Is a new conservative program coming to UNC?

Robert George, right, and Cornel West at a James Madison public event at Princeton University in 2016.
Robert George, right, and Cornel West at a James Madison public event at Princeton University in 2016. Fotobuddy Photography

Members of the UNC Board of Governors are exploring the idea of establishing a conservative-leaning center at UNC-Chapel Hill that they say would foster debate and achieve more intellectual diversity.

The board will hear a presentation Friday from Robert “Robby” George, founder and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. A delegation of UNC board members and administrators made a university-funded trip to Princeton this fall to learn more about the program, which was founded in 2000, according to its website, to explore “enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought.”

There is no specific proposal yet for a similar program at the Chapel Hill campus. But board member and Raleigh lawyer Joe Knott, who made the trip to Princeton, said such an entity would go a long way toward balancing what many people see as a liberal dominance at universities.

“We are trying to address a problem that seems to be endemic in higher education all across the United States in that the universities seem to be moving toward a mono-culture,” Knott said in briefing a board committee last month. “There’s a lack of diversity in viewpoint, intellectual viewpoint.”

Others on the trip included UNC President Margaret Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and board member Tom Fetzer, a Wilmington lobbyist, former Raleigh mayor and former chairman of the state Republican Party.

Fetzer described George as a top scholar who has managed to create at Princeton a welcoming environment for differing opinions and civilized debate. “I just think that’s an incredibly healthy and positive thing for any college campus,” Fetzer said.

The timing could be sensitive. Discussion of the Princeton center follows a controversial period when the Board of Governors acted to terminate the work of two UNC law school entities that were associated with liberal causes – the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which was abolished in 2015, and the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which was banned from legal advocacy in September. The attorneys at the civil rights center have been let go but plan to pursue their legal work, perhaps in a nonprofit. A civil rights center will continue at UNC, but it will be limited to education and research.

Ted Shaw, director of UNC’s civil rights center, said it was interesting but not surprising that the board wants to shift the university’s direction in a more conservative way.

“In a balanced world, I wouldn’t be too troubled by this,” Shaw said. “I’m troubled when I put it in context of an attempt to either eliminate or drastically curtail centers that have philosophical leanings that they don’t like.”

The UNC board, overwhelmingly Republican, has been accused by critics of making decisions with a heavy partisan emphasis. The board is elected by the Republican-led legislature.

Robert George, right, and Cornel West at a James Madison public event at Princeton University in 2016. Sameer A. Khan Fotobuddy Photography

The James Madison Program is funded by donors and foundations, and it sponsors fellowships, conferences, lectures and seminars at Princeton.

Knott said the program has operated as an appendage to Princeton. “The limitation of his program is it’s not really part of the university,” he said, adding that he’d like to see a center more integrated into the curriculum at Chapel Hill, to “make it part of the degree-granting process.”

Gabriel Lugo, a UNC-Wilmington math professor and chairman of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, said he’s not concerned yet because the board has merely expressed interest in the Princeton center, and there is no current plan for one here.

But, he said, if the board intends to interfere with the faculty’s prerogative to set curriculum, “that would be like inserting themselves into a hornet’s nest.” Lugo said the faculty would be “jumping up and down to oppose it.”

“Professor George can come here and say whatever he wants,” Lugo said. “Some people will hear him and some people will not. I’m not really worried about that.”

UNC Chancellor Folt was traveling late this week and could not be reached for comment.

Educated at Swarthmore, Harvard and Oxford, George holds Princeton’s McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence, the same professorship once held by Woodrow Wilson. In a 2009 profile, entitled “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” The New York Times called George “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker” and the “reigning brain of the Christian right.” A Catholic, he has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and abortion.

He is the author or co-author of several books, including “In Defense of Natural Law,” “Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality,” and “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” and “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.”

This month, he co-authored a New York Times opinion column supporting the right of the Colorado baker to refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, which led to a lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has also vigorously argued for more open-mindedness in U.S. higher education – a view that has been expressed by other university leaders.

The James Madison Program’s website features an open letter to U.S. college students this fall, advising them, “Think for yourself.”

“In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture,” said the letter, signed by George and 27 other professors at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. “The danger any student – or faculty member – faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.”

George appeared on Fox News to talk about the letter. He did not respond to requests for an interview this week.

He practices what he preaches. For years, George has co-taught a Great Books class with Princeton emeritus professor and Harvard professor Cornel West, an African-American who describes himself as a radical Democrat. Following an incident at Middlebury College where an American Enterprise Institute scholar was prevented from speaking by protestors, George and West have lectured together and published a statement last year against “campus illiberalism,” calling for “truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought and expression.”

“We are intrigued by that, given the times,” said Spellings, who knows George from her days as education secretary under Republican President George W. Bush. The Princeton professor was an adviser to Bush.

Joe Knott speaks during a UNC Board of Governors committee meeting Aug. 1, 2017. Chris Seward

Spellings said polls have shown that Republicans are far outnumbered in higher education.

“There is a perception, and I believe also a reality, that the ideological balance may be a little out of whack,” she said, adding, “Have we created environments where people with all points of view can be heard and respected? ... Obviously this is kind of a major issue of our time, how we talk to each other.”

She said that any center at UNC would have to be done in the right way that respects the tradition of shared governance with faculty.

Spellings said she’s concerned about a 2017 Pew Research Center poll that showed 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. That is a sharp turnaround from previous polls that showed robust support for higher education. People see footage of campus protests with speakers being “brutalized and assaulted and spit on,” Spellings said, and “they think, ‘What the hell is going on over there?’ 

This fall, the James Madison Program has held events on a wide range of topics, including the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, American folk music, free speech and campus rape and due process.

Programs similar to the James Madison Program have sprung up at other universities. Jane Mayer, author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” referred to George’s program as the “beau ideal of the ‘beach head’ theory” in an article last year for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mayer argued that conservative donors see these programs as an opportunity to promote their ideology in higher education.

Knott, the board member, said departments are properly run by the faculty, but “the academics have their own viewpoint.”

What’s needed, he said, is for great universities to do more to expose students to all points of view.

“Of course it would be a wonderful thing if you’re a liberal student, rather than going to Yale and having everybody agree with you, you could come to Carolina and get a very fine liberal education but you would be challenged at every point by the best conservative scholars in the country,” he said. “Likewise, if you’re a conservative, you wouldn’t go to Hillsdale College, necessarily, where everybody would agree with you. But you’d come to Carolina where every point would be challenged by the existing faculty but you could be supported by the new conservative faculty.”

“If we could figure out how to do that,” he added, “it would absolutely change the face of American higher education.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill