Letters to the Editor

What do readers have to say about a conservative ‘Honors College’ at UNC?

Students mingle on the quad in front of the Wilson Library on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC, on Aug. 24, 2017.
Students mingle on the quad in front of the Wilson Library on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC, on Aug. 24, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

The following Sunday Forum is in response to “We need more conservative professors; here’s a way to do that” (May 27).

‘Serious mistake’

Joe Knott’s proposal for increasing the diversity of viewpoints at UNC-Chapel Hill would be a serious mistake.

The College of Arts and Sciences already offers many courses on Western civilization: its art, literature, history, philosophy and science, among others. This teaching always includes careful, analytical and critical thinking, because that is what scholars do: we do not ignore its “glories and roots,” but neither should we simply and uncritically defend them. Nor should we hire faculty or create a new college defined by an ideological commitment to a particular viewpoint, rather than by the highest standards of scholarship in a field of study.

Such a unit – in effect, a “safe space” for conservatives – would create the very problem of intellectual conformity among its faculty and students that he criticizes, rather than exposing all Carolina students to robust conflict among viewpoints. I hope that Knott will take time to get to know our faculty better.

Richard Andrews

Professor Emeritus

Chair of the UNC Faculty, 1997-2000

Political vs. academic

First, where’s the proof of liberal bias among faculties, which is often asserted but seldom with hard evidence? Further, what defines a liberal or conservative in a given field? Who decides? Wouldn’t hiring based on faculties’ dispositions be a quota system – an anathema to conservatives?

Second, is the motive for having more conservatives a political or academic one? Critics commonly decry the higher number of registered Democrats on faculties, which implies they are more concerned about politics than subject matter. The partisan remaking of the UNC Board of Governors reinforces this suspicion. How exactly would party affiliation adversely affect physicists’ teaching and research?

Third, and most important, does the desire for certain points of view conflict with the objective search for truth? Joe Knott wants a college of faculty who “love and defend Western civilization,” where liberal thought is mediated by conservative thought. It does not require notions of liberalism and conservatism, nor loving and defending. Scholars’ goals are to objectively know and understand. “Loving and defending” is an agenda for propaganda.

Don Clement

Greenville

College nominee?

I nominate Gene Nichol for dean of Mr. Knott’s Honors College. He has experience with all the described criteria.

Tom Connelly

Elon

‘Monoculture’

Alumni of UNC-CH should be truly fearful of having Board of Governers members who want to dismantle a top research university because of its perceived disease of “intellectual monoculture.” The lack of elementary understanding of the role of a university by BOG members (and those that appoint them) is appalling at best. It clearly arises from conflating the meaning of “liberal education” with “liberal politics,” a sad commentary on our current time of polarization.

The consequences of carrying out this proposal would make UNC-CH the laughing stock of the (free) world. The role of liberal education is to teach students how to think and not what to think, but Knott wants a university to do the reverse. As proof of his faulty logic, Knott should look to his right and to his left at the next BOG meeting and ask himself: how come most of his BOG colleagues share his “monoculture” viewpoint despite attending great North Carolina and other universities that provided them with liberal education?

R. G. Khalifah, PhD

Cary

Who censors whom?

Who died and made UNC Board of Governors member Joe Knott King of UNC? He has made a recent proposal to create an “Honors College” at Carolina for the purpose of hiring and tenuring conservative professors and accepting and rejecting students without any interference from existing faculty. He has also kindly offered a handpicked Princeton professor to organize his new fiefdom.

This is about as clear an infringement the integrity of the university and the standards of academic accreditation as I can imagine. The “Honors College” is needed because conservative faculty views are censored by UNC? Where is the evidence ? Give us some examples.

We do know that liberal professors were punished when the BOG cut centers that focused on poverty, civil rights and the environment and the legislature slashed the law school’s budget because they did not like what Prof. Gene Nichol wrote about them. Who is censoring whom?

Knott wants his “Honors College” to be free “to teach and defend the glories of western civilization.” One of those glories is a public university in which faculty are free to pursue the truth as they see it. I see nothing honorable about the “college” he want to impose.

David Kiel

Chapel Hill

Encourage conservatives

I noticed a potential flaw in Knott’s proposal to bring more conservatives into the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty. Recently I watched a Fox News discussion in which one panelist said that within colleges and universities nationwide, liberal faculty outnumber conservative faculty 10 to 1. There are 1.54 million post-secondary faculty in the United States excluding graduate teaching assistants. Applying the above ratio indicates that 1.4 million of these are liberal and only 140,000 conservative.

It follows, therefore, that if UNC advertises for a new professor, on average liberal applicants will outnumber conservative applicants ten to one. In the aggregate, assume conservative applicants are the most outstanding 25 percent of the time, not the nine percent the averages would imply. In this unlikely case, if the university always hires the most qualified, three out of four new hires would still be liberal, and a liberal-conservative parity would remain unattainable.

This indicates to me that faculty hiring practices at universities are not the problem. There are simply too few conservative students wanting to teach at the college level. Are they turned off by the overwhelming number of liberals teaching at the college level? Perhaps. But if there is to be some affirmative action to change this dynamic such as Knott proposes, it is not something any college administration or top-down board of governors’ ultimatum can achieve. Parity can only come from a concerted effort on the part of conservatives to encourage more conservative youth to pursue a teaching career.

John May

Chapel Hill

Civility needed

If we are to believe Joe Knott’s and Michael Jacobs’ views, conservative thought and expression of Western civilization is in serious danger of being lost to evidence of UNC being one-sided philosophically and the “intellectual monoculture of a lack of viewpoint diversity.”

In what universe do they live? The presidency, Congress and the North Carolina state legislature are all controlled by Republicans; the elected Democrats in NC were hamstrung by those same Republican legislatures before they took the reins. The (Republican) Board of Governors shut down the UNC Center for Civil Rights, because it didn’t represent their (conservative) viewpoint. Democrats have been completely shut out of writing the budget that Phil Berger and Tim Moore put together.

At the federal level, Republicans refused to give moderate Merrick Garland a hearing after his nomination for the Supreme Court so they could put forth their own conservative candidate and, they would likely argue, another “champion of Western civilization.”

What about any of this demonstrates “absolute standards of civility and respectful discourse?” In fact, Republicans’ behavior indicates they are determined to shut down the only place where a liberal viewpoint that gives a voice to more than Western civilization is still functioning.

Lisë Osvold

Raleigh

‘Academic excellence’

As basic science professors in medical school departments, we do not claim to be experts on hiring of faculty who teach courses on Western civilization. We do have significant experience with appointment and promotion of faculty in a broad range of fields.

We cannot recall a single instance in which a faculty member’s political leanings were discussed during deliberations on hiring or promotion. Knott’s proposal to establish an Honors College within UNC-CH, in which all decisions involving hiring and promotion of faculty would be made by a single dean and the provost, represents the antithesis of academic freedom that he claims to value so deeply.

We recognize that university faculties lean liberal, but faculty candidates at great universities are selected and/or promoted based on academic excellence, not on their political views.

Rosann Farber-Petes

Thomas D. Petes

Chapel Hill

‘Terrible idea’

Joe Knott is right about one thing: academic freedom is crucial for academic excellence. But his proposal for an all-conservative “Honors College” at UNC-CH is a terrible idea that defeats its own purpose.

There are plenty of us at the university who “love and defend Western civilization” – meaning those ideals of humanism and free inquiry that are essential to the university’s enterprise. Beyond that, there is a wide range of opinions about various aspects of “Western civilization” and civilization in general.

But Knott admits that an Honors College whose members all think alike on these matters would require political or philosophical tests for choosing and keeping faculty and students – violating every imaginable tenet of academic freedom. The “long-established academic stature” that Knott praises at Chapel Hill would disappear in a heartbeat.

Knott claims that conservative classes are “disallowed” at UNC-CH, or “changed to include ‘approved’ texts or forced to submit to majority norms.” None of this is true. Our forbidden teaching has not been too conservative; it happened in Professor Jay Smith’s course on college athletics, and in the law school’s Center for Civil Rights and Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Harry Watson

Professor of History, UNC-Chapel Hill

No politics

I write in regard to the suggestion by a member of the UNC Board of Governors that Chapel Hill establish an honors college that apparently would focus on hiring conservative faculty. My comments are made in the context of my years of faculty service at Syracuse University in the honors program and on departmental and college committees for both promotion/tenure and hiring (I am an emeritus professor).

The subject of political affiliation never came up in our job interviews or committee discussions of candidates. I was also interviewed at other universities for faculty and departmental chair positions and never was asked about political leanings. In all these circumstances the focus was on quality of teaching, research and service contributions.

This raises questions about how UNC job advertisements and interviews would be conducted for these honors college positions. I hope that potential applicants would realize that these positions come with a loss of academic freedom and with micromanaging oversight by the Board of Governors and the NCGA.

Larry Wolf

Garner

Honors Carolina

UNC Board of Governors member Joe Knott recently proposed that UNC-Chapel Hill establish an “Honors College” in order to alleviate “intellectual ennui” borne of stifled academic freedom. Yet Knott does not acknowledge the existence of Honors Carolina, Chapel Hill’s vibrant honors program. As recent Honors Carolina alumni, we fail to recognize the state of affairs that Knott describes on campus and fear that his proposal would spell the end of a program that already fosters “real debate” and “independent thought” at Chapel Hill.

Each term, Honors Carolina offers dozens of small-group courses, invites visiting scholars to Chapel Hill and provides undergraduates with mentored research and teaching opportunities. Nevertheless, one of the main rationales that Knott gives for his proposal is a lack of “viewpoint diversity” on campus. Even a cursory look through the program’s website undercuts this suggestion. It is disingenuous to claim that these international and interdisciplinary opportunities represent an “intellectual monoculture,” as Knott puts it.

The second rationale that Knott gives for a new Honors College is to renew Carolina’s commitment to the “glories and roots of Western civilization.” But the current leaders of Honors Carolina are experts in “Western civilization,” having published and taught extensively about the history of the U.S. South, early-modern English theater and the 19th-century English novelist Jane Austen.

As it stands, Honors Carolina enhances intellectual diversity on campus by introducing undergraduates to varied perspectives and by teaching them to grapple with problems that defy simple left-right classification.

Knott’s proposal enhances neither “academic freedom” nor “viewpoint diversity.” Lacking these improvements, it would simply be a bald act of ideological commandeering by the Board of Governors.

Austin Cooper,

UNC Class of 2014

Izaak Earnhardt

UNC Class of 2015

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