The University of North Carolina System has a number of fundamental missions. These include knowledge-generation and transmission; developing future leaders and citizens; fostering success and prosperity for future generations; and providing students with the values, knowledge, and skills necessary to exercise their democratic responsibilities. Academic freedom, free expression, open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive dialogue are essential factors in fulfilling those missions.

Various universities in the system have taken different steps to ensure these fundamental attributes exist on their campuses. At UNC, my university, the good news is that we have taken several steps to promote these attributes and foster an environment where these values can thrive.

These steps include being awarded the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) Green Light Rating in 2015, which indicates that the university has no speech codes that infringe on free expression. In 2018, the UNC Faculty Council adopted the University of Chicago Free Speech Statement, which has been adopted by many universities and affirms the importance of free and open discourse in the pursuit of knowledge. UNC’s Program for Public Discourse, launched in 2019, models constructive discourse in its public events and has the Agora Fellows Program, which offers opportunities for students to learn how to engage in productive dialogue.

UNC’s commitment to free expression and constructive dialogue has also been reflected in the rankings. In 2022, FIRE ranked UNC 26th out of over 200 universities, placing it in the top 15%. Also in 2022, the trustees adopted the University of Chicago Statement and Kalven Report. The latter document commits the university and its subunits to be institutionally neutral so that faculty and students feel free to speak openly on controversial topics of the day without feeling pressure to conform to what university leaders’ positions. Lastly, the UNC Faculty Council passed a resolution on the right and duty of faculty members to speak freely and the duty of the university to protect faculty speech.

What does the research say?

While these efforts have made a difference, 2022 faculty research across eight UNC System universities revealed that more work needs to be done in the areas of free expression and constructive dialogue. The major findings of the study are below. While I will be citing UNC Chapel Hill data, the trends are directionally the same across all eight UNC System universities.

1) Faculty generally do not push political agendas.

The vast majority of students believe faculty encouraged participation from conservative and liberal students alike.

2) Campuses do not consistently achieve an atmosphere that promotes free expression.

At UNC, 35% of students were concerned about the opinion of their peers if they stated their sincere political beliefs in the classroom and 24% were concerned about the opinion of the professors as well. Almost 20% of students self-censored more than once during the semester when a political topic was discussed in class.

3) Students who identify as conservative face distinctive challenges.

At UNC 83% of conservative-identifying students were concerned about the opinion of their peers if they stated their sincere political beliefs in the classroom and 93% were concerned about the opinion of the professors as well. More than half (54%) self-censored more than once during the semester.

Also at UNC, about a third of liberal students are unwilling to have conservative students as friends or classmates and almost three-quarters of liberal students think their conservative peers are racist.

4) Students across the political spectrum want more opportunities to engage with those who think differently.

The good news is that at UNC, 50% of liberal students and 67% of conservative students want more opportunities to engage with their political opposites. This is a hopeful sign; however, UNC System universities need to give the students the skills to do this constructively or such engagements may not lead to better understanding but more misunderstanding and polarizations.

As I’ve said elsewhere, universities do a great job recruiting smart students, showing them how to research subjects and then argue their positions to win the argument. Perhaps we do it too well. As Musa al-Gharbi points out in his article, Navigating Moral Disagreements: “In fact, the more intelligent, educated, or rhetorically skilled one is, the less likely it becomes that someone will change their minds when confronted with evidence or arguments that challenge their priors.” It seems that, in the polarization wars, universities may be the arms suppliers.

Moving forward

The UNC System has made a major step by giving eight of its universities the data they need to understand the state of free expression and constructive discourse on their campus. As pointed out above, UNC Chapel Hill has made significant strides in this area. However, as the research points out, there is more to be done. The good news is that there are several faculty and administrators on campus who recognize change is necessary and are working diligently to improve things.

To build on the momentum above, UNC Chapel Hill is also doing the following:

UNC Program for Public Discourse momentum

PPD has made a difference on campus by modeling constructive discourse and giving professors and students the skills to make the classroom a place where all can share their views positively and freely. The organization will continue to build on its past success going forward.

UNC Committee on Academic Freedom and Free Expression (CAFFE)

UNC’s Chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz, has created a committee to “advise the chancellor on ways to advance academic freedom and articulate free speech norms and best practices for the Carolina community.” This is an important step in institutionalizing academic freedom and free expression on campus.

UNC Heterodox Academy Campus Community

UNC is one of 23 universities chosen by Heterodox Academy to implement one of their Campus Communities. The UNC chapter has about 25 faculty now and expects to grow over time. The mission is to build a community of scholars who enjoy discussing heterodox ideas about campus, U.S. and global issues.

Academic Freedom Resources Website

This is a public website I created for faculty and others who are interested in learning about academic freedom and free expression on campus. It contains definitions, research, policies, etc., on these topics and is a handy one-stop shop for those interested.

School for Civic Life and Leadership

The idea behind this university unit began with UNC’s provost and, although a resolution supporting it was passed by the UNC Trustees, it is still in germination mode. Its goal is to provide students with the communication skills necessary to become productive and engaged citizens. This is one of the UNC System’s missions and the “promote democracy” pillar of UNC’s Strategic Plan. A key focus of this organization will be to teach students constructive dialogue. You can read more about the background and status here.

Conclusion: Progress has been made. But more is left to be done.

In sum, the UNC System universities have a key role in preparing our college students to become citizen leaders in North Carolina and beyond. While there are areas our universities can improve, progress has been made and more plans are in place to make our campuses places where faculty and students can engage in constructive dialogue.

In a polarized country, we must keep in mind the words of Abraham Lincoln, who said in an even more tumultuous time, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

* The opinions expressed here are those of Professor McNeilly and should not be viewed as representing the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill or the UNC System.