A Proposed UNC System policy would set new requirements for instruction in US history and government

Published February 8, 2024

By Joe Killian

Students at UNC System campuses could be required to take courses teaching the “Foundations of American Democracy” as soon as the next fall semester, with a plan now moving quickly toward a UNC System Board of Governors vote.

The requirement has its roots in the N.C. REACH Act, one of a series of similar conservative-driven higher education bills across the country that failed to become law in North Carolina during last year’s legislative session. But system leaders and faculty charged with crafting the new requirement say it would give campuses and their faculty more agency and flexibility than that bill – and might stave off more aggressive moves by the General Assembly to dictate courses and specific readings.

“There is a core educational need here that we’re trying to address,” said Wade Maki, a lecturer in philosophy at UNC Greensboro and chair of the system-wide UNC Faculty Assembly.

Maki is one of a group of faculty working with the system office on the new requirement, which he calls a collaborative effort he hopes can satisfy legislators, system leaders and faculty.

Wade Maki
Wade Maki, chair of the UNC System’s Faculty Assembly. (Photo: UNCG)


“As a general principle, representing faculty, we would always prefer to be in control of how we solve problems and prescribe curriculum within the UNC system, rather than have it done by outside groups,” Maki said.

Others working on the new requirement include:

  • Ashley Moraguez, co-chair and associate professor of Political Science at UNC Asheville
  • Charles Reed, chair and associate professor of History at Elizabeth City State University
  • Molly Worthen, associate professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Sean Colbert-Lewis, professor of History and Faculty Senate chair at N.C. Central University

Lawmakers, the UNC System Board of Governors and faculty members have all observed that students increasingly lack a full understanding of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the workings of American government, Maki said.

“I don’t think there are many who would disagree with that,” Maki said. “We’re now regularly seeing students who can’t tell you what is in the First Amendment, who can’t identify what is in the Bill of Rights or name the branches of government.”

How to address that situation is what’s at issue.

Mandating curriculum

When the N.C. REACH Act was filed in the North Carolina House last year, it proved controversial. Republican lawmakers said it was commonsense legislation that would ensure UNC System graduates had an understanding of American history and government necessary for all good citizens. Critics, including prominent UNC System history and political science professors, along with a few chancellors, worried the bill was pushing a narrow and conservative view of history and government prescribed by Republican lawmakers rather than campus leaders and faculty.

Comments from the bill’s architect, a conservative attorney who has worked for Republican politicians and helped pass a similar law in his native South Carolina, drew suspicion the proposal was another in a wave of cut-and-paste conservative measures aimed at public universities.

The very acronym in the bill’s title, which stands for “Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage,” spoke to Republican lawmakers’ view that the curricula at UNC System schools and the state’s community colleges needs to be “reclaimed” — in the name of a certain view of “heritage.”

Those concerns – along with disagreements about what the act should require and how universities would schedule and staff new courses – led to the bill being relegated to a committee, never making it to the governor’s desk.

Among other provisions, the bill would have required all students at UNC System universities and state community colleges to take a three credit-hour course in history and government. The course would have required students to read seven documents in their entirety:

  • The Constitution of the United States of America
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • At least five essays from the Federalist Papers
  • The Emancipation Proclamation
  • The Gettysburg Address
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and
  • The North Carolina State Constitution.

A new policy, mandated not by the General Assembly but by the political appointees of the legislature’s Republican majority who make up the UNC System Board of Governors, would keep most of those requirements. But instead of mandating a new, three-credit hour course, it would allow universities to meet the requirement with any new or existing courses that meet two “student learning outcomes” (SLOs).

The first “outcome” courses would need to achieve is familiarity with “documents and concepts related to America’s founding as an independent nation, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.” The state constitution isn’t yet on the list put together by the working group, but members of the board of governors have pushed for its inclusion before they see a draft policy in their committee meetings next month.

The second “outcome” would focus on “the effort to implement the nation’s ideals” and “requires students to engage with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Students could satisfy the requirement with any one course that meets all of those outcomes, Maki said, or with a combination of courses that together get the job done.

“So, if you already have an African American History course covering this information in African American and Diaspora Studies, that could fulfill that part of the requirement,” Maki said. “And you don’t just have to assign ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ You could assign readings that give that greater context.”

That point was a major point of contention for professors reading the original bill, particularly those teaching Black history and those teaching at HBCUs.

A list of mandated readings that skips from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to King’s letter in 1963 omits a hundred years of Black history, they said — including essential context for how the modern Civil Rights movement came to be, which would help students to actually understand King’s letter.

Without that, critics said, the inclusion of a single document authored by a Black person seems to be token inclusion in the form of some of the least controversial of King’s writings. Avoiding King’s strongest condemnations of institutional racism, foreign policy, war and American economic values may comfort more conservative Americans, they said, but gives a limited and skewed view of the American Civil Rights movement.

Maki said it was important to have professors from the system’s HBCUs as part of the working group to be sure those concerns were addressed. As the policy has been taking form, he said, it was important to “honor academic freedom through creative instruction beyond the foundational readings.”

“Educating for Democracy”

At last week’s meeting of the board of governors, UNC System President Peter Hans devoted the entirety of his public remarks to the board to the importance of the new requirement.

“Educating for democracy is at the heart of the university’s mission,” Hans told the board. “That’s been true from the very beginning – from the moment our state legislature chartered the nation’s first public university in 1789 the same period when those lawmakers were ratifying the United States Constitution.”

“And it wasn’t a coincidence that founding a university happened alongside that milestone in American democracy,” Hans said. “Because preparing a rising generation for the rights and the responsibilities of self-government was exactly what North Carolinians had in mind when they created the university.”

Peter Hans
UNC System President Peter Hans (Photo: Screen grab of video stream/PBSNC.org)


Hans underlined the importance of education on history and government in the current political moment, when large swaths of Americans across the political spectrum are pessimistic about their government and the direction of the country.

“As we enter a highly contentious election year, where the main source of news on all events and misinformation about most of those events is from social media — now that’s not exactly an environment conducive to renewed faith in our country’s future,” Hans said. “That level of pessimism and civic illiteracy is simply not sustainable. Our universities and especially our public universities must do more to support and defend democracy.”

Hans said he’s heard concerns about the requirement and expects to hear more.

“I have no doubt that this proposed policy will meet with some criticism, and I welcome thoughtful feedback and perspective,” Hans said. “We have not traditionally created a shared learning requirement across our constituent institutions. And even with the wide academic latitude that’s central to our approach, I know there will be some skepticism about prescribing content for students to cover.”

Hans said he believes working closely with faculty, the system is closing in on a solution that will “strike the right balance for a public university.”

“It answers the legitimate public interest in citizenship, while respecting the expertise and the intellectual freedom of our faculty who can tackle democracy’s big questions from different perspectives in different disciplines,” Hans said. “You can address the Constitution and the civil rights movement in a course on philosophy, a course on ethics or history, law, political communication or social movements.”

“There are so many fantastic ways to approach these documents and concepts,” Hans said. “And I’m excited to see the many ways our faculty will choose to engage our students.”

The faculty working group anticipates having a draft policy ready for the board’s Committee on Education Planning, Policies and Programs next month. If it passes the board, it could come before the full board for a vote on its consent agenda by April.

Under that timeline, universities would begin identifying courses that would meet the requirement this summer and it would be fully in place for incoming undergraduates by the fall semester of 2025. That aggressive timeline reflects the importance of graduating informed citizens ready to engage with their democracy, board members said.

“If we could just figure out how to refresh adults understanding of these matters as well, we’ll really be in business,” Hans said.


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