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February 26, 2024 9:17 am

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Dean Shares More Details as Controversial New School Proceeds at UNC-Chapel Hill

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by Joe Killian, NC Newsline

Now that the academic year has ended, UNC-Chapel Hill leaders are sharing more information about the new and controversial School of Civic Life and Leadership with faculty who thus far, have questioned and opposed its creation. This includes additional details about the school’s creation, the hiring of faculty, and the formation of a curriculum.

In a letter to faculty this week Jim White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, acknowledged the push from the legislature and its political appointees to create the school, one of several recent legislative reaches into what is taught and how at schools in the system that has caused widespread discomfort among faculty.

White addressed both the new school and a new and unrelated Communication Beyond Carolina requirement, which emphasizes communicating to different audiences. The new school may play some part in teaching classes to meet that requirement, White wrote, and he supports the stated ethos behind both.

“I know that the School of Civic Life and Leadership was launched in a way that concerned many faculty,” White wrote. “But the foundational idea behind both the school and the CommBeyond requirement — to better equip our students with the skills needed to engage in public discourse and thus to better prepare them to be stewards and citizen-owners of our shared democracy — was an idea that our faculty had when including Communication Beyond Carolina in the new IDEAs in Action curriculum.”

The new school, which has been in the planning stages for years, has been described by some of its architects, supporters and political appointees on the UNC Board of Governors and  variously as a “conservative center” for UNC-Chapel Hill and an attempt to “level the playing field” at a university they believe is ideologically dominated by the political left. It has been strongly opposed by students, faculty and alumni who object to both those aims and the process by which it has been  outside of the usual campus-based, faculty-led process for creating a new school.

“I heartily embrace that idea and encourage us to own the school, make it a national model for public discourse and civic engagement, and ultimately make it uniquely Carolina,” White wrote. “Civil discourse is a commodity in short supply today, yet it is essential to a well-functioning democracy. Many universities and colleges are currently exploring how to address this problem. Let us lead the way.”

In January the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, whose members are political appointees of the legislature’s Republican majority, passed a resolution to accelerate the creation of the school.

Under the state Senate’s version of the state budget, th School of Civic Life and Leadership would be officially established and receive $2 million in each of the next two fiscal years. That matches the state House’s budget proposal.

Both chambers’ budget proposals fall short of the $5 million in state funds anticipated in a school planning document drafted by UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens. The provost’s plan anticipated state funding would be matched by unnamed private donors. With or without the private funding match, the House and Senate budget bills say if state funding is insufficient to establish the school, the university itself “shall expend sufficient additional funds to achieve that purpose.”

In his letter to faculty, White announced an ad hoc committee charged with working out the details of the school. White will chair the committee himself. Here are the other members:

Sarah Treul, faculty director, Program for Public Discourse, Bowman and Gordon Gray Professor, department of political scienceDonna Gilleskie, professor and chair, department of economicsJeff Spinner-Halev, interim chair, department of art and art history; distinguished professor, political scienceMatt Kotzen, professor and chair, department of philosophyElizabeth Engelhardt, senior associate dean, fine arts and humanitiesJaye Cable senior associate dean, natural sciences and mathematicsNoreen McDonald, senior associate dean, social sciences and global programsKate Henz, senior associate dean, operations and strategy

The proposed school continues to generate strong opposition from faculty, with some departing members citing it as political overreach into the university system that helped to drive them to other opportunities.

In an open letter decrying a slate of higher education-related bills this legislative session, the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors called the school’s creation part of “a war on higher education in our state.”

“This initiative, reflecting Board members’ claimed desire for greater partisan balance among the professoriate, came from Board members rather than faculty,” the group wrote. “It is a clear violation of the AAUP principle that faculty should shape curriculum and “those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process” (per the AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities).”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.