Is UNC launching a program for conservative thinking? It’s kind of a secret

University of North Carolina

Is the University of North Carolina about to launch a program for conservative studies? Some UNC faculty members are concerned. The associate dean in charge of the program in question says it’s not “conservative.” At least some clues suggest otherwise.

This much we know: The fact that the answer is unclear is troubling.

The Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse — approved by the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill — is set to begin in Fall of 2021. Chris Clemens, a UNC senior associate dean who is spearheading the program’s launch, told the Editorial Board Monday that the purpose of the program is to support a culture of open, respectful and productive public debate at UNC.

That should sound good to anyone fatigued by the tenor and lack of substance in public discourse these days. But evidence indicates that the UNC program might be less about those high-minded objectives and more about promoting conservative thought. Among the clues:

A planning team for the program has visited the conservative School of Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State, as well as Princeton’s James Madison Program, which is led by conservative professor Robby George. Members of those programs were asked to be on the UNC’s program’s advisory board, which was tilted far enough to the right that the UNC Faculty Executive Committee recommended that Clemens add at least one more progressive. He did with Harvard professor Cornel West.

In a 2017 email to George, Clemens wrote: “I have been among of the most outspoken conservative members of the Arts & Science faculty at UNC for many years” and said he was “intrigued to learn of our administration’s interest in housing a conservative center on campus.”

Despite the program’s name, three UNC professors who have written on the political theory of “civic virtue” have not been consulted on the program’s curriculum or direction, according to one of them, UNC School of Law professor Maxine Eichner. In fact, faculty members who asked to attend a major advisory board meeting Wednesday and Thursday were told that it was closed to them and the public.

Clemens confirmed to the Editorial Board that this week’s meetings are neither open to faculty nor considered public meetings. “We want to have a frank conversation without outsiders there,” he said. He also emphasized that his fledgling program is not “conservative.”

It’s worrisome, however, that faculty experts in the program’s content matter would be treated not as potential contributors but disruptive “outsiders.” Clemens says faculty will have more of a voice in such topics down the road, but why keep experts at arm’s length at this critical developmental time?

To be clear: UNC, like most universities, could benefit from a more free and thoughtful interchange of liberal and conservative thinking. But the Program of Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse has the suspicious appearance of a conservative in sheep’s clothing — a political directive from the conservative UNC Board of Governors designed to promote an ideology more than a true exchange of ideas.

“There may be nothing wrong with a conservative center in itself,” Eichner told the Editorial Board. But, she said, programming at UNC has historically been developed through faculty deliberation on the merits of ideas — “not from the political sphere.”

Such deliberation has yet to happen — and at this point it’s being purposefully avoided. That’s disturbing, and it doesn’t meet the ideals of North Carolina’s flagship university.