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‘I’m flabbergasted’: UNC leaders blindsided by trustees' decision on School of Civic Life and Leadership

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South Building is pictured on Oct. 10, 2022.

When UNC law professor Eric Muller first read the editorial headline, he said his eyes fell out of his head. 

On Jan. 26, the Faculty Executive Committee member was in a Zoom meeting when he saw a screenshot of a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “UNC Takes on the University Echo Chamber.”

“I thought: how on Earth? How on Earth could the Wall Street Journal know this,” Muller said. 

The UNC Board of Trustees passed a resolution on Thursday to “accelerate” the creation of a new program — the School of Civic Life and Leadership. 

Provost Chris Clemens said at a Monday Faculty Executive Committee meeting that he didn't know the resolution was coming from the Board — "I was surprised," he said.

Proposals for new schools, degrees and curriculums have historically come from faculty leaders and their vote is required for approval.

Muller said no member of the faculty knew of this “major development.”

'Flabbergasted'

According the resolution, the trustees' requested to accelerate the development of the School for Civic Life and Leadership with the goal of promoting democracy and benefitting society. 

“The board doesn’t have any ability to propose a class, to propose a degree, or — for God’s sake — to propose a school,” Holden Thorp, who served as UNC’s chancellor from 2008 to 2013, said.

He said the BOT’s resolution is an example of the “worst governance” he thinks he’s ever seen.

Mimi Chapman, chairperson of faculty, said she was “flabbergasted” in response to the exclusion of faculty input in the decision, which she said she considers to be an attack on shared University governance. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz  sent a campus-wide email Friday announcing the school, entitled “Promoting democracy and staying true to our commitment."

“One of the strategic initiatives in our plan is to Promote Democracy," the email read. "We know the importance of building the next generation of leaders to strengthen our country’s institutions and serve as the citizens we need to solve the grand challenges of our time." 

For faculty leaders like Chapman, the message seemed disrespectful. She said the School undermines and criticizes the whole enterprise of the institution. 

'Woke indoctrination'

The announcement of the School comes after a series of tensions regarding University leadership and many see the announcement of the School as a political decision. 

“If you get praised by the Wall Street Journal (Editorial) page, you’re getting praised for being a conservative,” Thorp said. 

David Boliek, chairperson of the BOT, gave an interview about the resolution Saturday to Fox & Friends.  The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Boliek for comment, but he did not respond but the time of publication. Other members of the board referred comment to Boliek or did not respond for comment. 

“We have no shortage of faculty with progressive, left-wing views,” Boliek said on Fox News. “The same really can’t be said of right-of-center views.”

Guskiewicz also noted the School is a "natural extension" of the IDEAS in Action curriculum, a new class model that encourages student to individualize their education. The curriculum began for first-years in fall 2022. 

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Thorp said the current most “potent” Republican talking point is the “woke indoctrination” of higher education. He also noted the Program for Public Discourse is popular with the Republican Legislature and Republican-leaning trustees. 

Thorp said he thinks the BOT tipped off the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board for a "conservative perspective" on the resolution. The editorial was published hours after the BOT voted on the resolution with direct quotes from trustees. 

The Daily Tar Heel submitted a public records request to the University regarding communication between trustees and the Wall Street Journal Editorial Staff prior to the formal announcement of the resolution. The request is still awaiting response.

Chapman said she thinks the School is opportunity for donors to fund programs against what they perceive is the indoctrination of liberal ideology at the University — a phenomenon that Chapman said she doesn’t believe exists.

The “dogma” that higher education is submitting to progressive politics is unfounded, Chapman said.  

“I absolutely disagree with that,” Chapman said. “I do not think that is true in any way, shape or form.”

She added that, even if the University holds a majority left-of-center political perspective, it only means that is the reflective community opinion.

Taliajah "Teddy" Vann, student body president and ex-officio member of the BOT, said she doesn’t think the University is indoctrinating students into any kind of ideology. 

“Our campus community is a place with a wide array of people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives," Vann said. 

'Shared governance'

Chapman said the faculty had no involvement in the creation of the resolution. She said she received no notice of the potential School before seeing the Wall Street Journal editorial.

“And of course, a key principle of shared governance is that the faculty is in charge of the curriculum,” she said.

According to the campus-wide email, any proposed degree program or school will be developed and led by members of the faculty. Chapman said omitting faculty from decision-making would infuriate them.

Vann also said she had no previous knowledge of the resolution before it was voted on in open-session Thursday. She abstained from the vote. 

“It’s not a question of democracy, but rather one of shared governance,” Vann said. “And it is not shared governance if you do not include faculty voices, and you do not include student voices.”

She said that any decision that does not involve all stakeholders in its development is not in the best interest of the student body. Power structures are not working in the ways they are supposed to if everyone isn't part of the conversation, she said.

'Dismissed and devalued'

Chapman said the lack of communication regarding the resolution will make faculty feel “dismissed and devalued” at a time when faculty retention is already low. 

Muller said the resolution process was disrespectful of the faculty and noted the faculty deserved consultation on the merits of the proposal before the resolution passed. 

Thorp said that the BOT’s development of the resolution is ironic considering trustees want UNC to excel in national rankings, yet they “alienate” the faculty allowing the University to succeed. 

“It’s further erosion of trust between the faculty and the administration,” Thorp said. 

Clemens said the idea of the resolution is to give a "superstructure" to the program for public discourse that faculty will lead. He spoke about the new Committee on Academic Freedom and Free Expression, which will advise the chancellor on ways to "advance academic freedom and articulate free speech norms" on campus, according to UNC Media Relations. The University said the committee will have no oversight role in the School.

During a FEC meeting on Monday, many University community members expressed concern toward the intentions behind the School's creation. Some faculty members voiced that they already teach civic engagement and communication skills in the classroom.

Clemens said that the University is a place for democracy and that he hopes to do what is right for the student body. 

In a tweet following the meeting, Thorp said it was significant that administrators were "surprised" by the resolution. 

"No functional board would do this," he wrote. "Dark, dark times in Chapel Hill."

@abbypenderr

university@dailytarheel.com

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of Student Body President Taliajah "Teddy" Vann. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

The original version of this article also incorrectly said the University’s newly-formed Committee on Academic Freedom and Free Expression had an oversight role in the proposed development of the School of Civic Life and Leadership. They have no oversight role in that process.The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.