Lemons to lemonade - The UNC School of Civic Life

Published October 19, 2023

By Higher Ed Works

By Buck Goldstein

I’ve attended many faculty meetings at UNC Chapel Hill over the last 20 years. I assumed I had heard everything.

Between the athletics controversies, the removal of Silent Sam, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure application and now the School of Civic Life and Leadership, the faculty seems to have touched all the bases. The meetings are characterized by challenging questions, off-the-wall reactions, and carefully lawyered statements.

But on October 6, I got an unexpected surprise. Jim White, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, was concluding a status review of the new School of Civic Life and Leadership when an obviously angry faculty member asked, “Why are we even doing this?”

White paused for fully five seconds.

Then he looked up and said, “Because we have to.”

The response was deafening silence. White’s candid, clear, and transparent response was so powerful there was nothing else to say.

THE BACKSTORY to this jawdropping moment of candor began when the UNC Board of Trustees –  without any consultation with the faculty or the Chancellor – announced the creation of a School of Civic Life. Members of the Board followed up with a series of media interviews that humiliated the Chancellor and the faculty, ignoring the basic norms of shared governance.

The Trustees made no attempt to hide their objective. They intend to hire conservative professors to balance out their perception that UNC students are being brainwashed by liberal faculty. To top it off, the North Carolina legislature chose to get into the weeds and included in the new state budget instructions on the number of faculty to be hired, the administrative structure, and a timetable for implementation, among other details.1

As it turns out, while legislators were tinkering with matters they knew little or nothing about, UNC faculty and administrators concluded they could turn the lemons they were handed into lemonade.

CHANCELLOR KEVIN Guskiewicz and Provost Chris Clemens decided at the outset that the new School would be housed in the College of Arts & Sciences and its leader would report to the Dean of the College.

Dean White then convened a group of faculty thought leaders and told them the new School must be faculty-led and built to last beyond the current political climate.

They responded by defining the school as: (1) providing a home specifically for the study and practice of public discourse, civic life and civic leadership; (2) providing an intellectual grounding in democracy and the American political experience; and (3) serving to support conversations and research on these topics.

The day before Dean White’s presentation to the faculty, he named an acting director of the new School and nine distinguished professors who will begin teaching classes in the spring. They include:

  • A history professor who writes for both academia and The New York Times on religion;
  •  A music professor who receives funding from the State Department to bring American hip-hop artists to Africa;
  • A philosopher who studies the ethics of artificial intelligence; and
  • A communication studies professor who advises Republican political campaigns.

Sadly, the inaugural faculty does not include any professors of color. It has been reported that none applied or agreed to be nominated.2

At the end of his presentation, Dean White stressed that by adhering to basic university processes and norms, the new School will be built to last. By attracting distinguished professors who are also great teachers, the School will appeal to a broad range of students. Embedded in the College of Arts & Sciences, the School has been embraced by professors from the disciplines that are foundational to a liberal education and therefore will be perceived as a serious endeavor.

Hopefully the hard work to make the new School a reality will be recognized for what it is – a goodfaith effort to embrace what began as a declaration of war with the faculty – and turn it into something worthy of the nation’s first public university.

This good faith was demonstrated by the new acting Director, Sarah Treul Roberts, who told a reporter: “This is an amazing opportunity, as a faculty member, to get to build something and develop an entire new school from more or less scratch. It’s one of those opportunities that I think there will be ample interest in across all viewpoints, across all backgrounds, across all ideologies.”3

At the end of Dean White’s presentation, someone asked, “Do you think you will be able to pull this off without interference?”

His answer: “I certainly hope so.”

Buck Goldstein, a Professor of the Practice in the School of Education and University Entrepreneur in Residence at UNC Chapel Hill, retired from the faculty June 30.

1 https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2023/Bills/House/PDF/H259v7.pdf, pp. 161-162.
2 https://ncnewsline.com/2023/10/12/unc-chapel-hills-controversial-new-school-moves-forward-with-new-faculty/.
3 Ibid.