At a time when public confidence in higher education has dropped sharply—14 percentage points in just two years—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is moving forward with purpose, civility and a can-do attitude. It is sad, though hardly surprising, that at least some members of the UNC faculty are challenging rather than celebrating the prospect of the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership.
Critics of the Board of Trustees’ resolution to establish the new school have attacked it as a violation of shared governance. This could not be further from the truth. UNC Chapel Hill recognizes that the academic freedom of its faculty is essential to the university’s mission. But shared governance means that the duty of ensuring that students graduate prepared for career, community and citizenship comes from the partnership of board, administration and the faculty. Those who suggest the resolution to establish the School of Civic Life and Leadership is a violation of shared governance fail to realize that the board is ultimately responsible for setting institutional priorities and safeguarding the quality of the academic enterprise.
Colleges and universities have struggled to avoid developing a campus monoculture that diminishes the opportunity for intellectual challenge, debate and dialogue. Clearly, UNC Chapel Hill’s trustees have recognized and addressed this issue in a way that other constituencies have not. Intellectual diversity is not what it should be at UNC Chapel Hill: UNC’s 2019 campus climate survey revealed that about 21 percent of its students feel that their political views are not respected on campus. Yet to the board’s critics, “overstepping” its role apparently means doing anything beyond rubber-stamping whatever is put in front of it.
There’s no indication that existing faculty will be removed or redeployed; rather, the intention of the board is to bring in additional scholars to enhance the intellectual diversity of the faculty and broaden course offerings within the new school. The university’s 30,000 students will have the opportunity to take courses taught from a multiplicity of perspectives that will build mature understanding.
One should ask dissenters why the possibility that scholars with conservative or libertarian viewpoints might join the faculty is so terrifying. Do they wish to pass up the opportunity to have new colleagues and a new academic unit? So far, given national surveys of faculty political allegiance, the humanities and social sciences tilt very far to blue rather than red. Existing faculty structures have done a poor job of maintaining intellectual diversity. It is chilling that the Chapel Hill faculty who vetted proposals for the recently established Program for Public Discourse explicitly rejected the model of Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which has shown high success in building intellectual diversity.
The board’s resolution asking the Chapel Hill administration to “accelerate its development” of the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership comes amid the thoroughly documented, decades-long deterioration of American civic education. Countless surveys and polls show a surge in political polarization and point to the decline in civic education as a main contributor. Civic ignorance among college students is a national disgrace, as important higher education leaders, including Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels and former Harvard University president Derek Bok, have argued. A trove of evidence also indicates a disturbing increase in student self-censorship and the entrenchment of ideological monocultures on American campuses.
UNC Chapel Hill board chair David Boliek and vice chair John Preyer told The Wall Street Journal that their objective is to end “political constraints on what can be taught in university classes.” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, in a letter to the university community, explained that UNC Chapel Hill, “as the nation’s first public university,” has a special “responsibility to be a place that brings together people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints to debate the issues of our day.”
Bad news more frequently makes headlines than good news. It is time to cheer the example that UNC Chapel Hill has set.
This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed on February 15, 2023.