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Editorial: School of Civic Life is just another example of ideological combativeness

Cherry blossoms bloom on the UNC-CH Campus off of Polk Place on Feb. 14, 2023.

In January, the UNC Board of Trustees unveiled the School of Civic Life and Leadership – a new school within the College of Arts and Sciences. A resolution to accelerate the creation of the program was passed on Jan. 26 without the prior knowledge of faculty.

The new school will supposedly promote democracy and protect free speech at UNC. It’s astonishingly clear that the school is merely a Trojan horse for a blatantly conservative political agenda, a trend in political discourse that precedes this proposal.

BOT goes over the heads of faculty

To implement new curricula, faculty usually submit their ideas for approval – a bottom-up process facilitated by those with the technical credentials to do so. The BOT does not have the expertise to propose classes, much less an entire school. It proposed the new school under the guise of free speech, likely due to a suspicion that it wouldn’t have passed the proposal process.

We call on the BOT to answer for their decision – if the idea is intended to promote fair political discourse and open-mindedness, why rush the decision without consulting the faculty who are ultimately impacted? This decision was a strategic one.

An apolitical hiring process is wishful thinking

Faculty of the new school will consist of at least 20 outside hires, hinting that the BOT does not think that the University’s current faculty has the ability to teach without political biases.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz says that faculty won’t be hired based on political or ideological views. The point of the school is to include voices from across the ideological spectrum, and the purpose of hiring new faculty is to rid the new program of biases. But how would they know who to hire if the hiring process is apolitical?

BOT Chairperson David Boliek says that, while there is an abundance of left-leaning faculty members at UNC, we lack an equivalent right-leaning faculty population. The new school, then, “is an effort to try to remedy that.”

However, if we have more than enough liberal faculty at the University already, that means to even the ideological playing field, we need to actively seek conservative faculty members. Given the goals of the BOT, it is impossible that the hiring process will be apolitical.

Civic life and leadership are already abundant at UNC

Instead of including faculty in the creation and implementation of the school and making an effort to ensure the values of “civic life and leadership” are spread throughout the University, this new school effectively packs courses into one echo chamber of right-leaning thinking. Where have we heard that before?

Our University should already be a school of civic life and leadership, regardless of your discipline or political views. Courses in the new school will largely overlap the materials taught in other existing classes, wasting resources and fostering administrative confusion.

New conservative school, same conservative strategy

Ultimately, the BOT’s proposal was not out of an earnest desire to better the University. This action is indicative of attitudes, mirrored in the state and national politics, towards UNC and institutions like it as ideological combatants.

Ideological combativeness such as this is also present in the N.C. General Assembly. For instance, the NC REACH ACT, a pitiful derivative of former President Donald Trump’s ill-fated 1776 Commission, requires a class on the basics of American government in order to graduate from a UNC System university. The act itself was introduced on the divisive rhetoric that institutions of higher education, like UNC, are centers of liberal indoctrination.

It’s easy to tout the idea of liberal dominance. It’s a recognition that many of the young people and academics that make up higher education lean left. But if you’re interested in political dominance, we urge you to look to positions of power. A BOT and even a General Assembly with a conservative vision for UNC are indicative of which way meaningful and systemic political influences lean.

What about free speech?

The concept of self-censorship is too often used as a defense for this egregious overstep of administrative power. Those wary of voicing their views, out of fear of damaging relationships or villainizing themselves in the eyes of professors, often opt for silencing themselves.

If you are in perpetual fear of consequences for the things you have to say, it’s time to take a personal inventory of your views and ask why they might alienate your peers or have consequences – and why you do are unwilling to be held accountable for those views.

Let us be clear. There is no free speech crisis at UNC.  We have a crisis of campus employees not being paid livable wages. We have a crisis of not being able to hire and retain faculty members of color. We have a pervasive sexual assault crisis. A lead in the water crisis. A billion-dollar maintenance backlog crisis. 

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But, a free speech crisis? We don’t think so. 

To suggest you cannot comfortably be conservative in a country, state and academic institution with deeply conservative roots is to take on a victim complex that does not mirror the reality of right-leaning lived experiences.

The audacity of politicians to dictate class content down to the exact percentage weight of exams is indicative of their distrust and disrespect of educators. Politicians' involvement in education is politicizing education. Not the other way around.

This isn’t a proposal on behalf of a righteous conviction for promoting “civic leadership.” Millions of volunteer hours compiled and the swathes of student-led philanthropic clubs and organizations prove civic leadership is already in abundance. It’s the fact that UNC is predominantly liberal — the “wrong” kind of civic engagement in the eyes of the BOT.

Free speech and unbiased curricula are important, and no one's voice should feel stifled in the classroom. But is it the students and faculty who are scared of liberal discourse, or the BOT? They’ve certainly overstepped their job description to remedy it.


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