The UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance: A Conversation with a Founding Member

Alumni have been making their voices heard over the past few months. After seeing the alarming direction that their alma maters are taking, alumni at institutions such as Davidson College, the University of Virginia, and Washington & Lee have decided to unite around the principles of free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity. These alumni groups aren’t working in isolation, they are part of a national organization called the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA). 

UNC-Chapel Hill is the latest group to join AFSA. The UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance is an alumni-led, independent organization dedicated to free speech, diversity of opinion, stimulating debate, and academic freedom on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. 

I recently spoke with Frank Hill, a founding member of the UNC Free Speech Alliance, to discuss the group’s mission and goals. This transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

Frank, tell me about the mission of the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance.

Well, I think the mission of it is trying to get back to the roots of what a university is supposed to be about already. I think the whole idea of a university is to have a free and open exchange of ideas from all sectors and try to use that so that we all learn something, and there’s been a move, we think, in the university system to frustrate some of that free exchange. And we hope that this alliance will help bring to light some of those tensions and also get the alumni involved to help make that happen.

When I think of UNC and free speech, one of the first things that pops into my mind is the North Carolina speaker ban. Of course, that’s going away back now. But UNC defied that ban in support of free speech. I think it’s a bright spot in UNC’s history. And you were on campus not long after that happened. What was the Free Speech environment and the political environment like when you were there?

I’m old enough to be ancient history now, but I was in junior high school, elementary school, when that happened, so I wasn’t totally familiar with it. But I got to Carolina in 1974, and so that was only five, six, seven years after the speaker ban. And, of course, that was where the Southern Democrats, in control of the state legislature, were trying to frustrate communism from coming on campus. And it basically turned out to say: “let him speak, learn from it, find out why they’re wrong,” and all that. But that was a really big political challenge for a long time. 

In the early 70s, that was maybe the beginning of the hippie era, and a lot of other things were going on, it had not reverted to the liberal side of the spectrum as much as it is nowadays. But I do remember going to many classes. One I had in particular— Dr. Edward Azar, he basically prodded people if they were going down one angle, and he would say, “Well, wait a minute, let’s hear about the other side— is anybody here going to talk about the other side or are we just kind of all group speak together?” He didn’t really like that. And you know, that’s what we probably would like to see, just to make sure that there are professors who are prodding both sides to speak freely.

The environment at UNC was also, I think, pretty welcoming when I was there. People encouraged both sides. I was there for grad school. Most of the faculty were left of center as they are now, but they knew I was conservative. They knew I had worked at a free-market think tank and it was fine. We all got along, we enjoyed each other’s takes on things. And in the political science department, there was respect for freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity.

Well, like I said, I grew up in the late 60s, early 70s—long hair, hippies, free love, all that kind of stuff was going on. Not that I was experiencing a lot of that in Durham, but I was probably more left of center at the time. I thought I wanted to be a Nader’s Raider and break up corporations. They were all big and bad and all that—maybe that’s just a function of the time. But I do distinctly remember going to these classes and hearing various professors say, “what about the other side? How can we think outside of what we’re dealing with every day?”—that I think was helpful. There definitely wasn’t a wet blanket tossed on everybody to prevent them from thinking about the other side.

It sounds like you had some great discussions. But things are obviously different now or there wouldn’t be a need for the Free Speech Alliance. What are some of the things that you’ve observed that prompted the founding of the organization?

Well, I’ve been in politics for a long time. And I was in Washington for 22 years with Senator Dole and Congressman Alex McMillan and so I wasn’t in the state. But I would hear from various lobbying groups or various people who were concerned about different things. And then since I’ve moved back to North Carolina over 10 years ago, I’m closer to it. I’ve actually done some consulting work with UNC-Chapel Hill. So I’ve stayed close with them, various people on the board of trustees, [and] North Carolina legislative people. 

Some people want to dismiss a lot of these things as being “oh, that’s just anecdotal, you’re just hearing that.” Well if you hear it for 10 years, and you see it with your own eyes, conduct some classes on various campuses, including Carolina—I’ve had four to five students that come up almost every time and they say, “you know, Mr. Hill, this is the only class that I can speak freely about my conservative Christian, whatever right of center views without feeling ostracized or feeling like I might get a bad grade,” because we don’t grade anything. And I’m just stunned by that. It’s not anecdotal. I mean, when you see it 50 times on different campuses, including Chapel Hill, that seems to be a pretty solid data point to me.

Yes, there’s a lot of self-censorship going on at Chapel Hill and at other universities, you’re absolutely right. And there are other alumni who are doing similar work to the UNC Free Speech Alliance. The Martin Center has written about the Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, and we’ve written about the Generals Redoubt at Washington & Lee. Are you affiliated with those groups? Tell me about the national scene.

I’m not affiliated with either one of them, but I’ve been following them. And I have a lot of friends who are very involved with them, graduates who I’ve stayed in touch with. They’ve put a lot of effort and money into their effort over the past five, six years. I was surprised to learn that Davidson had actually a strong chapter because of some of the liberal leanings we hear about from the Davidson students up there and the Davidson faculty. 

We’re trying to copy what they did. I mean, they’ve invented the wheel and taken the leadership from the Chicago Principles. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to take those and use them here in North Carolina. We’re not going to be an angry group or a mob. We’re just trying to say, let’s use logic and reason— a  little bit of winsomeness, maybe some humor every now and then, and just try to try to see if we can steer this back somewhat toward balance, which is all anybody could ever hope for in a university system.

Right. And UNC actually starts out in a better place than Davidson or Washington & Lee, on paper: UNC already has good First Amendment protections, they’ve got a green light from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for their speech policies. The faculty have adopted the Chicago Principles. So like I said, on paper, everything looks good. What are the next steps after getting the policies? And what is the UNC Free Speech Alliance going to work on?

Well, there’s probably a wide range of stuff, and you know more about it than we do. What would tell me that something substantively had changed is if I can do classes over the next 10 years at Chapel Hill, and not have a student come up to me and say, “you know what, this is the only place I can talk about my certain principles.” If I stop hearing that, I think that’s some empirical proof that something’s changed. The other thing that’s troubling, and we can’t really get into this directly, but I’m always troubled when people say, “we don’t want to impinge upon the academic freedom of the faculty.” 

Well, we’re not trying to impinge upon the academic freedom of the faculty. We know they have a big hand and other people get hired. But I have sent people that I know who are conservative, who have impeccable academic degrees—one gentleman I know went to undergrad at Harvard and has a PhD in classical philosophy from Yale, and I’ve sent him to Chapel Hill at least twice, including when I was consulting with the administration. I was getting his resume to the right people.

He couldn’t even get an interview and the reason why he could not get an interview was that he had impeccable credentials except for out of college, he worked for Haley Barbour, a Republican governor in Mississippi for like four years. Is that disqualification for a classical philosophy professor from Yale, to not be able to even get an interview at Duke, where his parents are also professors? [And] Carolina. He was an adjunct professor at [NC] State for a while but they wouldn’t interview him for a full position. It gets back to that whole thing of just, “tell us who the Milton Friedman’s are.” That seemed to be a restraint of freedom of thought to me— that this guy couldn’t get an interview. I was shocked.

Yes, that’s pretty wild. Frank, the last thing I want to know, and our readers want to know is, how can others get involved with the UNC Free Speech Alliance? Where can we find you?

The first thing we’re trying to do is get as many people as we can to sign up at You probably have that attached to this interview. What I found out in politics is that you always want to have as many people involved as you can. Ten of us doing this is nice, but it won’t make a difference. My understanding is there are 350,000 living UNC alumni from grad and undergrad. If we can’t get 1,000 people to sign up, then I’d be shocked. 

I mean, I’ve talked to 100,000 people probably in 20 years who were concerned about this. But that’s the first thing I would do. If they want to get more involved, contact us, we’re starting to form a board. We’re going to raise some money and try to be proactive on social media, in some of the public debate. But the main thing is to get involved, instead of just sitting at home and saying, “man, can you believe what they’re doing over at Chapel Hill? That’s really terrible.” Well, you know, you can get involved. But you need to join a group like this. And then, we might become more proactive, maybe have some email campaigns or things like that, bringing awareness. 

But if you’re concerned about it, you can’t do nothing. You can’t just sit on the sidelines and do nothing. So, join the Free Speech Alliance as the first part and support your efforts at the James G. Martin Center because you’ve been doing it for years. You really have been plowing the ground for this. But I would just encourage everybody to sign up. That’s the easiest thing to do, it doesn’t cost anything.

Learn more about the UNC Free Speech alliance at:

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.