The True Story of UNC-Chapel Hill’s New School

Arguments about the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership are about politics, not process.

Last month, UNC-Chapel Hill faculty penned an open letter airing criticism of both the North Carolina General Assembly and the UNC Board of Trustees. Among their complaints was the allegation that the proposed new School of Civic Life and Leadership (SCiLL) is a “clear violation” of governance principles.

But the faculty don’t have the full story. More of the truth is finally coming out about the proposed school at UNC-Chapel Hill, my alma mater, where I am a member of the Board of Trustees.

The idea for the new school’s pro-democracy curriculum goes back years—and has involved faculty input from the beginning, contrary to the false narrative perpetuated by political partisans and other opponents of free and open learning and debate on campus.

The idea for the new school’s pro-democracy curriculum goes back years—and has involved faculty input from the beginning.As confirmed publicly by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Christopher Clemens, the administration’s proposal for SCiLL grew out of Carolina’s Program for Public Discourse and its IDEAs in Action curriculum, which themselves arose from campus discussions dating back to 2017. Their aims were to promote open, civil debate on campus and to equip students for success in our diverse nation and world.

Twice, in September and October of 2019, the Faculty Council discussed PPD and rejected proposals to halt it, thereby allowing the program’s development to continue. The initiative was always envisioned ultimately as including curricular components for interested students.

Chancellor’s Confirmation

More recently, top university administrators redefined the program’s long-anticipated expansion as a proposed school, for which they planned to seek state funding. In January, our Board of Trustees adopted a resolution urging the administration and faculty to accelerate plans for the school. Contrary to erroneous news reports, mistaken media commentary, and baseless outside attacks, it wasn’t our idea—but it’s a good one we were happy to endorse. [Editor’s note: The Daily Tar Heel declined to run a version of this article, and the Greensboro News & Record didn’t respond to its submission.]

Notably, Chancellor Guskiewicz confirmed this timeline in his March 17 response to an inquiry from the university’s current accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. In other words, the SCiLL timetable that we trustees have outlined all along is correct.

“It is worth noting,” the chancellor wrote in his letter to SACSCOC, “that, though we are still very much in the beginning of the process, the work regarding the curriculum expansion for the Program for Public Discourse derives from planning, conversations, discussions with faculty leaders, and site visits dating back to February 2018.” This planning “included a site visit by senior leaders to the campus of Arizona State University in 2018 to learn about their School of Economic Thought and Leadership, among other objectives.”

Critics who claim indignantly that the faculty hadn’t heard of the proposed school before January are being disingenuous at best. The “school” label might have been new to some, but the concept had been discussed openly and thoroughly for years among the faculty, and twice allowed to proceed. The smokescreen from those pretending otherwise is flabbergasting.

Hostility from Some Faculty

In recounting the history of the SCiLL proposal during our last University Affairs Committee (UAC) meeting, Provost Clemens noted that several faculty members have remained involved in its development as an outgrowth of PPD, and that a larger group of professors will help shape it.

Recent press reports have overlooked the provost’s newsworthy explanation, during the public UAC meeting, of why more faculty haven’t been involved in the program’s expansion until now. It is because many of them are openly hostile to it.

Critics who claim that the faculty hadn’t heard of the proposed school before January are being disingenuous at best.“The Program for Public Discourse met with lots and lots of resistance,” Provost Clemens said. “Certain aspects of it were never moved forward because of an insane amount of pressure from some faculty who were very angry about the idea that we would have such a program.”

Roundtable faculty discussions about how to develop the program devolved into vicious personal attacks that left some professors who supported it in tears, Clemens said. Understandably, that led him to proceed more cautiously as the concept evolved.

“There are faculty who are persecuted over this—and, make no mistake, that happens,” he said. “I have emails to that effect from faculty that I don’t share. And you saw some of it if you attended the Faculty Executive Committee meeting, … which was not the kind of behavior I hope to see from faculty. It’s disappointing to me, and it does affect the way I proceed, because I’m trying to protect people from persecution.”

Accusations that SCiLL would be a political program run by outsiders are false, Clemens said.

“I see it as my job as chief academic officer to make sure that our academic programs are created, led, and run by faculty, and do not become political vehicles,” he said.

Fear and Loathing in Chapel Hill

At the request of Chancellor Guskiewicz, Provost Clemens has invited about 30 faculty members to serve on a working group to help develop SCiLL, which could take the form of a new department instead of a school. All but two agreed to serve on the committee, Clemens reported. One professor declined for lack of time. And the other?

“The other one declined because they were worried about their career if they were associated with it,” Clemens told us.

That, not the evolution of a curricular plan six years in the making, is the problem our entire university community should confront. If faculty members are afraid to be associated with a program that promotes free and open discussion, imagine how some of our students must feel.

The fevered and disingenuous opposition to an initiative steeped in classically liberal traditions of free inquiry and civil debate—and twice approved by the faculty—proves convincingly the need for just such a program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Perrin W. Jones is an anesthesiologist from Greenville and a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.