Last week, trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill announced the creation of a new School of Civic Life and Leadership. The new school will significantly enhance student learning and the intellectual environment at UNC.

The new School of Civic Life and Leadership is a natural extension of UNC’s impressive progress on free speech and civil discourse on campus. Already, UNC has among the best protections for free speech in the nation, including strong statements on free expression and institutional neutrality. The new school further demonstrates Carolina’s commitment to these civic ideals and democratic norms.

According to a draft budget request, the school is designed as an answer to “the forces of polarization, isolation, and distrust that have impacted the educational mission of our leading universities nation-wide.” 

A recent survey of UNC students showcases the need for such a program. The study, Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue in the University of North Carolina System (2022), found that “campuses do not consistently achieve an atmosphere that promotes free expression.” Conservative students, in particular, tend to censor their speech in class, in public, and among their peers. And a majority of students said they want more opportunities for civil discourse and constructive disagreement.

Trustee Rob Bryan echoed that need, saying, “debate on campus is not as civil, constructive, and fruitful as it could be. We all need to be more charitable and resilient.”

The school will fulfill that need by committing expressly to free expression and open inquiry, democratic ideals, and responsible citizenship and leadership. It will also fulfill the vital objective, outlined in the university’s strategic plan as well as draft budget requests, to “explore the relationship between ‘humanity’s highest purposes’ and democratic life.”

In addition to its emphasis on civic ideals, the school will also teach the skills graduates need to thrive in a pluralist democratic republic. The abbreviation for the new school will be SCiLL, (pronounced “skill”) to emphasize this focus. In particular, the school will fulfill the university’s “promote democracy” objective, already outlined in its strategic plan, including teaching students to “work constructively across differences in society, starting by promoting respect and listening.” It will also teach students oral communication skills and how to “engage constructively across differences with evidence, intellectual humility, and respect.”

Trustee Perrin Jones explained the program’s genesis, saying, “SCiLL originated in the creation and adoption of UNC’s new curriculum, Ideas in Action. Improving communication skills — listening, speaking, and writing — was one of the primary areas of focus. This reflects a common concern about the overall level of discourse in our society.  The Board is in alignment with many of the faculty in seeking ways to improve how people interact with each other.”

Not everyone is happy. At a Faculty Executive Council meeting on Jan. 30, faculty members complained that the new school is “a solution in search of a problem” and that the idea wasn’t properly vetted.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and provost Chris Clemens responded by reminding faculty of the university’s shared values embodied in the strategic plan and undergraduate curriculum as well as the needs of UNC students. The chancellor’s comments at the meeting echoed his official statement on the new school.

“As the nation’s first public university, we have a responsibility to be a place that brings together people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints to debate the issues of our day,” Guskiewicz said. “We are working to support a culture of respect, debate, and discovery. It won’t be easy and will often feel simply uncomfortable. Yet these are the skills our students, and we as citizens, need to be stewards of our democracy.”

Trustees also reaffirmed their commitment to the school in spite of criticisms.

Trustee Marty Kotis said, “Listening to the Faculty Executive Committee’s discussion clearly demonstrates why we need this school. Rather than discussing the merits of the idea, they were defensive and critical of the process — more concerned with who was driving the car, rather than where it was headed. The level of pearl-clutching and overall attribution of nefarious motives based on partisanship was appalling.”

Trustee Jones agreed: “Imagine the disservice done to our students if this distraction prevents them from learning how to engage with one another in a more meaningful manner.”

Promoting free speech, open inquiry, and civil discourse — and teaching students how to engage with those ideals — is essential to the university’s mission of teaching and research. It’s refreshing to see UNC-Chapel Hill, my alma mater, taking its responsibility to civic life and democracy so seriously. In creating this new school, Carolina is demonstrating extraordinary leadership. Kudos to UNC.