Conservative Princeton professor promotes civil discourse at UNC

Robert George at a James Madison public event at Princeton University in 2016.
Robert George at a James Madison public event at Princeton University in 2016. Fotobuddy Photography

A prominent conservative professor at Princeton University told the UNC Board of Governors on Friday that the best way to get students to think for themselves is to expose them to top scholars with opposing points of view.

Robert “Robby” George was invited to give a presentation on civil discourse to the board, focused on his James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. Founded by George in 2000, the center delves into American constitutional law and Western political thought.

Earlier this fall, UNC President Margaret Spellings, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and two board members visited the James Madison Program to explore whether something similar could be established at the Chapel Hill campus.

Board members were taken with George’s presentation Friday, with one, former Republican lawmaker Leo Daughtry, asking, “Professor George, you’ve been at Princeton a long time. Don’t you think it would be time for you to move South?”

George emphasized that while he is a well-known conservative thinker, an adviser to conservative Christian groups, the James Madison Program is not conservative. Instead, he said, it seeks to bring competing points of view together to lift the intellectual debate on campus.

“We don’t want education to degenerate into indoctrination,” George said. “Rather, we want to equip and empower our students to think deeply, critically, and for themselves.”

George showed the board members his syllabus for a class on civil liberties that had readings from scholars with diverse perspectives on controversial issues. He also encourages his students to take courses with a liberal professor at Princeton whom he considers to be his polar opposite.

“We are not interested in creating a conservative safe space or a playground for conservatives,” he said.

The James Madison Program hosts events and speakers but also offers courses for which students can earn a certificate. It started small, George said, but now has a $2.3 million annual budget. And it has influenced Princeton far beyond its scope of study of constitutional law or political thought, George said.

“It’s really had a transformative effect on the campus in encouraging civil, robust debate about a wide range of issues on the campus,” he said. “There is a spectrum of views represented now in the discussion at Princeton which is much broader than what was available on our campus before the Madison Program came into being.”

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. The two have debated each other at public events, and their appearances are easily found on YouTube.

Board members asked George’s advice for how to scale up a program for a large, public university. Joe Knott, a Raleigh lawyer, posed the question of how to achieve true balance. He suggested faculty could easily argue against such a venture, saying it was a violation of academic freedom.

Another board member, Steve Long, said any such program is ultimately up to UNC faculty. “It’s not going to go anywhere unless the faculty support the program,” said Long, a Raleigh lawyer. “It really depends on who the faculty are. You’re not going to reproduce what he’s done because it’s a totally different environment.”

Steve Leonard, a political science professor at UNC, said there was nothing revelatory in George’s remarks.

“That talk could have been delivered by any number of UNC faculty,” Leonard said. “It’s disappointing, and to some extent, insulting, that the Board of Governors is so unaware of that fact that they would invite someone from the outside to do what a faculty member here in North Carolina could have done.”

Leonard said good faculty everywhere take themselves seriously and provide differing viewpoints in their classrooms.

It’s unclear what might come of the discussions with George. Spellings said other universities are crafting programs, including the University of Missouri, Texas A&M and others. UNC will look to those, too, she said.

But the timing is right, she said.

“Today, Americans, including our students, are finding it harder to listen to others who don’t fully agree with them,” Spellings said. “Our faculty are finding it tougher to introduce uncomfortable ideas in the classroom, and our policymakers are finding it harder to see the kind of intellectual diversity our institutions promise.”

She said seeing the program at Princeton was “impressive and refreshing.”

George said that whatever UNC decides to do could have a ripple effect across the United States.

“What you do here will be noticed and looked to by others in the country,” George said. “What you do here will set an example for other states and other universities.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill