A free speech culture — if you can keep it.
That’s the challenge raised by University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, who voted 12-0 on Jan. 26 to establish the School of Civic Life and Leadership, a new academic unit featuring for-credit courses on history, literature, political science, and more. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the school will provide a space for UNC students to “explore American civic values with the full freedom of expression, intellectual diversity, and open inquiry that such studies require.”
An admirable goal. And it begs the question: Is such freedom currently lacking at UNC?
In short, reports vary. While the school ranks relatively favorably in FIRE’s 2022 Free Speech Rankings — placing 23 of 203 schools surveyed and boasting a rare “green light” speech code rating — its students reported in that survey only a limited degree of comfort expressing ideas:
- 55% reported feeling, at least occasionally, that they could not express their opinion because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond.
- 56% reported feeling at least some pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in class.
- 80% reported worrying, at least a little, about damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done.
While these percentages mirror the national average, they remain concerning. The fact they’re not unusual simply illustrates the dire climate for free speech at campuses nationwide.
Also blemishing UNC’s record are some recent controversies.
The most recent occurred in July 2022, when the student government’s executive branch issued a viewpoint-discriminatory executive order refusing to grant funding to pro-life individuals, businesses, and organizations.
The other occurred a year prior, and it implicates the Board of Trustees itself. The board refused to take action on the Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s recommendation to grant tenure to journalist and incoming Knight Chair Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the much-debated 1619 Project. The snub broke with UNC’s previous practice of appointing Knight chairs with tenure, so FIRE wrote the school, sharing our concern about potential viewpoint discrimination. Afterward, the board offered Hannah-Jones tenure, but the journalist demurred, accepting a position at Howard University instead.
If this vision is realized, it will mark a decisive step toward cultivating a culture of free speech at the North Carolina university, which — as a public institution — is already legally obligated to protect the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty.
In the coming months, FIRE learned that UNC, in violation of its own policy, investigated two of its faculty members who had criticized the trustees’ handling of the tenure application. For this, the school earned a well-deserved place on our 2022 “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list.
Due to the board’s — and the school’s — past behavior, it’s unsurprising that some faculty are skeptical of the new initiative. Some worry that professors hired to teach courses in the School of Civic Life will be selected based on their political views; others feel blindsided by a lack of faculty input in the decision-making process.
However, administrators insist that the program will provide a space for all perspectives, framing it as a remedy to trends of ideological homogeneity, self-censorship, and political polarization.
“Our vision is not about making a political statement,” UNC Provost Christopher Clemens told the Washington Post. It’s about “creating a school that will focus on preparing our students with the skills and capacities to help make democracy work better.”
Further, according to the Wall Street Journal, the new school won’t replace or displace current UNC professors. Instead, it will be its own “discrete program,” staffed by “its own dean and at least 20 new professors.”
Still, UNC Chancellor Ken Guskiewicz emphasized the role of current faculty in bringing the board of trustees’ concept to fruition. “Our faculty are the marketplace of ideas and they will build the curriculum and determine who will teach it,” he told the Washington Post.
Indeed, while housing a program dedicated to open inquiry is a welcome development, extending its ethos to UNC as a whole will require cooperation from trustees, administrators, students, and professors. And it’ll take a strong commitment to principle. As FIRE has seen time and time again, when protecting free speech gets tough, universities often get censorial, attempting to stifle speech that offends or provokes instead of letting the conversation play out.
But those behind the School of Civic Life and Leadership insist the program will buck this trend, recasting the modern university as a facilitator of complex discussions — not a culture war referee.
In the words of board Chair David Boliek, “The School of Civic Life and Leadership will invigorate our university with new ideas and perspectives and provide a forum for thoughtful, balanced exploration of issues at the very heart of America’s history and institutions.”
If this vision is realized, it will mark a decisive step toward cultivating a culture of free speech at the North Carolina university, which — as a public institution — is already legally obligated to protect the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty. Further, it will benefit all American institutions of higher ed, which may use it as a proof-of-concept in developing their own free speech-friendly initiatives.
FIRE will watch with interest as the program matures, encouraging developments that further free expression and open inquiry. We look forward to seeing the School of Civic Life and Leadership take flight, and, as always, are standing by with the expertise and resources capable of helping it — and any pro-free speech initiative — realize its goals.