Jim Jenkins

Free speech, from left or right, is not a threat at UNC-Chapel Hill

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

Easy now, fellow liberals. Don’t let those knees go to jerking yet.

There’s a movement that actually seems to be making some progress to ensure that students on North Carolina’s liberal public university campuses – oh, let’s say, UNC-Chapel Hill as one example (wink, wink) – are exposed to some conservative thought along their paths to degrees. Officials of the UNC system, including system President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors members Joe Knott and Tom Fetzer (aiming to be the board chair?) along with UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt, visited a conservative center at Princeton University in New Jersey this fall. Clearly, Knott and Fetzer, both conservative Republicans installed on the UNC board by GOP lawmakers, like the idea.

And Spellings, who’s avoided hardcore ideology since becoming UNC president after a firestorm firing of her predecessor, Tom Ross, acknowledges that “the ideological balance may be a little out of whack” in higher education. That’s a studious observation, not a radical thought.

The notion that board members would push administrators to install a conservative think tank or center on the Chapel Hill campus will send some faculty and administrators up the ivy-covered walls. They’d say, not without reason, that universities are supposed to have a degree of independence, which means operating without political interference from those on an oversight board that’s clearly identified with one political ideology.

But the strongest argument against what’s being discussed as it pertains to Chapel Hill is that the UNC Board of Governors reached in to terminate the work of two UNC School of Law centers, one on poverty and the other on civil rights – where the board’s action wrongly prohibited attorneys for the civil rights center from advocacy in courtrooms.

Now if the Board of Governors would rescind those heavy-handed actions, members would have a stronger case for establishing a center that would spotlight conservative thought. Ted Shaw, the gifted director of UNC’s civil rights center in the law school, said it was interesting but not surprising that the board wants to shift the university’s direction toward a more conservative way.

Said he, in a reasoned and restrained view: “In a balanced world, I wouldn’t be too troubled by this. 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.” That’s the problem with this idea, simply put by someone not resisting a way to bring conservative perspective to campus, but rightly opposed to curbing other perspectives.

As is the case on most university campuses, liberals are in the faculty majority in Chapel Hill, but that’s no threat to the Republic, nor is it a sign that those liberals are out to indoctrinate the next generation of straight-ticket Democrats. You’ll find on that campus organized groups of conservative students, and you may be sure that if professors were out to punish students in, say, a political science or sociology class for expressing a conservative viewpoint, the word would be out before the bell rang. But it doesn’t appear that happens.

Board of Governors members who want to silence those who speak out on social justice or, in the law school, work actively for it in the legal system, underestimate students and faculty. A a viewpoint, expressed freely is no threat to individuals or an institution. And those who’s respond to opinions they don’t agree with by trying to muzzle them ought to focus entirely on being guardians of valued public institutions.

The bottom line is that Knott and his conservative mates may have a case for ensuring that conservative viewpoints, whether in classes or lectures sponsored on campus, ought to be more available to students in Chapel Hill. But that case would be stronger if the law school were able to operate its centers as it did before the GOP took over the Board of Governors. Informed activism, of either the liberal or conservative type, is no threat to any student. If anything, free expression and the exercise of it is exactly the opposite.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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