The Media Take On the UNC Board

Reporting on Chapel Hill’s new School of Civic Life and Leadership has been lopsided and misleading.

When news broke that UNC-Chapel Hill had plans to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership, it was inevitable that there would be some confusion. But nearly two months later, some UNC faculty members and local media outlets have continued to drive a false narrative about the school’s creation and the university’s governance practices.

On January 26, trustees voted to “request that the administration of UNC-CH accelerate its development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership.” The resolution passed unanimously with little discussion.

Some faculty members and local media outlets have continued to drive a false narrative about UNC’s governance practices.The following week, at a meeting of Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Council, faculty members expressed their disdain for the new program and their distrust of the process. Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman’s comments were representative: “To me, this is a solution in search of a problem, and the way it is happening and the content of what is happening is deeply, deeply troubling.”

At the same meeting, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens explained that, although the resolution was a surprise, plans to create a new school—a “superstructure” for the Program for Public Discourse—had been in progress since 2017. And, in an email to the whole Carolina community, Guskiewicz wrote, “I appreciate the encouragement of our Board to build on the work we have done” [emphasis added]. Despite these clarifications, faculty, the Daily Tar Heel, and the Raleigh News & Observer have continued to insist that the Board of Trustees has overstepped its authority and that the school is unneeded.

On February 2, professors Buck Goldstein and William Snider called the trustees’ action a “plan to create a new school out of whole cloth.” On February 6, law professor Gene Nichol wrote, “These folks are not ‘trustees.’ They are not ‘governors.’ They are an occupying force carrying out a mission.” Former UNC chancellor Holden Thorp tweeted that the new school portends “dark, dark times in Chapel Hill.”

This narrative led SACSCOC president Belle Wheelan to publicly question the school in a February meeting of the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina.

Local media have also continued to parrot faculty opinion. The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s official student newspaper, devoted several news articles to the faculty’s response to the new school. It also published an editorial by its own editorial board, saying, “[The] School of Civic Life is just another example of ideological combativeness”; a satire lampooning the proposed school; and an op-ed calling incivility in the classroom “a problem that doesn’t exist.” The paper has published just one item, a letter to the editor, in support of the school.

The News & Observer has published four pieces editorializing against the school and just one in its favor.The Raleigh News & Observer’s coverage has been even more lopsided. Since the resolution passed in January, the paper has published four pieces editorializing against the school and just one in its favor. In late February, Peter St. Onge, the North Carolina opinion editor for local McClatchy papers (including the News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, and Durham Herald-Sun), declined to run an op-ed by trustee Perrin Jones clarifying the planning process behind the new school and addressing governance concerns. In particular, Jones wanted a chance to publicly address “the concept’s timeline [and] the documented, verifiable involvement of the faculty and administration.”

When the Martin Center reached out on March 15 to ask why the op-ed had been declined, St. Onge wrote, “We didn’t decline the op-ed … [It] is still under consideration. Mr. Jones was told that in an email earlier this month.” Jones originally submitted the op-ed on February 22.

The Greensboro News & Record, which is not a McClatchy newspaper, published the op-ed on Friday, March 17. It states,

Let’s set the record straight: The UNC-CH Board of Trustees, of which I am a member, did not introduce the idea for the school—the university’s faculty and administration did, over several years. Afterward, our trustees endorsed the idea and urged its acceleration.

In an email to the Martin Center, Jones said, “I’m grateful that the op-ed was published, but I’m disappointed that the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer chose not to correct the record for their readers, whom I think deserved better.”

By this time it should be clear. The board “requested” an “acceleration” of a preexisting idea that it wanted to support. And as the chancellor wrote, “Any proposed degree program or school will be developed and led by our faculty, deans, and provost.” Questions of governance have been thoroughly addressed.

It’s time to move on. Faculty and media should correct the record and stop arguing about process. Governance is vitally important, but, in this case, it has served as a distraction from the real issue. If faculty leaders, local media, or campus activists do not like the ideas behind the School of Civic Life and Leadership, they should argue against it on its merits.

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