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Opinion

Opinion | UNC Chapel Hill Trustees Misfire with Rushed and Ill-Conceived Plan to Launch Conservative School

Credit: iStock

William Sturckey, NC Policy Watch

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.

William Sturkey is a professor of history who specializes in the history of race in the American South at UNC Chapel Hill.