Advocates for the Program for Public Discourse met with UNC faculty Monday to strategize bringing civil discussion and structured advocacy to the classroom — but some professors raised concerns about ethics, money and politics.
Housed in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, the program has been a subject of recent debate, with several staff members noting possible conservative bias.
Monday's roundtable was the first of three scheduled meetings between staff members and program advocates. The stated mission of the program is for faculty members to teach students about methods of discussion mediation and engaging in structured debates.
The program is planning to offer courses in civil conversation to students that will not count toward any degree or certificate requirements.
“This is not a curriculum program at this point,” said Terry Rhodes, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “But that could happen. I don’t want to say that that’s not possible.”
She said the program would move forward with a faculty-led, faculty-approved initiative.
The group is led by inaugural director Chris Clemens, senior associate dean for research and innovation within the College of Arts and Sciences. Conservative Princeton scholar Robert George acts as chairperson of the advisory board. The Dowd Foundation Inc. — a Charlotte-based nonprofit faculty have claimed has conservative ties — has contributed significant funding.
Rhodes did not confirm that the program has received any support from liberal donors.
English and comparative literature professor Elyse Crystall said she had concerns about the lack of transparency in funding for the program.
“Does it matter what the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences have to say about this?” Crystall said.
Donna Gilleskie, professor and department chairperson of economics, said she supports the Program for Public Discourse because of its mission to encourage a meaningful exchange of ideas.
“I don’t have the training to have a conversation about things that go in different directions,” she said.
Gilleskie also said students might not be able to have civil disagreements without the program.
Still, many faculty members expressed unease about the origins of the program negating its potential toward positive change.
“This is not suspicion,” said Hồng-Ân Trương, director of Graduate Studies in Studio Art. “There is a fact in the way this program was created. It’s problematic and incredibly unethical.”
She said she wants to have a conversation with the UNC community about civil discourse, but that the program would not be reaching it’s mission if it accepted ideologically biased money and leadership.
“If cash rules everything around us, what are we?" asked Dwayne Dixon, a global Asian studies professor. "How much power do we really have?”
He said that for the faculty to approve the program, more factual data on the opinions and demographics of students and staff would be needed.
“Do we actually have a need for this?” Dixon said.
He said UNC already has organizations that celebrate diversity without the motive of outside funding. Women, people of color and LGBTQ+ identifying individuals need to be part of the development, he said.
Throughout the meeting, Rhodes directed the group back to her central question. She said she hoped to learn from the meeting how professors are fostering constructive debates for their own students.
“I consider that my intellectual property,” geography professor Altha Cravey said. “I use that in my own classroom. The reason I’m here is to talk about the reasons and origins behind this program.”
The group did not reach a settlement. Much of the Program for Civil Discourse’s origins remain a question for the attendees.
Rhodes said she will host as many of these meetings as needed until consensus about the future of the program is reached.
“I am listening, I really am," Rhodes said. “But I do see a need for the program. I do.”
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