The Old Well at Chapel Hill is an icon of higher education in our Old North State — indeed, in the nation. As an alumnus, I admit to feeling proud of our distinction as America’s oldest public university. However, the corrosive effects of an acid rain of democratic socialism and Marxist ideology from the ominous clouds of a Secular Age (see Charles Taylor) have polluted the waters of higher education in America, and, sadly, in Carolina.
The “People’s University,” founded by a Presbyterian minister, has become a maxim to describe a socialist utopia rather than public access to knowledge and wisdom. That is not to imply that the University of North Carolina system has utterly failed. It has not. By no means. Nor is it impossible for a student from a conservative family and community (i.e., the statistically average North Carolinian) to get a good education there (or in the UNC system of schools).
But the current state of affairs (at all state universities) requires that conservative students shrewdly “walk on eggshells” to make it through. Whether it is being mocked for admitting to being an originalist in a constitutional law class or diminished for questioning public policies that challenge the “effectiveness” of mob-like union bosses, I know, firsthand, the difficulties of being a conservative in a liberal college. Having also been a graduate school president, chancellor, provost, and tenured professor, I know that faculty and administration — and governance — must work, cooperatively, with students and other stakeholders to create and maintain an academy of excellence where the “great ideas” can flourish.
The fountain of knowledge at any old well can become clogged by want of maintenance. So, what can we do when a leftist-illiberal higher education elite begins deconstructing our nation’s institutions of learning into indoctrination camps for left wing craziness? We can clear the debris, sweeten the water, and dig from the old wells. Thus, we read:
“And Isaac dug again the wells of water that they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he called their names after the names by which his father had called them” (Genesis 26:18).
There is a virtue hard-earned in seeking the underground springs that fed previous generations. When our Founding Fathers laid the planks for a new nation, they didn’t dig new wells. Jefferson and Madison and others dug from the old wells that their fathers dug, and quenched their thirst for truth with tried-and-true pales of refreshment from the likes of John Locke’s (1632-1704) Two Treatises of Government (1689), Samuel Rutherford’s (1600-1661) Lex, Rex (1644), as well as the Ancients on democracy, and the Reformers on moral philosophy.
So, too, we are delighted to see the UNC Board of Trustees digging in the “old wells” of lux, liberatas — light and liberty (the UNC-CH motto) — to bring renewal and reform to higher education. The newly announced School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC-CH is one of the most visionary, courageous, and timely, examples of digging from “the Old Well” to bring intellectual and academic refreshment to a dry and weary land. Since Jennifer Kabbany wrote a hopeful op-ed in the Carolina Journal about this welcome development, we have witnessed a predictable resistance from the likely actors.
Nevertheless, the well is already producing. House Bill 715 aims to eliminate a tenured system of faculty remuneration and replace it with a free-market approach to higher education based on merit. Many around the nation are looking to North Carolina for the needed leadership to start digging from their old wells. One thing is for certain: the refreshing water of knowledge and wisdom is there for the taking. The Renaissance and the Reformation are officially underway. Let the waters flow again from the Old Well.