The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, I was sitting in the office of Carol Folt, the then-chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, along with the school’s top academic officer, Provost Jim Dean, to discuss my concern that UNC had fostered an oppressive monoculture that was undermining critical thinking on campus. The timing was serendipitous, as we did not yet realize the magnitude of the meltdown occurring on campus as we spoke — professors were cancelling classes, postponing exams and otherwise coddling students suffering from “severe emotional distress.” In many cases it was the professors who were the ones incapacitated by the election outcome.
While it may seem odd that a part-time business school professor would be addressing a campus-wide issue, Chancellor Folt was willing to listen, as Provost Dean had requested. Folt engaged actively for an hour, pointing out the fact that I was not the only conservative on the faculty. She was able to name three or four others, all of whom taught courses like computer science or physics, where social and cultural issues were never discussed in the classroom. As we finished, she offered to introduce me to a couple administrators to voice my concern: the dean of arts and sciences, Kevin Guskiewicz; and the dean of sciences, Chris Clemens.
Kevin, Chris, and I began a dialogue that led to me being invited to join them, along with Chancellor Folt and a couple others, on a trip to Arizona State University. There we met with the school’s chancellor, who had led a major transformation of that school regarding freedom of expression and ideological diversity. These changes resulted in ASU being named the most innovative college in America two years in a row for tackling the self-perpetuating monopoly liberal professors have on employment and curriculum decisions at most American universities.
The group brainstormed how schools might be able to bring more thought diversity to campus. But Chancellor Folt did not seem to have the appetite for change, and the trustees were not pushing hard for it.
Today Kevin Guskiewicz is the chancellor and Chris Clemens is the provost at UNC. And the current UNC Board of Trustees, led by Chair David Boliek and Vice-Chair John Preyer, are fully committed to turning down the volume in the echo chamber.
Recently, the BOT announced the creation of the School of Civic Life and Leadership, which will have its own dean and will hire at least 20 faculty members with diverse ideologies to teach courses such as political science, philosophy, religion, and history free from indoctrination.
As expected, there has been significant blowback from the faculty. Now more than ever, the board and the administration need to work together to achieve a common goal.
The goal of the new venture is not to become a conservative offset to the liberal bias on campus as many will claim. It is to allow students to pursue knowledge and learn critical thinking free from political bias. The new school will recruit faculty committed to free speech and open thought with the express goal of allowing students to hear and debate both sides of an issue before embracing a viewpoint. That is very difficult to accomplish when faculty members who are registered to vote as Democrats outnumber Republicans 16 to 1. Students who would rather be free from conflicting ideas are still welcome to take courses that already exist.
A campus-wide survey conducted last year among students found that self-censorship is a major problem in UNC classrooms, where co-eds feel they will be ostracized in class and suffer blowback on social media if they express opinions contrary to woke orthodoxy. While there remains much work to be done, we should offer a shout out to the UNC trustees and university leadership for their efforts to address this problem.
As the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal wrote last week: “Credit to the UNC board for fighting for those principles and free inquiry. North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the nation’s oldest public university, and if change can happen there, maybe it can happen anywhere.”