside Higher Ed goes on to describe several concerning governance incidents as it incorporates responses from interviews held with several people. Here are a few comments from those they interviewed:
“Nathan Grove, a chemistry professor at UNC Wilmington and the chair of the campus’s Faculty Senate, said that vote served as a wake-up call for him and his colleagues. They saw it as a sign that the Board of Governors, which was “usually pretty hands-off,” he said, could take “a more heavy-handed approach” on certain issues. Worse, Grove said, the decision was based on a misunderstanding.”
“Art Pope, a member of the Board of Governors since 2020 and a prolific Republican donor, denied that the compelled speech vote was motivated by politics.”
“Jane Stancill, the system’s vice president for communications, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the “policy revision” banning compelled speech is ‘content neutral’.”
The Inside Higher Ed piece also reflects on other periods when UNC System governing bodies engaged in overreach. They cite the 2015 “shut down [of] a center on poverty and opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill”(along with other centers), the Nikole Hannah-Jones debacle, former president Tom Ross being pushed out of his job, and more. Paul Fulton was interviewed and here is part of what he said:
“Paul Fulton, a former member of the Board of Governors from 2009 to 2013, said he doesn’t think UNC has quite reached the tipping point, but he is increasingly concerned about the future of what he calls ‘one of our state’s greatest assets.’ ‘We’re a resilient system, and we’re nowhere near the Florida or Texas level [of political influence],” he said. “But we do have a hint of that nowadays. And it is worrisome’.”
In addition to being interviewed by Inside Higher Ed this week, Paul Fulton wrote a response to an opinion piece in The Pilot about the proposed new school of “School of Civic Life and Leadership”. The writer incorporated personal projection, misinformation, and mischaracterizations in The Pilot piece. Mr. Fulton sets out to correct the record. Here is some of what he says:
“Comments in the media immediately after the board’s vote made it seem like a done deal.
But the chancellor made it clear the faculty – as always – will build the curriculum.
‘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,’ Guskiewicz said in his campus message.
‘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,’ he said.
That work can take years.
There’s a reason faculty shape the curriculum. I spent eight years on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. And believe me, they [the faculty] are the experts – you do not want trustees shaping or dictating curriculum.
So yes, UNC-Chapel Hill welcomes robust debate. No, there is no evidence that it’s a center of liberal indoctrination. No, a final decision has not been made on the School of Civic Life and Leadership. And yes, faculty will continue to have a strong role shaping any such school.”
Yes. There appears to be a national playbook for the egregious governance overreach happening at Carolina.
The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained, through public-records requests and which have not been previously reported, emails which … “shine light on an increasingly popular mode of intervention into public higher ed. In establishing the Hamilton Center, Florida joined other states— Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee — that have in recent years given millions to fund civics-related units at state universities. Plans are underway for such a school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which some professors oppose. These moves have been inspired, at least in part, by criticisms that professors lean too liberal, that debate on campus is imperiled, and that teaching the foundations of Western thinking is no longer a priority. Those criticisms are all the more alive in Florida — a state with a governor who has warned against universities becoming “hotbeds for stale ideology” and recently announced plans for a host of reforms to the state’s colleges, including the imposition of a Western-civilizations curriculum.” Follow this link to read the entire article.
And, if Florida is the model, it will get worse for Carolina and colleges in the UNC system.
“In recent months, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has laid out a comprehensive vision that would place public higher education under extraordinary state control. A bill introduced this week would write that vision into law.
[Florida]House Bill 999 takes up almost every bullet-pointed goal that DeSantis included for public higher education in a press release last month. It would prohibit public colleges from funding any projects that ‘espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric,’ no matter the funding source; allow boards of trustees to conduct a post-tenure review of faculty members at any time for cause; and put faculty hiring into the hands of trustees. It also has new specifics DeSantis hadn’t proposed, such as a ban on gender studies as a major or minor. ‘This bill will be a gut punch to anyone who cares about public education in a democracy or academic freedom or the fact that our system of higher education is the envy of the world,’ said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. ‘Because higher ed in America is organized around the fact that research and teaching and decisions involving research and teaching are best made by experts and scholars in the field.’” Follow this link to read the entire article.
“University of North Carolina moves to ban ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ statements in anti-woke backlash … NC voted to ban DEI statements and compelled speech from admission, hiring, promotion and tenure … The University of North Carolina (UNC) moved against encroaching woke culture and voted to ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statements and politically preferential hiring. UNC voted to ban DEI statements and compelled speech from admission, hiring, promotion and tenure at its Board of Governors meeting Thursday.”
Michelle Goldberg writes in a New York Times opinion piece; Florida Could Start Looking a Lot Like Hungary
“Last week, one of DeSantis’s legislative allies filed House Bill 999, which would, as The Tampa Bay Times reported, turn many of DeSantis’s ‘wide-ranging ideas on higher education into law.’ Even by DeSantis’s standards, it is a shocking piece of legislation that takes a sledgehammer to academic freedom. Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, described it as ‘almost an apocalyptic bill for higher education,’ one that is ‘orders of magnitude worse than anything we’ve seen, either in the recent or the distant past.’” Read more here.
D.G. Martin’s opinion piece on WRAL entitled; UNC’s ‘Don’t ask; Don’t tell’ policy,begins with; “If UNC-Chapel Hill is to recruit the new school’s faculty “across the ideological spectrum,” it will have to inquire about prospective faculty members’ connections, something the UNC System’s Board of Governors has now prohibited.” Follow this link to read more.
(Spoiler Alert: It Doesn’t Include Creating New Academic Programs)
Last week I read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal expressing consternation that the UNC-Chapel Hill’s accrediting agency plans to ask for more information about University plans—launched by its Board of Trustees–to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership. According to the WSJ, questions from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges constitute a political power play that also boosts the cause of faculty members “angry that the trustees created the school without their assent.” Both fair points, perhaps, but there followed a conclusion that gave me pause.
The WSJ wrote:
”But the North Carolina state constitution delegates responsibility for universities to the Legislature, which “shall provide for the selection of trustees . . . in whom shall be vested all the privileges, rights, franchises and endowments heretofore granted or conferred upon the trustees of these institutions.In other words, the UNC trustees are doing their duty under the law to protect the best interests of higher education in the state.”
The editorial’s authors can be forgiven for assuming, like most people probably do, that UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees (BOT) holds wide-ranging governance powers, entitling it to take steps like directing University administrators to create a new school. But the BOT’s role in the University is actually more advisory than executive, making its recent directive a cause for concern regardless of one’s opinion on the merits of the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership.
It’s true that the North Carolina Constitution includes the provision cited by the WSJ. But not long after the current NC Constitution was adopted in 1971, the General Assembly reorganized and expanded the University of North Carolina to comprise what is now a 16-institution system. The powers of the trustees of what had been known as the “Consolidated University” were now vested in the newly created UNC Board of Governors. Thereafter the BOG had pretty much all governance powers over the UNC system and its constituent institutions. (I sometimes wish that weren’t the case, but it is.)
At the same time, the General Assembly mandated separate boards of trustees at each of the UNC institutions, and gave those boards limited, mostly advisory powers. Each is authorized to:
“. . . promote the sound development of the institution within the functions prescribed for it, helping it to serve the State in a way that will complement the activities of the other institutions and aiding it to perform at a high level of excellence in every area of endeavor. Each board shall serve as advisor to the Board of Governors on matters pertaining to the institution and shall also serve as advisor to the chancellor concerning the management and development of the institution. The powers and duties of each board of trustees, not inconsistent with other provisions of this Article, shall be defined and delegated by the Board of Governors.“
NC General Statutes Sec. 116-33.
So, the “privileges” and “rights” ascribed by the WSJ to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees have long since been held by the Board of Governors. A few other statutes confer some additional responsibilities on the boards of trustees, such as the power to establish a campus law enforcement agency. But for the most part they possess only those powers that the BOG has delegated to them.
Over the fifty years since the modern University of North Carolina’s creation, the BOG has conferred a wide array of responsibilities on the boards of trustees, such as the adoption of tenure policies and procedures, hearing and deciding a variety of faculty, staff or student appeals from administrative decisions; appointing chancellor search committees, overseeing endowments, and approving matters such as who will receive honorary degrees, the annual budget, head coach and athletic director contracts, appointment and compensation for certain non-faculty employees, certain types of capital projects, campus master plans, the acquisition or disposition of real property, and new campus building architects, sites and designs.
Not a trivial set of responsibilities, but they do not include the authority to instruct an institution to create a new academic program.
And given the central importance of a university’s academic programs, it’s not surprising that the BOG has set out expectations about how new programs shall be proposed and approved. Fundamentally, those expectations are rooted in an understanding that each campus should determine what academic programs will work best for its students and community, subject to alignment with UNC System values and priorities. Each constituent institution must establish and follow a clearly defined process for the review and approval of proposals on its campus to plan or establish new degree programs, and UNC-Chapel Hill has done so. As to the BOT’s role, UNC-Chapel Hill’s policy provides only that, upon reviewing and approving such a proposal, the Chancellor is required to “update the Board of Trustees as appropriate” before forwarding it to the UNC System for review.
Some may argue that the general mandate to the BOT to “promote the sound development of the institution” is all the authority the Board needs to propose a new School at Carolina. A lawyerly response would be that specific statutory and regulatory provisions take precedence over more general provisions, and as explained above, the specific regulations concerning creation of new academic programs clearly don’t give the BOT the power to mandate such a step. Another way of saying it is that if the General Assembly or the BOG thought the BOTs should be involved in formulating and proposing plans for new schools within the UNC campuses, they could have provided for it in setting out a detailed framework for such decisions—and they did not.
Why does any of this matter?
First, it matters because in requesting “that the administration of UNC-CH accelerate its development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership,” the BOT has strayed from its statutorily authorized role, as further defined by the Board of Governors, and that’s rarely a good thing.
Also, honest recognition that the BOT has exceeded its authority in this situation may in turn make the on-campus protests more understandable—and, one hopes, stem the editorial eye-rolling that has met complaints that the BOT has ignored shared governance and disrespected the faculty’s historic and legitimate role in curriculum development.
Finally, it matters because the “sound development” of the University, and especially of its academic programs, can’t happen without study, preparation, and deliberation, principally by those who will be charged with ensuring that such programs succeed. Chancellor Guskiewicz has pledged to run the proposal for a School of Civic Life and Leadership through the University’s normal channels, with input from faculty and the kind of detailed budgetary planning required for such an initiative. But one wonders whether that review will be so overshadowed by political crossfire and misgivings over the way the BOT has jump-started this matter that the new School, if it goes forward, will be too tainted to succeed.
It didn’t need to happen like this. At their best, the UNC System boards of trustees understand and respect their proper role in university governance. They engage in meaningful, two-sided conversations with the campuses they are pledged to support and to represent to the wider university and to the State. They do their best to learn and appreciate their institutions, so that any criticism they make is grounded in fact and insight. They listen as much as they instruct. That approach seems to have been discarded by the UNC-Chapel Hill BOT in favor of quick and decisive action. By failing to stay within its lane the BOT may have ensured that its effort to bring a conservative perspective to campus life is doomed to failure.
David M. Parker, BA 1980; JD, 1984
On Friday, February 17, 2023 the UNC-CH Faculty Council met to address the “bucket of chaos” created by UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees as described above. During the meeting the council passed two resolutions. One of the resolutions made clear that the previously approved “IDEAS in Action Curriculum” is different from the proposed new school and should not be used to confuse the public or justify the recent governance overreach. The second resolution directly addressed the recent overreach actions and made clear the faculty’s role in creating new schools. Follow this link to watch a video of the meeting and/or read the resolutions.
“Here’s the real problem: A nebulously defined conservative school, sponsored by a rotating lay board, with untenured teaching or adjunct professors residing at the bottom of the professorial pyramid and providing instruction in no discernible majors or disciplines, with uncertain job prospects for any graduates, and with anemic mainstream faculty support, could possibly be successful and could outlast the board members who promote it. But that’s not the way to bet. There must be better solutions.”
On Friday, February 17, 2023 the UNC-CH Faculty Council met to address the “bucket of chaos” created by yet another incidence of trustee (BOT) governance overreach. In its most recent overreach actions, the BOT failed to consult, or even inform, the faculty, chancellor, students or staff–normally charged with making such decisions– about a proposed new degree granting “School of Civic Life and Leadership”. Instead of working with the faculty and staff, the BOT paid a PR agency $50,000 to mount a national campaign to sell the proposed school on right wing media with the promise that the school will inject more right wing viewpoints onto campus. Below is a video of the entire Faculty Council meeting.
During the meeting the council passed two resolutions. One of the resolutions made clear that the previously approved “IDEAS in Action Curriculum” is different from the proposed new school and should not be used to confuse the public or justify the recent governance overreach. Here is the full text of that resolution:
“Resolution 2023-1. On Supporting the Implementation of the IDEAS in Action Curriculum
The Faculty Council resolves:
The College of Arts and Sciences should be fully supported in implementing the IDEAs in Action curriculum. We maintain that implementing the IDEAs in Action curriculum and establishing the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership are conceptually separate undertakings that should not be entangled. The Faculty Council supports the adequate provision of resources to the College for the purpose of implementing all aspects of the IDEAs in Action curriculum.”
Submitted by Professor Harry L. Watson (History)
The second resolution directly addressed the recent overreach actions and made clear the faculty’s role in creating new schools.
“Resolution 2023-2. On Disapproving the Creation of a New School at UNC-Chapel Hill
The Faculty Council finds:
1. On January 26, 2023, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees adopted a resolution requesting the administration of UNC-CH to accelerate its development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership with a goal of a minimum of 20 faculty members and degree opportunities for undergraduate students. During the Board’s meeting, the resolution was described as an outgrowth of a budget request for $3 million to implement the existing requirements of the IDEAs in Action curriculum.
2. On February 5, 2023, the Faculty Executive Committee received a copy of an undated budget memo requesting $5 million in recurring funds to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership within the College of Arts and Sciences. The initial funding would be used to support “development of the school, hiring of leadership, faculty, programming, staff, and expansion of the curricular work of the existing Program for Public Discourse.” The budget requirements of the proposed new School were projected to grow to $12.6 million by the 2026-27 fiscal year.
3. Section 2-6 of The Faculty Code of University Government empowers the Faculty Council “to determine the educational policies of the University and the rules and regulations under which administrators and faculty will conduct the educational activities of the University” and “to prescribe the requirements for admissions, programs of study, and the award of academic degrees by the University in the context of the basic educational policies of the University and the special competencies of the faculties of particular colleges and schools.”
4. The faculty has not been consulted about the creation of a new degree-granting school at UNC- Chapel Hill. Until the Board of Trustees’ public adoption of its January 26 resolution, faculty leaders were unaware that any such school had been proposed.
Based on these findings, the Faculty Council resolves:
The creation of a new degree-granting school on the UNC-CH campus is a matter for which faculty are responsible. The proposal for a new School of Civic Life and Leadership did not originate with the faculty, was not communicated to the faculty in advance, and has not been studied by the faculty. Faculty members’ questions about the vision for the new program–such as the sequencing of coursework, the scholarship that supports the discipline, any overlap with existing courses or programs, and the utility of the program to our graduates—have gone unanswered.
Moreover, the Faculty Council anticipates that the proposed school will consume badly needed resources for the University’s existing programs and facilities.
For these reasons, the Faculty Council recommends no further action on this new school until such a time as a proposal from the faculty towards this school is developed and then properly discussed.”
Further, it has been revealed that trustees are using university funds to pay a PR firm to make their egregious actions more palatable to the public. The N&O says the name of the PR agency hired by the trustees is Eckel & Vaughn, a Raleigh firm. The contract is for $50,000. The article goes on to quote trustee Preyer as saying the board hired the PR agency to counter commentary from The Coalition for Carolina — a privately funded organization. Preyer did not explain why the battery of PR talent already retained by the university was not sufficient, or why the initial PR efforts were concentrated in right leaning media. Both Coalition for Carolina co-chairs Roger Perry and Dr. Mimi Chapman provided commentary in the N&O coverage.
The blindsided faculty continues to be baffled and disturbed by the recent governance overreach actions. The commentary below first appeared in NC Policy Watch on February 13, 2023. The Coalition for Carolina has been granted permission to republish it in entirety.
Commentary: UNC Chapel Hill trustees misfire with rushed and ill-conceived plan to launch conservative school
Two weeks ago, the UNC Board of Trustees arrived in Chapel Hill hellbent on launching yet another salvo in the campus Culture Wars. They surprised everyone with a resolution calling for the creation of a new “School of Civic Life and Leadership.” Comprised “of a minimum of 20 dedicated faculty,” this proposed school would help develop student “skills in public discourse” in the service of “promoting democracy and serving to benefit society.”
Though camouflaged in reasonable language, the true intent of the resolution was revealed soon after its passage. Aided by a public relations firm, the BOT launched a media campaign to score cheap political points with conservative pundits. The Wall Street Journal just so happened to have a supportive op-ed ready to publish within hours of the meeting. A day later, Board of Trustee Chair David Boliek appeared on Fox News assuring viewers, “this is all about balance.” “We have no shortage of left-of-center, progressive views on our campus.” “The same really can’t be said about right-of-center views, so this is an effort to try to remedy that.”
From there, the Board of Trustees rode out of Chapel Hill on a wave of praise from conservative commentators who have long convinced themselves that they are victims of intellectual persecution on college campuses. Fox News called their actions “a rare win for free speech.” The Wall Street Journal praised them for “trying to revive the academic ideal of a campus as a haven for inquiry and debate.” The Pope Foundation-funded Martin Center hailed the resolution for “leading the way on free expression, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom.” The conservative-leaning “National Association of Scholars” called the move “a stark contrast to the authoritarian radical monoculture that has claimed most of higher education.”
But there was just one glitch: the BOT apparently never told anyone who actually works at or attends the university.
Bypassing or ignoring traditions of university governance
Faculty had questions. It is a university’s faculty, after all, who teach the classes, design the curriculum, and conduct the research that makes them nationally-renowned scholars in their respective fields. Faculty began to ask for clarification, wondering why the trustees didn’t share their grand plans with the people who teach at the university.
The Chancellor and Provost, both insisting they were also surprised by the announcement, played along in support of the Board, asserting that such a school was good for democracy and that it actually originated from earlier faculty conversations. Striking a different tone from previous reports in conservative media, they insisted that faculty would lead the effort to create the curriculum for the new school.
But that’s not how the Board of Trustees initially presented the program to their conservative constituents, the only ones they seem to think matter. As Trustee John Preyer told The Wall Street Journal, the new school would eliminate “political constraints on what can be taught in university classes.” Preyer has yet to offer any specific examples to back that well-trod myth about college courses, leading to further confusion about the goals of the new school.
A few days after the announcement, tempers flared at a meeting between faculty leaders and the Chancellor and Provost. Some of the faculty spoke with a tone that led another trustee to conclude, “the Faculty Executive Committee’s discussion clearly demonstrates why we need this school.”
There are several issues at play here. One is the longstanding tradition of shared governance at American research universities. Another is the blatant overreach by a Board of Trustees that is unqualified to dictate the curriculum at a major public university. It should go without saying that the members of the Board of Trustees are not college educators. They are stewards of a faculty that includes people with decades of research and teaching experience. But the trustees seem not to care about expertise, only their perceptions of political affiliation. And their stated intention of sidestepping “left-of-center” faculty and to create curriculum designed to favor Republicans reveals just how ignorant they are of the practical workings of the university they are entrusted to oversee.
Duplicating and undermining existing departments
Conservatives have long dreamed of a greater presence on UNC’s campus, and it is certainly within the BOT’s power to use private money to build a Conservative clubhouse that might offer s safe space to debate hot-button political issues. Many in the UNC community would certainly be upset over such a nakedly political imposition, but such a center would probably just end up becoming a relatively benign venue for right-leaning lectures and social gatherings. But the trustees want something else. They want to use public money and the resources of the university to alter the curriculum in service of their political whims.
Faculty in this proposed new school would teach in fields that already exist at UNC—History, Political Science, School of Government, Philosophy, etc., effectively duplicating portions of several departments. Budget estimates for this school reach as high as $12.65 million per year by the 2026-27 academic year.
Meanwhile, Hamilton Hall, the building that houses UNC’s Departments of History and Political Science, ranked #11 and #12 in the country, is falling apart. Both elevators are routinely inoperable and there is lead in the water fountains. Some faculty have even been asked to consider giving up their office phones to save money on the bill. And numerous faculty positions remain unfilled. It is especially galling for the Board of Trustees to shirk its existing stewardship responsibilities while demanding tens of millions of dollars to recreate the excellent departments that the university already has.
Furthermore, there have been calls from conservative quarters to freeze out existing faculty from the formation of this new school, meaning that historians won’t be vetted by historians and philosophers won’t be vetted by philosophers. Who is going to uphold academic standards if the university’s own world-class faculty aren’t involved? The BOT insists that it will no longer act as a rubber stamp, but they’re not qualified to make such judgements about curriculum. They don’t tell football coach Mack Brown which base defense to run for the same reason they don’t tell English professors which books to teach. There is a great irony in paying people to be experts in something and then disregarding that very expertise.
Altering and twisting the backstory
Now, the BOT is trying to rewrite the narrative they initially crafted about their own school. In a recent op-ed, Boliek and Preyer insisted that the idea came directly from the curriculum created by faculty, admonishing “those obsessing over process and prerogatives.” The need for the school, they further argued, is demonstrated by a survey conducted early in 2022 that gauged student responses to “free expression and constructive dialogue” on campus. “Those who maintain,” they castigated, “that the university already provides an environment of collegial debate and tolerance of varying viewpoints ignore recent research showing that more than half of Carolina’s conservative students and one in five centrist students censor themselves.”
But the Trustees’ interpretation of the survey is just as flawed as their curricular ideas. The vast majority of students didn’t care enough to bother filling it out, leading to a response rate of only 11% at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7.5% across the UNC System. If such a crisis really existed, surely the response rates would have been much higher. As it is, the survey results boil down to just a few hundred students, many of whom were freshman at the time.
Even allowing for a skewed and unrepresentative sample, the survey offered no evidence that UNC’s existing faculty or course offerings contributed negatively to this so-called problem. Students marked race, policing, and guns as the most difficult topics to discuss. These are challenging issues for nearly every American to examine, and there is no reason to believe that a new wave of professors would better teach these topics simply because they identify as conservative. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite: 89% of conservative respondents to survey agreed that “Professor[s] encouraged participation from liberals and conservatives alike.” The students also overwhelming reported that professors do not push political views in class. And the proposed faculty for the new school would be fixed term, not tenured, meaning that they wouldn’t have the same protections of academic freedom.
Ironically, Boliek and Preyer have simultaneously revealed their shortcomings as critical thinkers, institutional stewards, and campus leaders. They seem to misunderstand the very survey they themselves cite as evidence of need. On the basis of that misunderstanding, they propose a budgetary boondoggle, earmarking tens of millions of dollars to essentially duplicate departments that are already underfunded. And they propose all of this not as a last resort, but as a first strike, given that the BOT has never undertaken any other action to help improve campus climate in ways that might foster productive dialogue.
Sowing confusion and anger
Since passing their resolution, the BOT has done nothing but sow confusion and anger. A few have continued to launch potshots at faculty through the media while refusing to answer any questions directly from faculty. And now, UNC is left with another media circus and even possible questions about accreditation. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in all of this is the trustees’ abject failure to demonstrate the very type of civil discourse they say is needed on campus. Why the need for secrecy? Why the media blitz? Why are the trustees attacking professors in conservative media? Why not answer questions from the very people who will be tasked with building this school?
It still remains unclear exactly what the trustees are calling for or who they expect to complete their bidding. At worst, it’s a naked power grab that will further impose a political ideology over the campus and curtail academic freedom. At best, it’s a policy whose design will create an inefficient redundancy by duplicating existing departments, thus weakening them all and making UNC worse at what it already does best.
I know the trustees profess to love the university. But it’s hard for anyone to take this seriously so long as the trustees themselves fail to articulate a consistent and clear vision for their new school, while using the great university that already exists as a political prop in the culture wars.