Op-Ed

Bias stifles campus speech at UNC-CH

The Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill.
The Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

I recently spoke to the UNC College Republicans. Both of them.

Seriously, there is a robust group of students in Chapel Hill who are willing to be identified as non-progressives on what has become an overwhelmingly progressive campus. Though a majority of today’s college students believe (and are often being taught) that socialism is a superior economic model to capitalism, chances are that half of UNC students come from homes where at least one of their parents votes Republican.

I asked the young Republicans if they ever felt that answering a test question or paper assignment honestly--rather than appealing to the political bias of their professor--would cause them to receive a lower grade. All but two out of about 40 students in attendance raised their hands.

I knew the answer. My son was chairman of the UNC College Republicans 4 years ago, and the Phillips Exeter Republicans before that. I have had dozens of students, interns, teaching assistants, another son, and children of many friends tell me the same.

Last semester I created a new course, “Business, Politics and Public Policy,” for UNC’s GLOBE program, which is an elite group of 53 students with approximately equal numbers from Copenhagen Business School, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and UNC. On the first day of class, I had them fill out an anonymous survey on a variety of topics.

Among the questions was the same one I posed to the UNC College Republicans. Naturally, the group with the largest percentage answering in the affirmative that professor political bias influenced their answers to tests and papers was the cadre from UNC, more than the other two groups combined.

I was recently chatting with a state senator and graduate of UNC, who relayed a story to me involving a close family friend. The girl was a freshman at Carolina this fall. She made a statement in an English class that reflected a conservative viewpoint, and the other students pounced on her in an attempt to shame her for not walking the progressive line. The teacher allowed the verbal abuse to go on unchecked for some time, to the point that the young woman called her parents in tears that night and pleaded to transfer to a school with a less hostile political culture.

One of my top MBA students, who I would categorize as moderate, recently told me that she will no longer participate in class discussions that involve social or political issues for fear of being branded by the “progressive police.”

This is a disgrace; and antithetical to a classic “liberal” education whereby students are supposed to be taught critical thinking. Is there any wonder why so many North Carolina citizens, our legislature, and the Board of Governors are fed up with the political indoctrination occurring at taxpayer-funded educational institutions?

Given today’s toxic political discourse, professors who teach classes that address social, religious or political topics should be required to honor a pledge to respect the viewpoint of all students, and to create an atmosphere where thought diversity is encouraged, not shamed or punished. Students should be informed of this ground rule, and there should be an accountability mechanism to report violations.

Sadly, even well-intended university leaders are “captured” by the political monoculture on college campuses. Administrators turn a blind eye to political discrimination, a cancer that is destroying higher education. Any attempt to promote thought diversity among the faculty, unlike the countless other diversity initiatives, is condemned as a violation of academic governance norms. Chancellors who lack the backbone to demand respect for viewpoint diversity among the faculty and students should be replaced.

Community columnist Michael Jacobs is CEO of Jacobs Capital and on the faculty of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School..

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