New School of Civic Life Draws Criticism as Process Is Laid Out

Board of Trustees vice chair John Preyer ’90 comments on a proposal for the School of Civic Life and Leadership during the Board of Trustees meeting, Jan. 26, 2023. At left is chair Dave Boliek ’90. Photo: UNC/Jon Gardiner ’98

by Laurie D. Willis ’86

UNC’s chancellor and provost have asked the school’s General Education Oversight Committee to take the lead on development of the controversial School of Civic Life and Leadership the UNC Board of Trustees recently asked the University to create, media relations officials said Friday.

The board, at its Jan. 26 meeting, passed a resolution asking for the new school, the aim of which is be to increase students’ capacities for debate and deliberation with the goal of developing better citizens and leaders, according to Trustees Chair Dave Boliek ’90. The school has drawn sharp criticism from some faculty who say it’s politically motivated and unnecessary.

When Boliek introduced the resolution for the school, he said its core mission would be to develop both the capacities and knowledge necessary for healthy democratic citizenship and that its curriculum would pay particular attention to the foundation of the American experience and all that comes with it.

He said it should have a minimum of 20 dedicated faculty members — some newly recruited and some from within faculty ranks — and would build off the Program for Public Discourse, formed in 2019 to strengthen students’ abilities for deliberative debate, with the goal of enabling them to serve as better citizens, civic leaders and stewards of democracy.

“The school would create a space for free speech, a culture of civic and open inquiry, in which we as a university and faculty members and other students would recognize members of political outgroups as friends to learn from rather than foes to vanquish,” Boliek said. The board unanimously approved the resolution, which called on the administration to accelerate its development.

Some members of the Faculty Council’s Executive Committee sharply criticized the board’s action. In a Jan. 30 meeting of the committee, Beth Mayer-Davis, dean of the Graduate School and the Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of nutrition and medicine, said the University’s Program for Public Discourse already addresses the issues raised by the trustees. “Why not build out the Public Discourse program?” Mayer-Davis asked.

Mimi Chapman ’97 (PhD), chair of the faculty council, said the new School of Civic Life and Leadership isn’t needed. “Professors are skilled in [teaching] discourse,” Chapman said. “This is a solution in search of a problem. This is deeply, deeply troubling.”

She also said the process to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership is unclear.

“Referral to one committee doesn’t mean that one committee has the final say. A committee needs to do its work, needs to ascertain things and usually makes a recommendation to other bodies,” Chapman said. “There would be multiple groups of faculty weighing in before anything was proposed to the faculty council or to anyone else, including the Board of Trustees.”

Chapman said the process for the new School of Civic Life and Leadership has been atypical and “things … are so out of whack in terms of how one normally moves through this process.”

Media relations officials said the General Education Oversight Committee “will operate under the auspices of the Administrative Boards of the College of Arts and Sciences and will be supported sufficiently to allow ongoing assessment and consideration of innovations in and amendment of the curriculum.”

Media relations officials also said there is no single process or timeline for creating a new school and that any such decision is made only after thorough involvement of faculty, students, staff and stakeholders. For example, they said, the School of Data Science and Society was first announced in the spring of 2020 and officially launched more than two years later in the fall of 2022.

A day after trustees approved the resolution, Boliek appeared on Fox News to discuss the new school.

“This is all about balance,” he said. “At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we clearly have a world-class faculty that exists and teaches students and creates leaders of the future. We, however, have no shortage of left-of-center progressive views on our 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 with the School of Civic Life and Leadership, which will provide equal opportunity for both views to be taught at the University.”

Trustees signed a pledge to treat all students, faculty, staff and the entire University community with respect, dignity, courtesy and generosity of spirit. Photo: UNC/Jon Gardiner ’98

Faculty said the statement indicated the new school was politically motivated and were blindsided by the resolution, but Provost Chris Clemens reminded them in the Faculty Council’s Executive Committee meeting that the administration should always bear in mind what is best for student success and that the purpose of the University should be to equip students to prepare for civic life, no matter their major, no matter their career.

“Our public sphere is in trouble,” he said in defending the resolution for the new school during the meeting of the Faculty Executive Committee. “It is the most important thing we need to take on” as a university.

Sue Estroff, professor of social medicine at UNC’s School of Medicine and a former chair of the Faculty Council, said she had a hard time reconciling Clemens’ comments with those of Boliek’s regarding balancing out the faculty. “Respectfully, I don’t buy it. … It doesn’t seem candid and real,” she said.

Holden Thorp, UNC chancellor from 2008 to 2013, in a Feb. 2 interview on Fox Business, questioned the premise that the University teaching environment made it difficult to debate issues. “To me, this isn’t a serious problem,” he said, adding, “This is just a very productive political talking point.”

During the same program, Fox Business host Stuart Varney asked Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis why the new school wasn’t popular with UNC faculty. Kotis responded, “The faculty really hasn’t addressed the school. They’ve been more focused on the process, which is a shame. … And actually some of their reaction is indicative of why we need such programs.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told the Faculty Executive Committee he understands members’ concerns, but added the new school meets one of the initiatives set out in the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, to promote democracy. He referred to his campus message sent Jan. 27, which stated, “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, just as they determined the capacities laid out in our new Ideas in Action Curriculum.”

Guskiewicz also said he will work with the 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.”

In other news, trustees signed a pledge to treat all students, faculty, staff and the entire University community with respect, dignity, courtesy and generosity of spirit. The pledge also said trustees would “acknowledge the value of varying backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and opinions among the members of our diverse university community.”

The pledge says people are all fallible “and each of us born equally worthy” and asks trustees to commit humbly to “the unending pursuit and advancement of  knowledge, understanding, wisdom, acceptance and mutual support as fellow Tar Heels first and last.”


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