How Not to Do Public Discourse

A program on civic virtue at UNC-Chapel Hill is raising concerns about secrecy and funding.

September 12, 2019
 

Scores of professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say they're concerned about a proposed program for civil discourse. Discussions about it have been strangely secretive, they say, and much of the funding is from anonymous donors. Beyond procedural objections, the fear is that the program will have a conservative agenda and duplicate existing curricular offerings.

The initiative is "designed to impact the curriculum" and "should be put on hold until there has been a full and public discussion about the structure and programmatic intentions of this new institution," reads a resolution to be presented to Chapel Hill's Faculty Council Friday. As of now, the resolution says, the program appears "to allow outsiders, undisclosed donors, and non-UNC faculty to shape the UNC curriculum."

That the University of North Carolina System's Board of Governors initiated the program and is represented on its advisory committee adds to faculty concerns. The faculty drives the curriculum, according to academic norms. And professors across the system say that the state board has become more political and even hostile to shared governance in recent years. The board has looked at moving certain administrative offices out of Chapel Hill, for example, and, in a move apparently targeting civil rights clinics, banned university centers from performing litigation.

Advocates of the civil discourse program admit that early conversations may indeed have had an ideological bent. Subsequent discussions were purposely contained. But the final proposal, they also say, has no political agenda -- other than to promote civic virtue among students on campus and off at a time when it's sorely needed.

"This is a responsibility and we're trying to discharge that responsibility in offering this program," said Christopher Clemens, senior associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences at Chapel Hill and the program's interim leader. "We're hoping people will get on board and join us in offering students these skills and competencies, for the sake of our students."

Civic Virtue and Civic Discourse

Public documents, some of which were first reported in the Charlotte Observer, show that the governing board was interested in creating a center for conservative thought at Chapel Hill dating back to 2017. The board also hosted Robert George, a well-known conservative scholar of law who founded Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, to speak.

In the interim, Clemens, an astrophysicist, wrote to George that he had "been among the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Science faculty at UNC for many years" and was "intrigued to learn of our administration's interest in housing a conservative center on campus."

Clemens said this week that he wrote his email only after learning from another colleague at Princeton that a North Carolina contingent had been touring George's center. In any case, Clemens was eventually selected to spearhead the then-fledgling Chapel Hill civil discourse project and asked George to chair the advisory committee for $20,000, along with some other outside scholars. In additional emails, Clemens described the center as “supporting viewpoint diversity” and “bringing classical intellectual traditions into sustained and rigorous engagement with contemporary thought."

Members of the state governing board and Chapel Hill's Board of Trustees also sat on the advisory committee. At the request of faculty members, George's former liberal Princeton colleague and speaking tour partner Cornel West was added, to help balance things out politically. And Clemens selected six Chapel Hill professors. 

After exploring various civic discourse center models, such as Arizona State University's School of Economic Thought and Leadership, Clemens said the committee -- primarily the six Chapel Hill professors -- rejected them as blueprints. Instead, he said, the committee conceived of a different kind of nonideological program that would assist students and faculty members across the university in having frank, thoughtful, productive discussions and debates about any number of topics. In short, the idea was to give students skills and tools to help them make the most of their educations and succeed after graduation, but which seem lacking in the general population at present.

Clemens said the idea is still new, but that he imagines the program -- led by a yet-to-be-hired director --  will offer workshops and other support to students and professors, and do so "inclusively."

The UNC Program for Public Discourse

To better communicate the final product, the committee rebranded the program the UNC Program for Public Discourse. Clemens launched a website that includes a lengthy statement and a FAQ-style page.

Still, concerned faculty members say it doesn't explain away the closed nature of early talks, and why their information requests about who's funding the program have been denied under the rationale that the university's fundraising arm is a private, not public entity. (A similar fight over donor identities at George Mason University has played out in Virginia courts.)

As Jay Smith, professor of history at Chapel Hill, and Karen Booth, associate professor of women's and gender studies, wrote in an op-ed endorsed by 85 professors and published in the Observer this week, "When faculty submitted a FOIA request asking who provided the seed money, they were blocked on grounds that the university's fundraising arm is private. Faculty asked to attend the program's advisory board meetings in August but were told it was closed to 'outsiders.' UNC faculty are 'outsiders' to curricular discussions? This stance violates the bedrock American Association of University Professors principle -- and UNC-Chapel Hill policies -- that faculty must control curricula."

Administrators "worked in secret because the ideas behind the program were incubated far away from faculty. The program's leaders will influence UNC's curriculum by recruiting internal faculty to develop new courses," based on program goals, they wrote. The university "also aspires to hire other faculty to teach courses that will advance 'program goals.' Departmental hiring priorities will thus be ignored in favor of a plan initiated by administrators."

Clemens said Wednesday that he couldn't recall the names of any donors, and that others wish to remain anonymous. Still, he said, the program has included in every gift contract a clause containing some of the strongest safeguards for academic freedom around. "The donor understands that the college and the university are committed to academic freedom and shared governance," it says, "such that faculty and the dean determine the content of academic programs, course curricula and the selection of faculty who teach students." 

Lingering Concerns

Still, faculty members have asked why the several professors already at Chapel Hill who have written on civic virtue -- a precise goal of the new program -- were not asked or allowed to participate in program meetings. 

Writing in the AAUP's Academe blog, Sherryl Kleinman, professor emerita of sociology at Chapel Hill, guessed that it's about viewpoint diversity. And that's no excuse, she said.

"Faculty, regardless of their political affiliations, are professional researchers and teachers with expertise in their discipline or field. We study and teach using the standards and latest knowledge in our areas of interest. We teach arguments, methods, theoretical perspectives and research findings," Kleinman wrote. "Our goal is analysis, not representing 'viewpoints.' The mission of the university is corrupted when external political pressures trump the faculty's educational prerogatives."

She added, "The right's concern about viewpoint diversity is also selective. I have yet to hear the right criticize business schools for assuming or teaching the rightness of capitalism or for not having enough faculty with 'other views.' The ideological commitments behind arguments for 'viewpoint diversity' are clear."

Also taking aim at Clemens's recent statement that having board members on the advisory committee is about "accountability," Kleinman said Wednesday that that conflicts with widely followed principles on shared governance.

The program "originated with the Board of Governors, then involved administrators," she said, "who then included faculty outside of the university." Chapel Hill professors "were the last, except for a handpicked few."

Boards "should be responsible for protecting the rights of faculty rather than overstepping their bounds and intruding on matters that are beyond their scope of expertise," Kleinman added -- in this case, the curriculum.

In a response to the planned resolution to the Faculty Council, professors involved in program planning said that they "fully understand our colleagues' concerns about the history of this program." But the current proposal has "evolved drastically over the past two years -- into a program that has no specific ideological content, but simply a focus on the best methods for teaching students to be open-minded, active citizens. The Program for Public Discourse does not bear any meaningful resemblance to 'conservative' programs at other schools -- and that's a testament to the success of these early faculty deliberations."

And those deliberations aren't over, they said, promising that all courses developed or enhanced in concert with the program will come exclusively from faculty, in accordance with existing policies. "We look forward to incorporating input from colleagues who take the time to share with us their best practices, methodologies and expertise in a series of conversations to be convened by the dean of the college this fall," reads the response.

A 'Culture of Debate'

Larry Grossberg, the Morris Davis Distinguished Professor in communication at Chapel Hill, who is on the program's six-member faculty committee, said he's long been a "leading voice for progressive politics in the academy." The program that he helped design is about the "the processes and practices of communication, specifically how to encourage and engage argument, debates and contested ideas in our pedagogy," he said. It's "not defined by any ideology, or even by questions that can simply be assigned to matters of ideology."

Christian Lundberg, an associate professor of communication who serves alongside Grossberg on the program committee, said the group agrees on the ultimate goal of preparing "students at America’s first public university to contribute to robust democracy and a vital public sphere by intentionally building their capacities for public life.” 

He added via email, "For us, these propositions are captured in the idea of a 'culture of debate,' which we believe ought to serve as an alternative to the idea that democratic debate is limited to a formulaic back-and-forth between previously determined positions AND the idea that democratic decisions are self-executing and/or self evident. A culture of debate is an ethos for engagement, and by extension, for listening, reflecting, deliberating and deciding on claims in the context of robust and authentic -- and even agonistic -- back and forth between parties who disagree."

The program has a fundraising goal of about $11 million and a 2021 launch target.

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