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'Original strife' to spring sign-ups: How the School of Civic Life and Leadership came to be

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For the first time, students can now register for classes in UNC's new School of Civic Life and Leadership, which encourages students to pursue democratic and civil engagement.

While SCiLL was officially announced to the University at a January 2023 Board of Trustees meeting, its development began years ago with a chain of processes that former chair of the Faculty Council Mimi Chapman described as a "zombie."

"I see it as a series of efforts that it gets thwarted one way and then it gets reborn in some other fashion," she said

Since its inception, the school  has received criticism for what some believe to be conservative origins.

Emails obtained by The Daily Tar Heel reveal the initial stages, going back to 2017, of developing a civil discourse program — originally called the Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse — that would later give way to SCiLL.

Early developments

In a 2017 email, Christopher Clemens, current provost and then-senior associate dean of natural sciences and mathematics,  expressed his and the administration's interest in a conservative program on campus to Robert George, director of Princeton University's James Madison Program.

"I have been among the most outspoken conservative members of the Art & Sciences faculty at UNC for many years, sponsoring the College Republicans, the Carolina Review, and several other student organizations," he said in the email. "I am currently the senior associate dean of natural sciences and am intrigued to learn of our administration's interest in housing a conservative center on campus."

Clemens' email followed a visit to the James Madison Program by UNC faculty, including former Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, who was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time.

In an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel, George said that program leaders told UNC administrators about operations, programming, funding and administration during the visit. He did not respond to requests for comment regarding the early steps in the process for creating SCiLL.

When asked about his email to George, Clemens said in a statement that the focus of SCiLL has always been a place where students can listen, engage and deliberate over ideas.

"This objective transcends partisan concerns and lies at the bedrock of the University,” Clemens said in the statement. 

The idea for the civic discourse program at UNC was also influenced by visits to other civic leadership programs, including the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University.

Paul Carrese, ASU school's director, later served on the initial advisory committee for UNC's civic discourse program. He said initially, it was determined the Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse should be program-sized rather than a new department.

Throughout the development process, some faculty expressed concern about a new civic discourse program at UNC. 

In a 2019 email, current associate professor of women's and gender studies Karen Booth said some faculty were concerned about a new program being developed by UNC administration alongside George, who she said was a self-described conservative professor from Princeton.

Booth did not respond to The DTH's request for comment.

The Program for Public Discourse 

Larry Grossberg, a retired UNC professor served on the initial advisory committee for the proposed Program in Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse. Though there may have been an original idea for the initiative to look like a conservative think tank, he said that was never on the table during his discussions with the committee.

The initial advisory committee for the program was established in 2019 and chaired by George. It also involved UNC faculty, UNC Board of Trustees members, Board of Governors members and external members — including leaders from other universities like Carrese.

The committee met in Chapel Hill on Aug. 21 and 22, 2019.

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Donna Gilleskie, chair of the UNC economics department and then-committee member, said the committee wanted the program to be integrated into the College of Arts and Sciences and involve the general faculty.

"I think in some ways, [the external members] were there to tell us, 'Hey, this is what's been done, but how might we be able to do it better?'” she said.

After its first in-person meeting, the committee was disbanded because Carrese said there was a focus on the project being homegrown. 

Three weeks later, the program was announced under a new name — the Program for Public Discourse.

Gilleskie said the PPD focused on bringing in speakers who would showcase difficult dialogue to explore different perspectives, something she said the program has done successfully.

PPD is now included within SCiLL and is featured on the home page of the school's website. The school builds on the program's model for showcasing and encouraging public discourse, according to the SCiLL website.

Building the School of Civic Life and Leadership

Carrese said it made sense to him that the PPD was only an initial step, and that the University and the state legislature continued to be interested in the creation of a school. He said faculty who disagree with the creation of SCiLL should look at the state of American civic life and civic health and the need for restoring civic education.

"So it's not unusual or anti-academic at all," he said.

David Boliek, then-BOT chair, said in a January 2023 interview with Fox News that the initiative to create SCiLL was all about balance. 

“We have no shortage of left-of-center and progressive views on our campus, like many campuses across the nation, but the same really can’t be said about right-of-center views,” Boliek said. “This is an effort to try and remedy that."

Shortly after the announcement, nearly 700 current and retired UNC faculty members signed a letter opposing the proposed school, calling it an act of overreach.

Chapman said she was not surprised that Clemens referred to the original idea for a civic discourse program as a conservative center.

“Can something good be made from something that starts really with a kind of a poison pill? And to me, that's the question here,” Chapman said. “In the case of the Program for Public Discourse, something good did come from the original strife.”

With a newly instated dean and class registration fully underway, Chapman said a year is not enough time to think deeply about a curriculum and solidifying a school's leadership. 

Still, Gilleskie said she thinks it is wonderful that students now have an opportunity to explore what the school offers.

“I don't think that in the beginning I ever thought that it would be something like what it has grown into,” Gilleskie said.

@maddieahmadi

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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