Controversial new UNC System mandate for instruction in history and government advances

Published February 29, 2024

By Joe Killian

The Young People’s History of North Carolina” by D.H. Hill

A controversial new history and government curriculum requirement could be in place for incoming UNC System students as soon as July 2025.

The “Foundations of American Democracy” requirement, which has its roots in a Republican-backed bill that failed to become law last year, won unanimous approval from the UNC System Board of Governors’ Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs Wednesday. Its next step is a full board vote in April.

While system faculty members who helped craft the requirement say they did so with maximum flexibility for campuses, faculty and students, some professors and administrators across the system are chafing at being told by lawmakers what they must teach and how.

“It’s opening a door, mandating these specific courses or requirements that lawmakers want and mandating what will be taught,” said Mark Elliott, associate professor and associate head of the history department at UNC Greensboro. “That’s a hard door to close again.”

A headshot of Mark Elliott
Mark Elliott, associate professor and associate head of the History Department at UNC Greensboro (Photo: UNCG)


Elliott, who teaches U.S. History, including courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, said professors across the country have been anxiously watching the impact Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” — which, among other targets, takes aim at books and lessons to which conservatives object in public K-12 and university courses.

“What we’re seeing with this requirement feels very related,” Elliott said. “What’s happening here is much the same thing without all the overt politics or culture wars of it. These sorts or requirement are essentially the same as parts of the [‘Stop WOKE Act’], but it’s kind of below radar and exactly what they’re trying to accomplish. But I think that it’ll eventually become clear.”

Requirements, resources and flexibility

Under the draft proposal approved Wednesday, all students entering UNC System institutions will be required to:

“Evaluate key concepts, principles, arguments, and contexts in founding documents of the American Republic, including the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and a representative selection of the Federalist Papers; and Evaluate key milestones in progress and challenges in the effort to form ‘a more perfect Union,’ including the arguments and contexts surrounding the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Letter from Birmingham Jail, as well as other texts that reflect the breadth of American experiences.”

That language, which comes as an amendment to the UNC Policy Manual, is very close to the original language of 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. Written by a conservative attorney who has worked for Republican politicians and helped pass a similar law in his native South Carolina the failed REACH Act’s very acronym — “Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage” — sent up culture war red flags, faculty members said. Few faculty members — particularly in History and Political Science — would disagree students need a stronger grounding in history and civics. But having specific goals and readings dictated not by academics or subject matter experts but by politicians is a dangerous precedent, many say.

System leaders and faculty members charged with crafting the new requirement say their version of the new policy, while similar to the REACH Act in many specifics, is different in some important ways and gives campuses and their faculties more agency and flexibility.

“We took this to the campuses and brought back something that really reflected the faculty feedback we got,” said Wade Maki, a lecturer in philosophy at UNC Greensboro and chair of the system-wide UNC Faculty Assembly, which spearheaded the effort to come up with a new policy.

While the REACH Act would have created a new, three credit hour course required for all undergraduates, the new policy language sets out broader “Student Learning Outcomes” that can be achieved by taking existing classes that cover the mandated material, or by creating one or two-credit hour courses that may fit more easily into student schedules. That will ease the burden on campuses, faculty and students, Maki said, and hopefully help students graduate on time even with additional course requirements.

That was also the thinking behind eliminating the North Carolina state constitution from the list of required documents, Maki said. While some lawmakers and political appointees on the UNC System Board of Governors strongly preferred its inclusion, it’s a document less likely to already be found on the syllabi of existing courses in which other required documents are covered.

“We’re trying not to have huge resource implications,” Maki said. “We needed to avoid saying that you needed to make a whole three credit course devoted to this. Because, you know, at an institution like [East Carolina University] where you have 5,000 first-year students, even if you’ve got 50 students a section, that’s 100 sections or 25 full-time lecturers. We just don’t have the resources to do that.”

That was a sentiment echoed by UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings, who said during Wednesday’s committee meeting the board needs to be aware of the real-world impacts of new requirements like the “Foundations of Democracy” mandate and a looming “return on investment” study that will evaluate academic programs at each campus.

A photo of UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings
UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings (Photo: UNC Pembroke)


“As a campus that is resource maxed out and stressed at this point, much of what we’ve discussed here will require time, attention and individuals working,” Cummings said. “I don’t have a lot of folks sitting at Pembroke who have a lot of time on their hands. I just want the board to be aware of that.”

A “Foundations of Democracy” requirement is a “great idea,” Cummings said, but every requirement handed down has resource implications — especially for smaller campuses like his.

“The implementation of that and then the oversight, the necessary reporting requirements associated with that and with this are significant,” Cummings said. “So, I’m just raising a red flag that as we discuss some of these, I do hope we keep in mind that for some of the universities implementation and following up and putting these great ideas into action is going to require significant resources.”

“That’s not their purview”

Flexibility around credit hours and course offerings weren’t the only changes.

The faculty working group also removed suggested language around “common foundational principles,” Maki said.

“It was pointed out that while we had founding documents, we don’t necessarily all agree that we had founding principles,” Maki said, a conflict apparent in American history itself.

Two of the required documents — the Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution — illustrate the point. The Federalist Papers — 85 essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison arguing for ratification of the Constitution — lay out principles strenuously debated at the time. In one of the essays, Hamilton argued there was no need for a Bill of Rights. The “foundational principle” of its inclusion was so important to others that North Carolina refused to ratify until it was included. Other foundational principles dealing with race, gender, sexuality and the rights and place of Native people are as hotly debated now as they were at the nation’s founding.

“We had a lot of feedback from people who didn’t like the requirement,” Maki said. “But on the same token, some of the same people in their objection said, ‘And by the way, if you’re going to do it, you should include these additional writings.’ So, there were a lot of people who said, ‘We would love to see you include readings on Native Americans and their early democratic traditions, pre-America, we would love to see you include women’s rights, gay rights, in addition to just the African American experiences as readings.”

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


The language of the policy change does set out specific readings, Maki said, but it also says students must engage with the ideas in those texts and leaves room for faculty to add additional readings that bring those ideas into more modern contexts. That could mean including readings on the Civil Rights movement beyond the one reading from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maki said, and could include texts on the evolution of women’s and LGBTQ rights in America.

That, some faculty said, may be where they see future conflict with legislators and their political appointees.

“What happens when someone assigns something beyond the required readings that they don’t like?” Elliott said.

Could the writings of Malcolm X, or sections of Nikole Hannah Jones’s 1619 Project realistically be assigned to give greater context to discussions of race in America beyond King’s single required essay? Could readings on women’s and LGBTQ history stand beside the other required texts on American democracy in the current political environment, or would lawmakers and members of the board of governors have objections?

“Well, they might have objections to that,” Maki said. “But that’s not their purview.”

Political appointees and system functionaries have largely deferred to faculty involved in crafting the policy, Maki said, and he believes they’ll remain committed to the specifics of courses being the domain of the faculty.

“When you see how little debate there has been on this in committee, I think that actually speaks to their respect for the process and the faculty who engaged in it,” Maki said.

The policy change will be on the consent agenda of the board’s next full meeting in April. Board members could pull it from that part of the meeting for a fuller board discussion.

“Whether that happens, we’ll just have to see,” Maki said.