University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill leaders have given mixed messages about what sounded, at least initially, like the university is trying to resurrect plans for a conservative campus center.
David Boliek, chairman of Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, was rather specific in a Jan. 28 interview on Fox and Friends.
“This is all about balance,” Boliek told the network.
“At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we clearly have a world-class faculty that exists and teaches students and creates leaders of the future,” Boliek said. “We, however, have no shortage of left-of-center, progressive views on our campus, like many campuses across the nation. But the same really can’t be said about right-of-center views. So this is an effort to try to remedy that with the School of Civic Life and Leadership, which will provide equal opportunity for both views to be taught.”
That interview came two days after his board passed a resolution asking Chapel Hill’s administration to “accelerate its development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership,” with “a goal of a minimum of 20 dedicated faculty members and degree opportunities for undergraduate students.” The evening that passed, the Wall Street Journal editorial board was already praising the university for planning “to build a syllabus free from ideological enforcers.”
“Students will be able to choose the new classes to fulfill university core requirements,” the Wall Street Journal board wrote. “Those who aren’t interested can stay in the existing courses.”
The editorial’s headline and a Fox News chyron during Boliek’s interview were the same: “UNC Takes on the University Echo Chamber.”
A draft budget memo, provided Tuesday to Inside Higher Ed in response to an open records request, projects the school would cost about $3.5 million next year but $12.7 million in fiscal year 2026–27—over four times the $3 million annual cost that Chapel Hill provost Chris Clemens cited to faculty. The memo is unclear on how much of that would be temporary expenses.
“We expect state funds to be matched with private support,” the document says.
But faculty members say they didn’t know this school was being developed. And by the Monday following this reveal, Clemens—who in 2017 called himself an “outspoken conservative” faculty member and said he was “intrigued to learn of our administration’s interest in housing a conservative center”—was telling concerned faculty members the proposal isn’t what it sounds like.
“You brought up the statements of the Board of Trustees chair,” Clemens told the Faculty Executive Committee Jan. 30. “Those statements don’t reflect the position I’m giving right now. He’s giving his view of something. I’m telling you how this originated in December in my discussions and what we were trying to do. I did not know there would be a resolution about it, I did not know there would be media events around it, I’m telling you what I was trying to do. You know, it may be ill-conceived—it was a draft budget memo. I’m referring it now to the appropriate committee of the faculty.”
“We put that into a draft budget proposal; now the Board of Trustees heard about this because I share these things with our stakeholders,” Clemens said.
“I’m going to accelerate the development by giving the whole question over to the faculty in their committee for oversight of the general education curriculum,” he said. “That, I think, is the process that I’m encouraged to do by this resolution.”
Clemens told faculty that Jim White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and his “team” estimated the school will cost $3 million annually “to hire new teaching assistant professors.”
Neither White, Clemens nor Boliek provided interviews for this story. A Chapel Hill spokesman wrote in an email that “beyond the message the chancellor [Kevin M. Guskiewicz] sent the week before last, there isn’t any new additional information on this proposed school.”
“Any proposed degree program or school will be developed and led by our faculty, deans and provost,” Guskiewicz said in that Jan. 27 message—the day before Boliek’s Fox and Friends interview. “Our faculty are the marketplace of ideas and they will build the curriculum and determine who will teach it … I will be working with our faculty to study the feasibility of such a school and the ways we can most effectively accomplish our goal of promoting democracy.”
Mimi Chapman, chair of the Chapel Hill faculty, noted the past tenure controversy over journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, co-creator of The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project.” In July 2021, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer chose Howard University over the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ delayed tenure offer, which only came after protests on her behalf.
Now, Chapman said, “they are asserting that there will be a new school and a new curriculum and new faculty members hired without a plan and without any consultation with people that would be ostensibly delivering and designing that curriculum: the faculty. Which is unheard-of.”
Michael Palm, president of the American Association of University Professors’ Chapel Hill chapter, noted Clemens was a point person for what’s now called Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse.
Palm said that program “hasn’t tilted the campus rightward enough, fast enough,” so the university is ramping up those efforts with the new school.
“This is another example of the Board of Trustees trying to run UNC like it’s a Florida high school,” he said.
“The Board of Trustees has to go,” he said. “Like the Nikole Hannah-Jones case, here, they’re egregiously overstepping their bounds.”
Documents first reported by North Carolina media have shown that the UNC system Board of Governors—higher up than the Chapel Hill Board of Trustees—was interested in creating a center for conservative thought at Chapel Hill as far back as 2017.
Clemens was selected to spearhead a then-fledgling civil discourse project and asked Robert George, a well-known conservative Princeton University law scholar, to chair the advisory committee, along with some other outside scholars.
In emails, Clemens described the center as “supporting viewpoint diversity” and “bringing classical intellectual traditions into sustained and rigorous engagement with contemporary thought.”
The project didn’t become a large conservative nexus.
The committee—primarily the six Chapel Hill professor members—rejected using centers like Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership as blueprints, Clemens told Inside Higher Ed in 2019. 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.
But, in last week’s Faculty Executive Committee, Clemens expressed dissatisfaction with the Program for Public Discourse’s extent.
“We hoped to have a curricular component in that, and what we got was two hires,” he said.
He said the newly proposed school would contain the Program for Public Discourse and one of those two hires could “train future teaching assistant professors.”
“It’s a way to build it out according to its original intent, which was to deliver this capacity to all of our students,” Clemens said.
Attendees of that meeting countered that curricular changes are supposed to come from the faculty. Clemens asked that they refer the idea for the school to their General Education Oversight Committee.
“I want the committee to do this work,” Clemens said. “There is nothing about the school at this moment that contains anything new except a name and a proposed structure. It was a budget memo that we didn’t even send, the beginning of a conversation.”
“I have not skipped any step of governance,” he said. “It is frequent practice to shop budgetary ideas, in one form or another, that wind up very different in the end, in order to get things moving. This is going to be referred to the faculty—the faculty own it.”
He said he hopes to eventually get legislative support for the proposed school.
Even if the proposed new school has to go through traditional faculty channels, Chapman, the chair of the faculty, remains concerned. She said the Board of Trustees has “leverage.”
“They have plenty of ways to punish the university if they don’t get what they want,” she said.