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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: What skills will SCiLL teach?

South Building is pictured on Oct. 10, 2022.

UNC-Chapel Hill has made national news for another self-inflicted controversy. The discussion focuses on a problem that doesn’t exist (incivility in the classroom), a problem that can’t be solved (incivility outside of the classroom) and selling widgets.

We are overlooking the real problem: a $3 million funding gap obstructing the new IDEAs in Action curriculum.

When the new curriculum was approved by the faculty, the administration and our advisory boards, the plan was to secure funding for the new junior- and senior-level courses it required later. Later is now.

(Incidentally, the $3 million estimate is for non-tenured faculty, which raises questions about freedom: will new, non-tenured faculty be free to express themselves and free from partisan interference, which has damaged faculty and shuttered programs before?)

The School of Civic Life and Leadership – punnily referred to as SCiLL – was conceived by Provost Chris Clemens and recommended by our Board of Trustees. It would exist inside the College of Arts and Sciences, merge with the Program for Public Discourse and address two parts of the University’s strategic plan: Promote Democracy and Communication Beyond Carolina.

The provost and members of the Board have talked — in the budget proposal for this school, at the Board meeting and to news outlets — about reducing political polarization. The goal seems to be to change both students’ willingness to discuss difficult topics in the classroom and how strongly they feel about them.

A recent UNC study cited in the proposal shows that students are most worried not about their professors, or the curriculum, but about how their peers perceive them. One might argue that these students are experiencing pangs of conscience, or perhaps simply learning to read the room – a valuable social skill, not a flaw in the curriculum.

Students experience emotions and undergo partisan polarization because they hold values. If, for instance, you look at the state of North Carolina’s schools and wonder if raising taxes would help the children that we are allowing to face hunger and illiteracy, I can consider the data with dispassion; but I will be impatient if you say raising taxes is bad without a realistic proposal for how else we’ll find money to help.

It's not just our students whose feelings sometimes overcome them. Trustee John Preyer spoke with visible frustration about the Program for Public Discourse at the last Board meeting, calling it a “glorified speaker series” as he urged the creation of this new school. He was frustrated because he cared. Similarly, the discussion between Clemens and the faculty last week got heated, probably because the faculty care if they still oversee teaching, and the provost cares about implementing this new plan.

I care about things, too: getting that $3 million, hiring some new teachers and spending whatever else we can get on things like low staff pay, maintenance, food insecurity on campus, and expanding our new School of Data Science and Society.

Theodore Nollert, President, UNC Chapel Hill Graduate and Professional Student Government


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