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Thursday December 2nd

New UNC program under fire for perceived conservative origins and lack of transparency

The Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse has generated controversy at public meetings and behind the scenes, with some faculty believing it is a veiled conservative program — and some concerned about why they are being left out of the process to form it. 

Chris Clemens, senior associate dean for research and innovation within the College of Arts & Sciences, has been named inaugural director and Robert George, the director of Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, is the chairperson of the advisory board for the program. 

Some concerns about the PCVCD having a conservative political bent stem from the appointment of Clemens and George to assist with the program. George is a well-known scholar who has co-written books including “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life” and “What is Marriage?” Clemens was accused of steering the program in the direction of a conservative center after a public records request showed emails between Clemens and George. 

One email from Clemens to George, sent in October 2017 and later referenced by concerned faculty, said: “I have been among the most outspoken conservative members of the Art & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years, sponsoring the College Republicans, the Carolina Review, and several other student organizations. I am currently the senior associate dean of natural sciences, and am intrigued to learn of our administration's interest in housing a conservative center on campus.” 

Clemens has since said that this message was taken out of context, and that the program as it exists now is not based on any political ideology or platform. Rather, he said it should enhance debate and discussion on campus. 

“Its purpose is to support a culture of open, frank, respectful and productive debate, and the only ideology is we’re committed to the power of the University as a place for socializing debate and democratic culture,” he said. “Not one side, not two sides, but all possible ways that we can see the democracy of discussion.” 

Origins 

Early in the process of discussing the program, in the fall of 2017, a group including then-Chancellor Carol Folt, then-UNC system President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer visited the Madison Program, which is often seen as right-leaning, at Princeton. A UNC group also visited Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought, another program that has been accused of having conservative origins. 

Though certain faculty see these visits as emblematic of conservative origins to the PCVCD, many involved in the program say it will be different from the ones they visited. Lawrence Grossberg, a UNC professor who is involved in the PCVCD’s advisory committee, said the Princeton and ASU programs can be considered somewhat similar to conservative think tanks. The UNC program, he said, will not be. 

Grossberg, who considers himself a progressive, said the people who attack the PCVCD don’t seem to understand history. Citing the example that UNC was built by slaves but has adjusted and changed over time, he said the idea for the program is not necessarily the same as it was at its initial conception. 

“I don’t really care what the original idea for this program was,” Grossberg said. “It has morphed over time to become something that I think is valuable, necessary, unique in the intellectual academic world, and something that seems quite appropriate to the way in which I think of UNC.” 

Maxine Eichner, a UNC law professor, is concerned with the origins of the program because she said it originated with the Chancellor and the Board of Governors rather than the faculty. She said the programming on campus should not be linked to outside political influence. 

“Because you win an election does not mean that universities should change that programming, and in fact, I think it’s quite dangerous when the winners of elections get to dictate what a University does,” she said.  

Funding 

According to public records, the planning budget for the program in the proposal was set to cost $200,000. The first phase, which involved planning, hiring a founding academic director and hiring an executive, was set to cost $11.2 million; the second phase of an operating budget was set to cost $1.41 million annually; and the third phase of “growing the program” was set to be $900,000 annually. 

Many faculty remain curious as to where this funding comes from — and some wonder whether some donors are conservatives with a compelling interest in conservative programming at UNC. Jay Smith, a UNC history professor, requested information about who donated money to the program on July 2, 2019. The request was closed, with the University using the explanation that the UNC Foundation is not a governmental entity and donor records are not public records. 

The UNC Foundation has generated controversy in the past because it is considered a private entity despite its connections to the public University. 

Several UNC faculty members serve on the PCVCD advisory committee along with Board of Trustees and Board of Governors representatives, and outside faculty. Each external advisory committee member from outside the University will receive a stipend of $20,000 for their involvement. 

The UNC faculty members on the board will not receive the stipend, Clemens said. Rather, he said faculty will have incentive opportunities later on if they enhance their courses with debate. 

Faculty Involvement 

Clemens said there are far more faculty involved in the PCVCD than those on the board. He had conversations with professors from a variety of academic areas to discuss ideas for the program, he said. 

However, some faculty feel left out of the process and are suspicious that they were not looped into discussions about the program — specifically advisory board meetings, which Eichner believes should be open to faculty. She emailed Clemens asking to attend, though he said the meetings were open only to “members of the board and relevant administrators/staff.” 

One specific area where Eichner is concerned that she was not included in discussions is civic virtue — one part of the program’s title. Though this is a political theory term and Eichner is one of three political theorists at UNC, she said she was not asked to discuss the program with Clemens until after the meeting where he presented the PCVCD. 

The words “Civic Virtue” had only recently been added to the program, which as of last year had a drafted name of the “Center for American Values and Civil Discourse.” She said that when she met with Clemens, he said he did not consult the political theorists because he did not realize the term was related to political theory.  

Clemens said the name was changed after he consulted faculty, and they agreed that it was “not so good.” He said the name will likely change again to something simpler before the program goes into effect, though the content of the program does not change based on the name. 

UNC professor emeritus of Sociology Sherryl Kleinman is one of over 90 UNC faculty who signed onto an op-ed, published on Sunday in the Raleigh News and Observer, pointing out their grievances with the PCVCD. Kleinman’s concerns with the program involve both the lack of faculty involvement in making decisions about this program and what she perceives as an ideological bias in the program itself.  

Ideology in the Classroom 

Drafts of the program’s mission have referenced a need to enhance debate on campus, and an early draft of a guiding document for the program pointed out the “relative impoverishment of the conservative approach to liberal arts education.” 

Grossberg said he does not know if there is necessarily a free speech issue on campus, but he does believe that there are people from all areas of the political spectrum who think that there is. This, he said, is sufficient enough to be an issue that needs to be addressed. 

“I don’t think such feelings are limited to one position, and I think the program is devoted to saying, any intelligent position that can argue for itself and that is not advocating hatred and violence, etc. etc., should have a right to be heard and to make its arguments and to be engaged with,” he said. 

Faculty with concerns about the program do not disagree that debate is important, but they believe that they already incorporate healthy debate and open discussion in their classrooms.  Cary Levine, a professor in the Department of Art and Art History, said he does not believe UNC faculty try to educate students toward any specific ideology. 

“A lot of what’s being said about it sounds great,” Levine said. “Why not have more open discussion and debate and exchanging of ideas and exposure to more points of view? All of that is great. It’s very unclear why we need an entire new program, new funding, new faculty to do that.”   

@MaeveSheehey

university@dailytarheel.com

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