UNC faculty delay vote that sought to halt controversial public discourse program

UNC-Chapel Hill

The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council delayed a vote Friday on a resolution that aimed to “put on hold” a proposed academic program for public discourse that has caused controversy on campus.

The program in the College of Arts and Sciences has drawn sharp criticism from more than 100 faculty members who say it is being developed behind closed doors with influence from outspoken conservatives outside the UNC faculty and being funded by undisclosed donors.

The resolution proposed to delay the program’s plans until there has been a “full and public discussion about the structure and programmatic intentions of this new institution.”

UNC history professor Jay Smith, who proposed the resolution, argued that the faculty has been told so little about the program that it’s “disturbing” and there’s “a blatant departure from the longstanding AAUP and UNC principle that curriculum must come exclusively from the faculty.”

Smith told The News and Observer the program aims to subtly “nudge” the campus ”intellectual climate or culture in the more conservative direction.”

Part of that rationale is a result of emails between Christopher Clemens, acting director of the program, and Robert P. George, a prominent conservative law professor who has been a key player in the program from the beginning.

“I have been among the most outspoken conservative members of the Art & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years, sponsoring the College Republicans, the Carolina Review, and several other student organizations,” Clemens told George in 2017. “... and am intrigued to learn of our administration’s interest in housing a conservative center on campus.”

George is the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, which UNC leaders have looked to for reference.

In Friday’s meeting, faculty were told the program has changed dramatically from its origins, which appeared to be an initiative from the UNC System Board of Governors, UNC-Chapel Hill leadership and conservative scholars that started in 2017.

Clemens, who’s also the senior associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the program has “been through a shredding of ideas and whittling of ideas.” That has happened, he said, because of the input from the six UNC faculty members on the advisory committee helping shape the program.

There’s an official response to the resolution on the program’s website that acknowledges faculty concerns of the history of the program, but argues the current proposal has evolved “into a program that has no specific ideological content, but simply a focus on the best methods for teaching students to be open-minded, active citizens.”

That response also says those developing the program will hear from colleagues in a series of conversations this fall and “all courses developed or enhanced in the college using support from this program will come exclusively from faculty, in conformity with AAUP and UNC principles.”

Its website says The Program for Public Discourse “does not bear any meaningful resemblance to “conservative” programs at other schools — and that’s a testament to the success of these early faculty deliberations.”

Chris Lundberg, a communications professor and a member of the programs’ faculty committee, argued at the meeting that faculty have shaped the vision of this program.

He said students and faculty have previously expressed concern “that we weren’t preparing our students to speak, consume and produce public discourse in the way that they need to to maintain the health of our democracy.”

Now, he said, faculty can determine the direction of this program to address that issue.

“Origins are not destiny,” Lundberg said.

A few of the external members of the advisory committee also make some faculty wary. George, who is the director of the program at Princeton, is the chairman. Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, and Rob Bryan, UNC system Board of Governors member, are also members.

The fact that the center was initially conceived as a conservative center still makes Smith suspicious of the ongoing efforts to describe the center in new ways, he told The News and Observer.

“It may well be just an exercise in camouflage,” Smith said before the meeting.

Faculty on Friday seemed eager for more information on the program’s plans. They voted to table the resolution until the next faculty council meeting.

That action doesn’t mean the discussion is over, but it allows faculty to ask more questions and get clarity on the program. It is currently set to launch in fall 2021.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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