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A photo illustration combining photos of Jed Atkins, Chapel Hill's campus and a budget memo that shows his name on it.

Jed Atkins is coming from Duke University to lead the new school at Chapel Hill.

Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill | Eros Hoagland/Getty Images

The first permanent dean and director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s controversial new School of Civic Life and Leadership is someone who played a role in pushing for its creation—though UNC’s provost says it was a small one.

Provost Chris Clemens also said the new hire, Jed Atkins, was among at least four people whom he encouraged to apply for the job. Clemens said at least one other person whom he encouraged did apply, and the university did a national search for the position.

Clemens had the final sign-off on the hire before Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees approved it Friday.

“It was not predetermined,” Clemens said of Atkins’s hire.

In an email Monday, Atkins—currently the director of Duke University’s Civil Discourse Project and Transformative Ideas Program and chair of its classical studies department—said he’s collaborated “over the years with my colleagues at UNC.” He said the Civil Discourse Project has co-sponsored events with Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse (PPD), the program that preceded creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership (SCiLL), and “even participated together in faculty training in teaching civil discourse.”

“When the UNC team asked for my advice on the SCiLL vision, I was delighted to offer ideas and feedback,” he wrote. “I’m often called on to offer guidance to or even to speak at other university programs with similar missions. I’m amazed at what UNC’s faculty have accomplished since the launch of the PPD, and I’m honored that SCiLL’s distinguished faculty chose me to serve as its inaugural dean.”

Mark Katz—the search committee chair and a music professor at Chapel Hill—wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the committee “was never pressured, much less instructed, to favor any applicant, and it was the committee’s decision whom to invite to campus for an interview. No one even dropped hints to me that I should give anyone special consideration.”

Chapel Hill announced Friday that Atkins would lead the School of Civic Life and Leadership.

Back in January 2023, Chapel Hill faculty members raised alarm when the Board of Trustees abruptly passed a resolution asking campus administrators 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.” Faculty members said they were blindsided.

Fanning the controversy, David Boliek, who was then the board’s chairman, went on Fox and Friends and said the initiative was “an effort to try to remedy” a lack of “right-of-center views” on the Chapel Hill campus. To some faculty members, his statements sounded as if the university was trying to revive a proposal, dating at least to 2017, for a center for conservative thought. But Clemens and other university leaders instead described it as an unbiased effort to promote civil discourse and democracy.

In February 2023, amid media reporting on this controversy, Chapel Hill gave Inside Higher Ed an undated budget memo in response to an open records request. Beyond projecting a $12.7 million annual cost by fiscal year 2026–27—it’s unclear how much of that would be temporary expenses—it has a “justification” section saying what Clemens was aiming for.

The last paragraph includes this: “A new Civic Studies major and minor will prepare students to become active citizens and thoughtful leaders in corporations, government and the academy in North Carolina and around the world by cultivating the capacities necessary to conduct good-faith dialogue with those with whom they disagree. All Civic Studies majors and minors will take introductory, foundational classes on civil discourse modeled after nationally recognized courses including the Duke Civil Discourse Project’s ‘How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization,’ and the Allred Initiative/Chancellor’s Science Scholars [Chapel Hill] communication course ‘Think, Speak, Argue.’”

If one clicks on document properties for that PDF, they will see three authors. They are Clemens; Christian O. Lundberg, who has taught Think, Speak, Argue; and Atkins himself.

Clemens told Inside Higher Ed that Atkins contributed probably only three or four sentences to the memo, related to the aspirations for the new school that come from the Duke program—now called the Civil Discourse Project but formerly named Arete. Clemens said UNC’s existing Program for Public Discourse provided the bulk of information in the document.

Clemens said that, around November 2022, he was frustrated with the rate of progress “on the curricular elements we originally envisioned for the Program for Public Discourse, which I helped found, and the Communication Beyond Carolina portion of the curriculum it is supposed to serve.”

He said he thought up creating a budget request; he knew about the Duke program, and he wanted to “hybridize” and capture all the ideas in the local area. He said he reached out to a couple of people at Duke, including Atkins and someone on his team.

“He didn’t reach out to me; I reached out to him and wrote the budget memo, which was a draft that he helped produce with one of our faculty, and then I edited it and submitted it to the chancellor and finance as a potential budget request,” Clemens said.

“We had frequent conversations with the folks at Duke because we collaborate,” he said.

The Daily Tar Heel reported that four finalists, including Atkins, were invited to campus in January. Clemens said the search committee produced a report that recommended hiring either Atkins or another person, whom Clemens declined to name, and the dean and senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences—the new school has a dean position despite being part of this college—recommended first offering the job to Atkins.

Dan DiSalvo, a political science professor and chair of the political science department at City College, part of the City University of New York, as well as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, was one of the other finalists.

“At least from my side and my experience with everyone I interacted with, my campus visit and email communications, the search was run professionally and like a standard academic university search,” DiSalvo said. “I didn’t see anything untoward,” he added.

Clemens said Atkins has appointments in three departments and experience as a classics department chair. He said no other candidate has that array of interdisciplinary breadth or such strong administrative experience.

“I’m tremendously happy to see this faculty-led effort move forward under Jed’s direction, starting March 28,” Clemens said.

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