In the ongoing debate over the University of North Carolina and its lobbying against the REACH Act, the UNC System put forth a proposal called “Foundations of American Democracy.”

While at first this may seem like a step towards correcting UNC’s lack of civics education, a second look suggests it could be a strategic maneuver to dissuade the legislature from passing the robust REACH Act.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the REACH Act. If it becomes law, it will require all college students to complete a three-credit-hour class on American government or history to graduate.

Lack of details in “Foundations of American Democracy”

Potentially in response, last month, the UNC Board of Governors discussed a proposal called “Foundations of American Democracy.”

Professor Wade Maki, chair of the UNC System Faculty Assembly, presented the proposal to a board committee. Maki asserted faculty must retain “control” over any civics requirement. The committee will vote on the matter later this month.

The proposal contained two “student learning outcomes” (SLOs) that would cover many of the same documents outlined in the REACH act.

Maki said the “SLOs” would be taught across multiple “disciplines,” meaning that the Constitution could be taught in classes other than American government or history.

He made no commitments that civics would not be crammed into a class in an unrelated discipline, an orientation module, or some other weak requirement.

At the full board meeting, UNC System President Peter Hans repeated “SLOs” would be administered across multiple “disciplines.” Hans said UNC “faculty” would prescribe the requirement in “creative ways, using their expertise.”

While Hans stressed the importance of civics at the college level, one can question the sincerity of his remarks, since they contradict what he said one year ago.

A public records request revealed that Hans previously said civics should not be taught in college. “[T]he approach here from the legislature is off the mark when all of this is required in high school,” Hans said in email Feb. 15, 2023, email. This was a reply to a UNC staffer that said the REACH Act was “red-meat theater” and that UNC would “slow it down or alter it.”

Assuming board committee adoption later this month, the full Board of Governors will vote on the proposal in April.

The REACH Act’s robust requirements:

As passed by the House of Representatives, the REACH Act would require all college students within the UNC and community college systems to complete a three-credit-hour class in the specific disciplines of “American government” or “American history.”

The legislation specifies the class must provide a “comprehensive overview of the major events and turning points of American history and government” and that students must read key foundational documents in their “entirety.”

It also requires the class to “include a cumulative final exam on the principles in the documents” that “comprise[s] at least 20% of the student’s total course grade.”

Dr. Bradley Jackson, vice president at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, testified before the NC House of Representatives that the REACH Act was “narrowly tailored.” He said it only “set a reasonable floor” that “insist[s] upon quite minimal, but nonetheless very important, standards for civic education in the State of North Carolina.” 

Examples of SC colleges feigning civics requirements

Examples of colleges feigning civics requirements in South Carolina warn against UNC’s current proposal. The NC REACH Act is modeled after the nearly identical 2021 SC REACH Act.

The SC REACH Act updated a 100-year-old South Carolina college civics law that many colleges were not following. That law mandated all colleges to require a “one year” founding documents class but did not provide specific implementation details. Before the legislative update, many SC colleges either ignored or feigned compliance with the older law.

Some examples:

  • The University of South Carolina claimed to follow the law by handing out pocket constitutions on Constitution Day. The USC president also said that the veterans “half-time salute” at a Gamecock football game fulfilled the civics requirement.
  • Clemson University only required that students watch a 90-minute online video module called “founding documents” within Clemson University 1000 (a freshman orientation course). Students then had to take a 20-question quiz for which they had unlimited attempts to pass.
  • Winthrop University required a three-credit-hour “constitutional competency” class — but allowed students to take courses in unrelated disciplines that merely mentioned the founding documents in passing reference. For example, Winthrop allowed students to complete an economics course to fulfill the requirement. But a sample class syllabus revealed the course barely discussed the founding documents while the rest was devoted to unrelated topics such as “poverty,” “the housing market,” and “the economics of marriage.”
  • SC State University at one point claimed that its “History of Jazz” and “History of Black Music” met the civics requirement because course syllabi listed the founding documents as required readings.

Only when the SC legislature stepped in, updated the law, and supervised enforcement did colleges begin requiring a robust civics course.

UNC Board of Governor’s proposal: Good idea or smokescreen?

UNC has fought against the REACH Act and a required college civics class. So, without specifics, it is hard to tell if the “Foundations of American Democracy” proposal is a genuine step towards a robust course or a token gesture to the legislature that the REACH Act is not needed.

Both Maki and Hans said the goal is for “faculty” to retain “control” and that civics should not be confined to civics but instead taught across multiple “disciplines.” UNC can show its proposal is genuine by ignoring fringe faculty and instead adopting the same robust provisions of the REACH Act.