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Faculty debate a new program with conservative origins

Old Well

The Old Well is a fixture of McCorkle Place.

The Faculty Executive Committee discussed a fledging academic program at their Tuesday afternoon meeting — the Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse (PCVCD). The program’s origins and declared purpose have generated debate among faculty, with some arguing the PCVCD is an appeal to conservative actors.  

Chris Clemens was recently named the senior associate dean for research and innovation within the College of Arts & Sciences, and has been working on developing the PCVCD, which will strive to prepare students for “civic and political engagement,” and for “rewarding relationships in spaces of intimacy and leisure.”

One of the program's underlying philosophies is demands on faculty time and focus are interfering with their ability to engage in broader conversations, and establishing a collective of professors from a wide array of disciplines can counteract the stifling of robust debate.

But some faculty are wary — given the murkiness behind the PCVCD's origins — and they're concerned the program won’t reflect the needs of UNC’s student body or faculty. 

“This comes from certain politics, it comes from people who have certain agendas,” said Sherryl Kleinman, professor emeritus in the sociology department. 

Clemens said the program grew out of talks between leaders at the University and state levels, and Robert George, a conservative scholar from Princeton. George is listed as the chairperson of the new program's advisory board, and is a co-drafter of the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” which according to The New York Times is a “4,700-word manifesto that promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.”

“Is it the fact that there’s an agenda, or that there’s an agenda you don’t like?” Someone in the room asked Kleinman. 

“It’s that it was an agenda that was not faculty generated,” Kleinman responded. 

Faculty members said they remember former Chancellor Carol Folt promoting the idea for a similar program a year ago, and some are now concerned that this program is being implemented at the behest of the Board of Governors. 

“I’m quite sure that this is not what the BOG had in mind. I’m quite sure this is not what Carol Folt had in mind,” said Lawrence Grossberg in the communications department. Grossberg argued the new program would offer a needed forum for intellectual disagreement on campus.

“They opened the door, and I think Chris and others walked through the crack.”

Clemens said the program will offer UNC students a wider degree of academic freedom in the realm of debate and contentious conversation, an area he said the University could improve its offerings in. Students on campus think there are too few opportunities for conservative viewpoints, he said. 

Aside from George, the new program’s external advisory board includes Paul Carrese, the founding director of Arizona State University's School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership, which was created with funding from the conservative state legislature in Arizona.

There’s also Duke professor Farr Curlin, who, as an ethicist, “addresses questions regarding whether and in what ways physicians’ religious commitments ought to shape their clinical practices in a plural democracy.”

The final member of the external advisory board is Harvard lecturer Jacqueline C. Rivers, a former doctoral fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy in the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

“It really freaks me out that that board is so monolithic,” said Mark Crescenzi, chair of the UNC political science department. “It’s missing so much expertise on the internal side.”

Clemens said regardless of the program’s origins, the UNC faculty and their viewpoints will be critical to its implementation moving forward. 

“I know that there may be an optics problems because of the way it started, but it won’t be any worse than the optics problem we already have,” he said. 

The PCVCD is still in the early stages of development. Clemens said the largest gift it has received has been from the Dowd foundation, and he thinks a donation from the Park Foundation is currently being pursued. UNC does not accept donations that limit academic freedom.

“This is what a good conversation does,” said chairperson of the faculty Lloyd Kramer. “It just grows.”

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