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Role of chancellor, provost in proposed UNC School of Civic Life and Leadership unclear

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Some in the UNC community have questioned Provost Chris Clemens’ and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz’s role in the Board of Trustees’ resolution on the University School of Civic Life and Leadership. Photo of Guskiewicz courtesy of Johnny Andrews.

The resolution to “accelerate” the development of the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership was brought to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz just 20 minutes before the Jan. 26 Board of Trustees meeting, a high-ranking University official told The Daily Tar Heel. 

The official, who wished to remain anonymous, also said there is "uncertainty" around how much knowledge Provost Chris Clemens had of the resolution prior to its public announcement.

UNC Media Relations confirmed that the Board first shared the resolution with the chancellor and provost the morning of Thursday, Jan. 26. 

Historically, the chancellor and provost have proposed developments of new schools to the Board and have been part of long-term faculty discussion prior to their approval. Such new programs, along with new degrees and curricula, have often been proposed by faculty leaders. 

According to the resolution, the trustees proposed the School have a minimum of 20 faculty members that would oversee degree-oriented programs in public discourse and the "promotion of democracy."

Hours after the 12-0 trustee vote to approve the School, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial commending the resolution for its action to address "woke politics"  in higher education. The article included direct quotes from Board Chairperson David Boliek and Vice Chairperson John Preyer.

Faculty expressed concern over the lack of faculty input in the resolution's creation and discussion of the School. 

Holden Thorp, UNC chancellor from 2008 to 2013, said community members also questioned the potential political motivations behind the resolution and whether trustees communicated with The Wall Street Journal to curate media coverage. 

Precedent

The School of Data Science and Society is the most recent school to be developed at UNC. 

Prior to the School's final approval, it was discussed in multiple faculty committees and proposed to the BOT by the chancellor for endorsement before its formal vote. Holistically, the development process took 20 years, and much of its finalization was led by faculty member Jay Aikat.

Mimi Chapman, chairperson of the faculty, said the process of creating new schools requires time and transparency between campus bodies. 

"There is faculty voice from multiple directions and faculty leadership, frankly, around these initiatives," she said.

“In a normal way of operating, such a resolution would never have gone to the board without the chancellor’s knowledge and the provost’s knowledge,” James Moeser, UNC chancellor from 2000 to 2008, said. “It was totally premature.”

According to the BOT's bylaws, the chancellor reviews every item on the agenda before a meeting. The resolution regarding the school was absent from the Jan. 26 board meeting agenda, although any member can present or take action on an item regardless of its inclusion in the agenda.

And, in the Jan. 26 BOT meeting, Boliek said the creation of the school falls under UNC System Codes 400.1 and 400.1.1. These codes include information regarding compliance, academic programming and degree planning. 

"I think that is the relevant code for development of this, but there may be a way to do it outside of that as long as we, as a University, give the latitude to the deans, provost, administration to work within the policy code," Boliek said in the meeting. "I think that's superfluous, in my opinion, to list the code."

Trustee Ralph Meekins said he is unaware of who authored the resolution and that he doesn't know who initially kickstarted the process. 

The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Boliek for comment, but he did not respond by time of publication.

Previous concerns over program development

Confusion over the development of the resolution follows past community concerns regarding the UNC Program for Public Discourse and Clemens' appointment as provost in December 2021.

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The Program for Public Discourse aims to give students appropriate "rhetorical and deliberative" tools to participate in public argument through seminars, workshops and speaker series.

Clemens first presented the idea of the program in 2017, while he was senior associate dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, in an email to Robert George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. 

Clemens described in his email that he was inspired to start a program at UNC similar to the Madison Program, which is dedicated to exploring enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought. He wrote, in the same email, that he was interested in forming a similar "conservative center."

“I have been among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years, sponsoring the College Republicans, Carolina Review and several other student organizations,” Clemens wrote in the same email.

In 2019, members of the Faculty Council called for delaying the development of the Program for Public Discourse, citing how the development had been going on “behind closed doors in administrative offices for two years,” according to the council's response to the proposal for the program's creation. 

The request also said the purposes of the program “amount to a blatant departure from the longstanding AAUP (American Association of University Professors) and UNC principle that curriculum must come exclusively from the faculty,” according to their response. 

According to the UNC Faculty Code of University Government, the administrative board of a respective school and the Faculty Council have the duty to review and approve new programs and curricula. They also have the power to examine and pass all new courses in that particular school or college.

Delay for the development of the program was defeated on Oct. 11, 2019, and the Program was approved and integrated into the IDEAs in Action Curriculum in fall 2022.

The 'missing link'

Chapman said there is a “missing link” in the chain of the provost’s involvement in the resolution. 

“I think it is possible that he had conversations with people about this idea of a school and he indicated as much at the faculty executive committee,” she said. “And he could also have been surprised by the resolution.” 

In the Jan. 30 Faculty Executive Committee meeting, Clemens said the School of Civic Life and Leadership would give “superstructure” to the approved Program for Public Discourse.

Meekins said the faculty's approval of the Program for Public Discourse is “telling” toward their accusations of the BOT using their power “nefariously” for presenting a resolution proposing the new School. 

Chapman refuted Meekins’ assertion that the School of Civic Life and Leadership is meant to just be an extension of the Program for Public Discourse.

“No, just no,” she said.

She said although the Program was approved, there was no discussion of creating a school to house it. She added that connecting the Program to the School is “conflated” and “inaccurate.”

“There’s so little understanding of what it is that the trustees even want to see happen,” she said. “Much less what the faculty would agree to do.” 

Questions that remain

As conversations surrounding the resolution continue throughout the University community, many questions remain: 

While some faculty feel blindsided by the resolution, who authored it? 

Even though any member can present an idea regardless of its inclusion in the agenda in a BOT meeting, was every conversation regarding the resolution in accordance with open-session meeting laws? 

Did the provost have any involvement in conversations surrounding the development of the School before the presentation of the resolution? And did he know it would be brought to vote during the Jan. 26 meeting? 

As the WSJ editorial came out only hours after the meeting, did the BOT have any direct communication with them prior to the resolution passing? 

@abbypenderr

university@dailytarheel.com

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