UNC to Participate in Initiative to Promote Academic Freedom, Dialogue

After a national competition in undergraduate education that drew more than 675 proposals, the Ford Foundation has selected UNC as one of 27 higher education institutions to receive $100,000 grants for projects that promote academic freedom and constructive dialogue on campus.

The grants are part of Ford’s “Difficult Dialogues” initiative, created in response to reports of growing intolerance and efforts to curb academic freedom at colleges and universities. The goal is to help institutions address this challenge through academic and campus programs that enrich learning, encourage new scholarship and engage students and faculty in constructive dialogue about contentious political, religious, racial and cultural issues.

The National Issues Forum Network will be contracted in the first year of the project to conduct focus groups and gather baseline data on campus and in the larger community; frame the campus’s key issues; conduct workshops and other hands-on opportunities for faculty and instructors to refine their skills in leading difficult dialogues; develop moderator and discussion guides, and test and refine activities and materials as needed to meet program objectives.

A UNC spokesman said that UNC faculty involved in the project include Faculty Chair Judith Wegner and professors Bill Andrews (English), Julia Wood (communication studies and the Institute for Arts and Humanities), Jay Smith (history) and Virginia Carson ’71 of the Campus Y.

Over the course of the two-year initiative, the “Difficult Dialogues” grantees will be invited to share their experiences and ideas at regional conferences coordinated by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Va. The center also will host a Web-based forum for project directors to share ideas online.

Examples of other projects that will receive funding include:

  • at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, new courses, faculty seminars and campus roundtables on religion and religious conflict;
  • at Queens College in New York, the development of a new curriculum for promoting understanding and informed discussion about the conflict in the Middle East;
  • at Mars Hill College in North Carolina, training for faculty and student leaders to foster productive discussions of race, sexual orientaiton and religion; and
  • a project at Yale University that will examine whether courses about controversial issues increase tolerance and respect for different viewpoints among students.

The Ford Foundation launched “Difficult Dialogues” in April 2005 by inviting proposals from all accredited, degree-granting, nonprofit institutions with general undergraduate programs. A panel of external higher education experts reviewed the preliminary proposals and selected 136 institutions to submit final proposals.

“Difficult Dialogues” is part of a $12 million effort by the Ford Foundation to understand and combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice in the United States and Europe. It builds on the foundation’s history of supporting efforts by colleges and universities to foster more inclusive campus environments and to engage effectively with the growing racial, religious and ethnic diversity of their student bodies.

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