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The Daily Tar Heel

'A train that's left the station': NC House approves $4 million in funding for School of Civic Life


South Building, which houses the Office of the Chancellor and other administrative offices, is pictured on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

In the state budget proposal approved Thursday by the N.C. House, the School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC would be established with $4 million in non-recurring funding split between the next two fiscal years.

The budget item description said the School will provide curricular opportunities and will house UNC's existing Program for Public Discourse.

"Courses may focus on the development of democratic competencies informed by American history and the American political tradition, with the purpose of fostering public discourse and civil engagement necessary to promote democracy and benefit society," according to the budget. 

This financial support comes amidst community concerns over a lack of faculty input and potential political motivations behind the development of the School.

"It seems like this is a train that's left the station," Mimi Chapman, chairperson of the UNC faculty, said in regards to the School's funding. 

If the 2023-2025 funding is "insufficient" to establish the School, the budget also said the University can expend additional funds. 

Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), co-chairperson of the N.C. House Education - Universities Committee, said the N.C. House will assess if the current funding is enough to support faculty, staff, instructional material and other aspects to start the School after this year.

In the initial budget request, Provost Chris Clemens requested $5 million in recurring funding but expected for state appropriations to be matched with private support.

Hardister said he doesn't know the specific plans of the University in recruiting private donors, but he assumes the provost and his staff are currently in the process of obtaining private funding.

"The Provost’s memo referenced possible funding options and was intended to be a recommendation for those options," a University spokesperson said in a statement.

State politicians speak out

Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe) is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. She said that, as someone who works in higher education, she supported removing the School's funding due to her concerns over how the School has been developed and questions about its necessity on campus.

Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) said it seems the purpose behind the School is to mold and produce young conservatives.

"I think this has been in the works for a while," Harrison said. "It seems to be some way to counter what is generally a more liberal political philosophy that seems to be prevalent on college campuses. And I'm very troubled by this."

She said some trustees want an ideological balance on campus, but she doesn't think this is a way to achieve it.

Hardister said he respectfully disagrees with Harrison and thinks the School aims to educate students on civics and American society, in addition to cultivating freedom of speech and expression on campus.

"I've heard from a multitude of students who feel like they just can't express their views on campus. And many of those are on the conservative side," he said.

He added that he's also heard from UNC faculty and staff, including some with liberal political viewpoints, that the campus environment could be elevated to welcome more diversity in perspectives. Hardister views the School as an opportunity to create more balance by embracing different opinions.

N.C. Sen. Graig Meyer (D-Caswell, Orange, Person) represents the Senate district that houses UNC and much of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

He said he thinks the BOT had likely already consulted with N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, Rutherford) and N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) to receive affirmation on the School's funding before proposing the acceleration of its development.

The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Moore and Berger for comment, but they did not respond by time of publication.

Meyer said he believes that the School could be a great idea if it had been developed in a collaborative way. 

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“When you have a proposal like this that comes directly from the Board (of Trustees) without working through any type of faculty or student process, you're further breaking the norms of University leadership by kind of doing this in such an authoritarian manner,” he said.

But Hardister said the BOT was within its jurisdiction to accelerate the creation of the School.

"The Board of Trustees has a responsibility to respond when they are receiving concerns from the student body and also from some faculty and staff," he said. "And to take those concerns seriously to put ideas into action and that's it — that's what they did in this case."

Prather said she wonders how many community members identified these issues and to what degree they were affected by them.

She said that, a lot of times, statewide legislation is passed due to the concerns of a single person or a single constituent's unhappiness with a particular system and described this policy process as "using a sledgehammer when a tack hammer would suffice."

The Daily Tar Heel reached out to the co-chairperson of the N.C. House Education - Universities Committee,  Rep. Ray Pickett (R-Alleghany, Ashe, Watauga), along with Vice Chairperson Rep. Kelly Hastings (R-Cleveland, Gaston), but they did not respond by the time of publication.

University funding concerns

The $4 million in funding for the School, which will come from taxpayer dollars, also comes amid community concerns on how money appropriated to the University is spent.

Chapman said it's hard to know whether what the trustees are envisioning meets a student need or not when there are other distinct needs on campus. She listed food insecurity, accessibility and safety as areas she would like to be prioritized when appropriating further funding to the University.

"There are 1 million and one other things that this money could be used for before it gets used for a brand new school that again, by everything that I've seen, isn't going to bring anything new to UNC-Chapel Hill," Prather said.

Harrison also said she thinks UNC should be taking care of other pressing needs instead of setting aside money for the development of the new School.

Hardister said that framing the School's funding over other University needs is a "false dichotomy." He noted that the state budget proposal the House passed contains billions of dollars in capital funding across the UNC System for building renovations as well as faculty and staff raises.

What comes next?

The House budget is expected to pass through the Senate in late April or early May, and the chambers could create a compromised budget in late May or early June, according to Hardister – who is also the House majority whip.

Chapman said there is every indication that developments of the School are moving forward, but she said the University faculty is known for making "lemonade out of lemons."

"And that may be what has to happen here," she said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article misquoted Prather, listing the wrong type of hammer in the second half of her metaphor about targeted spending. The article previously listed an "attack hammer." The corrected version lists a "tack hammer," a small, lightweight hammer for small tacks and nails. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.