Intellectual Diversity

Q: What do college courses in ethics, statistics, and biology have in common?

A: All were winning courses recognized by the Pope Center’s Spirit of Inquiry Award.

Now in its fourth year, the Pope Center’s Spirit of Inquiry program honors faculty at North Carolina colleges and universities for teaching rigorous courses that emphasize open intellectual inquiry. Until now, the majority of winning courses have been in political science or public administration. The diversity this year indicates that careful thinking and weighing of ideas can—and should—occur in a wide range of disciplines.

The project is designed to increase attention to quality teaching. All too often, colleges and universities give priority to research, yet we believe that teaching should be at the heart of our universities.

The award is sponsored by the Broyhill Family Foundation of Lenoir, North Carolina. All winning courses are first nominated by a student, then selected as finalists by the Pope Center’s Jenna Robinson, who directs the program, and then selected as winners by a panel of five distinguished judges. This year, the instructors received their awards on December 1 at a dinner at MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary, North Carolina. J. Edgar Broyhill, a trustee of the Broyhill Family Foundation, presented the awards.

The recipient of the first-place Spirit of Inquiry Award was John Parnell, William Henry Belk Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. The second-place recipient was John Brennan, assistant professor in the Public and International Affairs Department at UNC Wilmington. The third was Kelly Hogan, senior lecturer in the Department of Biology, UNC-Chapel Hill.

At the dinner, each faculty member shared some thoughts about the course that led to the award.

John Parnell said that his course, Ethics and Capitalism, is unusual for a couple of reasons. Start with his textbooks. One is Robert Murphy’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism. The other is Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Parnell noted that using a novel as a major text was new to him, but he found Atlas Shrugged to be a great spur to class discussion. It raises fundamental issues about problems “that we see going on today—yet it was written years ago.”

Parnell views his course as “amendments and counter-arguments to the rest of the business program.” The course is an elective for seniors, so the students are there because they want to be, and they have the background to consider fundamental questions the free-market economic system.

He addresses questions such as: What is the difference between capitalism and crony capitalism? What is the responsibility of firms? Is capitalism a moral economic system? What is the most effective way to tackle racial or ethnic discrimination?

John Brennan of UNC Wilmington began by saying that his course in quantitative methods, Statistics for Public Managers and Policy Analysts, seemed an unlikely candidate for nomination. It is “a course that very few students look forward to and many avoid until the bitter end.” (It is for students seeking a master’s degree in public administration.) The course deals mostly with the “measurement of economic, social and political phenomena through the use of data.”

But such data can shed light on issues that are often highly politicized, such as education in public schools and the value of state economic development programs. “When our exercises do extend into making judgment on policy issues, I emphasize the need to measure outcomes properly, question results, and thoughtfulness in the final analysis,” he said.

Kelly Hogan, who teaches Principles of Biology, was also somewhat surprised that her course was nominated in the first place, because she was going through a “personal transformation” in her approach to teaching. She has been moving away from traditional lectures to a more “student-centered” classroom, she explained. (This is in an introductory class of more than 400 students.)

Hogan had begun using online technologies, so that the students get basic information at home, then come to class “prepared and ready to use higher-level thinking skills.” This year’s course included “mini-activities,” small-group problems, and even interaction through students’ cell phones. One result was that “I talked a lot less and the classroom was a lot noisier,” she said. “The student feedback has been wonderful, and I am more inspired than ever to keep learning about how students learn best.”

Surely, the listeners that night were inspired. The Pope Center is particularly grateful to those students who nominated courses (and, thus, professors). They got the process going, and they all understand that the best courses are rarely the easiest ones. Our thanks go out to those students who nominated the winning courses: Damos R. Anderson at UNC Pembroke, Hunter Crumpton at UNC-Wilmington, and Victoria Greene at UNC-Chapel Hill. And to our judges: John Allison, Distinguished Professor of Practice at Wake Forest University Schools of Business; J. Edgar Broyhill, President and Managing Director at The Broyhill Group;  Anne Neal, President of American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA); George Leef, Director of Research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy; Abigail Thernstrom, Former Senior Fellow at Manhattan Institute.

2008-2010 Spirit of Inquiry Award Recipients List