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Emails reveal trustee's communication with Wall Street Journal prior to resolution approval

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South Building is pictured on Oct. 10, 2022.

Board of Trustees Vice Chairperson John Preyer communicated with the Wall Street Journal editorial team about the School for Civic Life and Leadership as early as Jan. 24, according to emails obtained by The Daily Tar Heel. The resolution calling for the “acceleration” of the School was approved on Jan. 26.

Collin Levy, a WSJ editorial board member and past speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, asked Preyer in a Jan. 25 email to review a quote: 

“But it's ‘not going to be an indoctrination shop,’ Board Member John Preyer tells us. ‘I don’t want to indoctrinate on the right anymore than I want to indoctrinate on the left. We want talented people with the goal of civic discourse,’” the email said. 

Preyer’s quote was only partially included in the WSJ editorial.

Before Levy's quote review email, Preyer forwarded to her an email from Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal — a nonprofit whose stated mission is to improve higher education in North Carolina and nationwide. The email included three articles discussing the political affiliation of UNC faculty members. 

Two statistics from a College Fix report were referenced in Robinson’s attached articles – that Democratic professors outnumber Republican professors 16:1 at UNC and that, in some departments, the ratio is 23:1. The data is referenced in the Wall Street Journal’s first editorial on the new School, “UNC Takes on the University Echo Chamber.”

Robinson said she receives periodic requests from trustees asking her for information on viewpoint diversity at UNC because she's done a lot of research on the topic, she said, and often gives quotes to media outlets. Robinson also said that Preyer originally called her with a request for the articles, which she later emailed for “something the trustees were working on.”

According to the email chain, Preyer encouraged Levy to reach out directly to Robinson if needed.

“I didn't have any correspondence with Collin Levy,” Robinson said. 

Robinson said she is aware that Levy is on the WSJ editorial team. And, when asked about Preyer’s correspondence with the WSJ, Robinson said she had no comment.

Neither Levy nor Preyer responded to The Daily Tar Heel’s requests for comment by the time of publication. 

The emails obtained also show that a Fox News producer reached out to Preyer and BOT Chairperson David Boliek on Jan. 27, asking if they could appear on Fox & Friends the following morning to give a "national platform" to the potential development of the School at UNC. 

The Daily Tar Heel spoke with a public relations specialist who has knowledge of University communications and administration. They requested to remain anonymous. 

The specialist said they believe it was also most likely that the Board went through a PR firm to make initial contact between trustees and WSJ. 

Records additionally show that the University purchased communication services from PR firm Eckel and Vaughan on July 11, 2022 for $50,000. 

Holden Thorp, UNC chancellor from 2008 to 2013, said Preyer’s communication with the WSJ affirms his belief that the Board acted out of a conservative political agenda to push the “acceleration” of the School's development. 

Additional findings 

The night it was published, Kamrhan Farwell, vice chancellor of communications at the University, sent the WSJ’s editorial to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz at 2 a.m. with the subject line “It's written by the editorial board.”

Emails also reveal a list of courses proposed in a draft of the budget for the new School. The potential classes include: 

  • “The Good Life: Religion, Philosophy, and Life’s Ultimate Concerns” 
  • “Democracy: Ancient and Modern” 
  • “Liberty and Equality in American Political Thought” 
  • “Race and the American Story”
  • “Capitalism and its Critics” 
  • “Conservatism and its Critics” 
  • “Liberalism and Its Critics” 
  • “The Role of Science and Religion in Society” 
  • “Leadership for Engineers” 
  • “Leadership, Fame, and Failure” 
  • “Medicine and Human Flourishing”
  • “Living Well and Dying Well: From Confucians to Cryonics” 

The final budget proposal excluded these proposed classes but included a budget of just over $3.5 million dollars for the 2023-2024 school year with a yearly budget increase of about $3 million until 2026-2027. 

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This budget originated from a funding proposal from Jim White, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. According to White’s original presentation, he requested $3.085 million to hire 32 teaching assistant professors and five teaching fellows to cover instructional needs for the “promoting democracy” component of the IDEAs in Action curriculum – Communication Beyond Carolina.

“The University has approximately 20,000 undergraduates (more than 17,000 of whom are in the College). When the curriculum is fully rolled out over the next three years with each new entering class, 5,000-6,000 students could be taking a COMMBEYOND course in any one year,” White said in an email to faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

In a Dec. 20, 2022 email to the chancellor and Vice Chancellor of Finance Nate Knuffman, Provost Chris Clemens said:  “Here is one way to fund the build out of the Comm Beyond component in the curriculum (which Jim White and team have requested $3M in the current budget to do), as well as create a signature democracy initiative.”

He attached the final budget proposal for the School of Civic Life and Leadership, along with a description of and justification for the potential School.

According to Clemens’ documents, the School will attempt to counteract “the forces of polarization, isolation, and distrust” that impede universities across the country. The justification also names a new Civic Studies major and minor as a part of the School that would prepare students to become “active citizens and thoughtful leaders.”

Clemens, a self-proclaimed “outspoken conservative” among Arts & Sciences faculty, said the School aims to expand the already existing Program for Public Discourse, which he previously developed to create a “conservative center” on campus.

This story is part of a Daily Tar Heel series regarding the development of the UNC School of Civic Life and Leadership.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the years for which Holden Thorp served as UNC's chancellor. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

@abbypenderr

university@dailytarheel.com

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