The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday December 2nd

Despite controversial origins, Program for Public Discourse aims to foster debate

The UNC Program for Public Discourse, housed within the College of Arts and Sciences, received an $8 million donation to launch a new speaker series, which aims to promote democracy and constructive public discourse. 

But due to past accusations of an ideological bent and a lack of transparency within the program, students and faculty remain wary of its intentions. 

UNC graduate Nancy Abbey, with her husband Doug Abbey, made donations to fund the Abbey Speaker Series, which will bring four panels to UNC each year.  

The program hosted its first panel of the Abbey Speakers Series, “Defining Racial Justice in the 21st Century: Competing Perspectives and Shared Goals," on Feb. 23. The next panel, “The Future of Conservatism," is set to commence on March 23, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

Their first panel, which is now available on YouTube, had over 500 registrations. Sarah Treul, the faculty director of the program, said she hopes the series will provide a medium for those in the UNC community to engage with others on contentious issues they may otherwise be hesitant to discuss. 

“Our main vision is to support the strong culture of debate and deliberation at UNC,” Treul said. “We mean a dialogue in which participants are able to share their reasoning about important or contentious issues, which is key to a democracy, and have their ideas challenged by those people who might think differently.” 

Treul said the Program for Public Discourse seeks to showcase good arguments rather than partisan talking points. 

“We anticipate that people who attend our events, specifically the Abbey Speakers Series, that people might even walk away reconsidering some of their cherished beliefs,” Treul said. “In other cases, people might even end up saying, ‘Now I know exactly why I don’t believe that other opinion.'”

Past controversy

In 2019, two classics professors wrote a letter to the editor to The Daily Tar Heel, opposing the presence of members outside of the University on the Program for Public Discourse advisory committee. One of these members was Robert George, the chairperson of the committee. 

George is the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is also the co-author of books such as “What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense” and “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life."

At present, the program's advisory committee consists only of UNC faculty members. After faculty input, the program's original name — The Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse — was changed prior to its formal launch date. 

In 2019, The Daily Tar Heel reported that members of the American Association of University Professors requested that UNC disclose the seed donor of the program. Chris Clemens, the program’s interim faculty director at the time, responded on the same day and said that he believed the largest donation to the program was from the Dowd Foundation. 

Then in another letter to the editor, Jay Smith, vice president of the association, said that after the AAUP's public records request for confirmation about the program's funding was denied, Clemens' email response showed that at the time, he was "being less than honest."

Response to the program now

Smith told The Daily Tar Heel that now, in regards to transparency, it is good to know where the Abbey’s donation is coming from.

“Donors can do whatever they want, obviously, with the money that they donate,” Smith said. “They can ear mark it in any way they choose to, so I have nothing against the donors. But, what bothers me is there has been this site established now where donors of a certain political persuasion can funnel their money and seek to shape campus discourse.”

Smith said he does not have an issue with conservatism, but is worried the Abbey Speaker Series will inorganically bolster conservative thought on campus. 

“Some of those events may be worthwhile and worth paying attention to, but the overriding objective is going to be, I am sure, making sure that conservatives are well represented in the discourse,” Smith said.

Kenneth Janken, a history professor at UNC, said he has undecided views of the program. He hosted Touré Reed, a speaker from the first panel of the Abbey Speaker Series, in his AAAD 491 class. 

“I haven't formed an opinion about the public discourse program, as I have had limited exposure to it,” Janken in an email to the DTH. “I was glad it approached my department about cosponsoring the panel discussion and discussed with me the structure of the event, including possible panelists.”

Avra Janz, the education co-chairperson for the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at UNC, said she is concerned about the lack of public information available on the program’s advisory committee. She said students need this context for what they hear when they attend the events.

“Obviously I am grateful to this couple’s donation to an institution of higher learning,” Janz said. “It is a very generous donation, but I believe that the Program for Public Discourse is seriously flawed and I am afraid that its lack of transparency, which has been a repeated and an endemic problem with the program, renders the program antithetical to promoting genuine public discourse.”

The Daily Tar Heel's requests for comment from multiple other student political organizations were not fulfilled by the time of publication.

Smith reiterated that he believes that conservative discourse can be healthy on campus — when it comes about naturally. 

“It is perfectly fine — all well and good — for conservative perspectives to be articulated on our campus so long as it is organic," Smith said. "It comes from our campus and it reflects the interests, the desires and the disciplinary expertise of our faculty and students."

Updated March 22: The Program for Public Discourse's website lists the current advisory committee. The website currently does not include information about the original advisory committee that shaped the program's mission statement and curriculum. Members of the original advisory committee were listed online when the program first launched.

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