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SCiLL dean finalists present visions for school as search moves to next phase

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Thomas Merrill, one of the candidates in the running for the position of the dean of the School of Civic Life and Leadership, is currently an associate professor at American University.

As the search for a permanent director and dean of the School of Civic Life and Leadership continues, four finalists for the position were invited to speak to the campus community in January about their vision for the program and professional background.

Chair of the search committee Mark Katz said the committee — which included faculty, students and members of the SCiLL inaugural faculty — followed a rigorous process to select the finalists. He said candidates submitted multiple scholarly publications for review and met with students, faculty, the search committee and administrators during the process.

Here is a rundown on the candidates:

Thomas Merrill

Thomas Merrill is an associate professor at American University’s Department of Government in Washington, D.C., the associate director for AU's Political Theory Institute and the co-editor of the journal American Political Thought.

Merrill said he thinks universities need a reset about how they relate to the rest of society, and that the University has a chance to be part of a broader change if the SCiLL is treated as an academic project, not a political one.

Merrill also said that in order for the SCiLL to succeed, its role at the University must be clearly defined in a way that complements programs that have already been established.

Jed W. Atkins

Jed W. Atkins is an associate professor in the classical studies, political science and philosophy departments at Duke University. He is also the faculty director of Duke’s Transformative Ideas program, as well as the Civil Discourse Project at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

He proposed SCiLL as a residential college, where students can build community outside of the classroom. He referenced living-learning communities like the Transformative Ideas program or the James Madison College at Michigan State University. 

Students surveyed in Duke’s program, Atkins said, are more likely than other students to have a faculty member as a mentor, to be friends with someone with different beliefs and have a sense of purpose. He also said these students are less likely to be anxious or lonely.

Daniel DiSalvo

Daniel DiSalvo is a political science professor in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York-CUNY. He is also the chair of Department of Political Science and of the academic advisory council for the college’s Moynihan Center, as well as a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Policy History and The Forum.

DiSalvo said he sees the SCiLL as a way to counteract some trends in higher education, such as students feeling the need to self-censor, disinviting campus speakers and a decreased overall confidence in higher education. 

He also said he thinks a new major as part of the SCiLL is key to the entire enterprise.

“At the center of this field of inquiry should be the concept of citizenship, and fundamental questions such as 'what defines a virtuous democratic citizen?' And 'what is the manner of life that could conform to the ideal of a free society?'” DiSalvo said.

Sarah Treul Roberts

Sarah Treul Roberts is a political science professor at UNC and the faculty director of the Program for Public Discourse. She was named the interim director and dean for the SCiLL in October.

Treul Roberts said it’s important to learn how to “live, work and converse in a pluralistic society — many ideas, many viewpoints — we need to understand how to do those things and how to do them well and respectfully.”

She said the inaugural faculty of the SCiLL have created a broadly applicable and highly accessible minor that focuses on communication skills, the role of the state in society and the American democratic experiment. 

“Regardless of what your major is, you should want to take classes offered by the School of Civic Life and Leadership,” Treul Roberts said.

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What’s next?

Provost Chris Clemens is expected to name the director and dean of the school soon, Geneva Collins, director of communications at the College of Arts and Sciences, said in a statement.

Clemens will receive input from College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jim White — to whom the position will report — the search committee and those who heard presentations and met with the candidates, Collins said.

Collins also noted that as with all tenured faculty hires at UNC, the decision must be formally approved by the Board of Trustees. 

Aidan Lockhart contributed additional reporting to this story.

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