How not to start a new School of Civic Life at UNC-Chapel Hill | Opinion

Robert Willett/

On Jan. 26, the chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees announced plans to launch a college within a college called the “School of Civic Life and Leadership” with 20 new faculty devoted to the effort.

To say the UNC community was surprised is an understatement. Neither the faculty, administration or even the UNC System office had heard of this plan to create a new school out of whole cloth. The trustees’ actions tear up longstanding, well codified principles of university governance and replace civil discourse with secrecy and confrontation. Their tactics make the proposal, in its current form, radioactive at best and possibly dead on arrival.

As Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said at a Jan. 30 Faculty Executive Committee meeting, plans for new academic initiatives are generated by faculty in response to needs in emerging areas of knowledge. Example: the new school of Data Science and Society at UNC. Establishing it has been a major undertaking over several years with multiple faculty committees identifying needs of students and N.C. employers, defining a body of knowledge to be taught, coordinating proposed courses across departments, establishing requirements for degree completion, and planning recruitment of faculty.

In contrast, the trustees’ approach concerning the School of Civic Life seems almost an act of self-sabotage.

Great universities are about open and transparent dialogue and debate, just what the trustees claim to support. But the resolution announcing the new school was kept a secret. No one on campus, including the Chancellor, Provost or Chair of the Faculty knew anything about it. Even UNC System President Peter Hans was kept in the dark.

The inevitable conclusion from this veil of secrecy is that the resolution was an attempt to wrest control of academic decision making from the faculty.

To make matters worse, Board of Trustees chair David Boliek implied without evidence that faculty do not have the ability to facilitate civil discourse in the classroom because they are typically registered Democrats or Independents. His remedy is to hire 20 faculty he calls “right of center.” Rhetoric belittling faculty is not a great way to introduce the idea of a new school to those who likely must approve and implement its creation.

The well-orchestrated campaign to vet the new school in the media was an approach that only adds to the toxicity that surrounds it. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial, with quotes, supporting the new school only hours after the trustees’ resolution was approved. The next day Boliek provided an interview on Fox News where he stated that most faculty are left of center and this new school aims to balance that out by hiring faculty who are right of center.

Introducing a political element in hiring faculty may play well on Fox, but it is toxic to the concept of academic freedom.

All of this was avoidable. If the trustees had consulted with the Chancellor and faculty in advance, they would have been reminded that the role of the Board is to review and approve initiatives such as new schools. Consultation would have also raised the practical problems that arise from imposing a political loyalty test in hiring. Tenure track faculty are hired based upon scholarship in their field and teaching ability. Are candidates with lesser credentials whose work is thought to favor “conservative” views now to be given preferential treatment in hiring?

Discussion with the UNC System Office would have reminded trustees that their idea runs headlong into a pending policy that prohibits considering political or economic views in the hiring or promotion of faculty.

The University is prospering. Applications for admission to UNC continue to rise, annual research funding exceeds a billion dollars, and the UNC just completed a $5 billion capital campaign. It also provides the engine that makes North Carolina’s Research Triangle one of the fastest growing regions in the country. When the dust settles, positive initiatives may arise from the trustees’ resolution. If so, ironically, it will be because thoughtful parties on campus will engage in the kind of civil discourse that the trustees seem to have abandoned.

Buck Goldstein is Professor of the Practice and University Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the UNC-CH. William Snider is Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC-CH.