UNC’s School of Civic Life and Leadership Is Up and Running

The Martin Center checks in on the new, civil discourse-focused academic unit.

Only 14 months after the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted to accelerate the creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership, SCiLL has made significant progress.

“The idea for the new school’s pro-democracy curriculum goes back years—and has involved faculty input from the beginning,” UNC-Chapel Hill trustee Perrin Jones wrote for the Martin Center last year. The trustees’ vote in 2023 turned that planning into reality.

The School of Civic Life and Leadership has made significant progress since January of last year.Despite some initial skepticism and roadblocks, the university has secured $4 million in non-recurring funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, appointed inaugural faculty members, launched a new minor, and hired a dean—all since January 2023.

“It was a little over a year from the passage of our resolution establishing the School of Civic Life and Leadership to the hiring of its dean, Jed Atkins,” Board Chair John Preyer told the Martin Center. “Classes start this fall—Carolina is leading nationally on this effort and has set a record for timeliness in the process. We are all very proud.”

Last summer, the North Carolina General Assembly included funding for SCiLL in its biennial budget: $2 million in non-recurring funding for 2023-24 and 2024-25. The bill also directed the school to:

1. Provide course opportunities for students. Courses may focus on the development of democratic competencies informed by American history and the American political tradition, with the purpose of fostering public discourse and civil engagement necessary to promote democracy and benefit society;

2. Subject to approval of the Provost and the inaugural dean of the School, house the Program on Public Discourse;

3. Develop programming to address the topics identified in subdivision (1) of this subsection and provide resources to students, faculty, and the general public, as needed;

4. Hire at least 10 and no more than 20 faculty members from outside the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Then, in October 2023, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jim White announced the appointment of nine inaugural faculty members from a variety of disciplines. “Drawn from the ranks of tenured faculty in the College, these nine faculty members will articulate the vision for this new school and build the necessary infrastructure to begin the school’s operations,” a UNC press release explained. Faculty were drawn from STEM, the humanities, and the social sciences. Among the appointees are professors of English, philosophy, communications, history, political science, physics and astronomy, and psychology and neuroscience.

“I have every confidence that the foundational work done by our pioneering nine will lead to a school that showcases Carolina’s strengths in discourse, civic life and democracy,” White said at the time.

SCiLL faculty have been drawn from STEM fields, the humanities, and the social sciences.On March 1 of this year, SCiLL announced the creation of a new minor in civic life and leadership. In a press release, SCiLL’s interim director, Sarah Treul Roberts, explained that the new minor “will train students in civil discourse so that they can be engaged citizens prepared to safeguard our democracy. It is intentionally designed to be interdisciplinary and appeal broadly to a wide range of undergraduates.”

The minor features two mandatory courses, one in the “foundations” and one in the “practice” of civic life and leadership. Students will also take two required elective courses. “The two required elective courses can be chosen from more than 30 offerings grouped into three categories: scientific evidence and engagement, intellectual history and humanities, and civics and political institutions,” according to the news release. The minor concludes with a capstone course with a service-learning or original project. The new courses begin in fall 2024.

On the same day, trustees voted to approve Jed Atkins as the school’s permanent dean. Atkins was previously the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Duke University and director of Duke’s Civil Discourse Project. He began work at UNC on March 28.

“At a time of increasing polarization and declining public trust in our institutions, the development of SCiLL represents a remarkable opportunity for America’s first public university to continue to lead our country in preparing ‘a rising generation’ for lives of thoughtful civic engagement required for a flourishing democracy,” said Atkins in a UNC press release. “During the search process, I was deeply impressed by the commitment of so many members of the Carolina community to this mission, including faculty and students associated with SCiLL and the Program for Public Discourse. I am honored to be joining them in their vital work of providing a civic education that promotes the common good of the Carolina community, the state, nation and world.”

UNC’s new School of Civic Life and Leadership is off to an exciting start, further establishing UNC-Chapel Hill as a leader in free speech, open inquiry, and civil discourse.

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