This story originally published online at NC Newsline.

When the General Assembly’s Republican majority revealed and passed a new budget in a whirlwind 48 hours last week, it set an aggressive timeline for an unprecedented new school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The budget provides $2 million in funding in each of the next two fiscal years for the new School of Civic Life and Leadership, described as early as 2017 by its supporters and architects as a “conservative center.”  The budget provision also dictates a few specifics:

  • UNC-Chapel Hill’s Provost Chris Clemens must name the school’s first dean by Dec. 31, 2023 — just over three months from now.
  • The school must hire, with that dean’s approval, “at least 10 and no more than 20 faculty members from outside the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill” — all with permanent tenure or eligibility for permanent tenure.
  • The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees must report to the legislature’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee and the Fiscal Research Division on progress made toward establishing the School of Civic Life and Leadership and factors affecting the long-term sustainability of the new school.

It is already unprecedented for a new school at a UNC System campus to be instigated not by the faculty or administration—but rather by the legislature and its political appointees on the system’s board of governors and board of trustees—faculty representatives told Newsline this week. They said they had never heard of state government mandating the number of faculty members, whether they will be tenured and how and when they will be hired.

“It’s demoralizing, to be honest,” said Beth Moracco, a professor in the university’s Department of Health Behavior and chair of the faculty. “In my experience it’s very unusual, for a number of reasons, to have that level of direction in legislation for hiring at the university. I haven’t ever seen anything quite like it. And it’s concerning.”

“At odds even with the ongoing process”

Faculty have long been skeptical of the prospect of a new school initiated by political appointees, Moracco said, especially when legislators and their appointees have described it as a method of “leveling the playing field” and an attempt to create ideological balance by introducing more conservative thought to the campus and curriculum.

Still, Moracco said, faculty have for months now been participating in a process they believed would give them input and buy-in on some of the specifics now dictated by the legislature through the budget process.

 Beth Moracco, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill

“I do believe even faculty who have been skeptical have been willing to engage with it,” Moracco said. “They’ve said, ‘Okay, this is happening. Let’s make it something we can be proud of.’”

This past summer, the provost named the dean of the college of arts and sciences to lead a faculty committee to plan how the university would hire for this new school and recruit faculty.

“There was an initial call for interested faculty from within the college that went out in July,” Moracco said. “It’s my understanding they’re within their second round of interviews with them. These would be folks within the department who would have about a 50 percent appointment within the new school and that they would then select an interim director, not a dean, and that interim director and this group of faculty would then go about working on the curriculum and recruiting faculty. So this legislation seems to be at odds even with the ongoing process for establishing the school.”

The timeline for hiring a dean would seem impractical to anyone with experience with that process, Moracco said.

“I’ve been on several dean searches and chair searches and I’ve never seen that happen in two to three months,” Moracco said. “Typically it takes almost a year. Especially if you’re going to do a national search, have a committee set up, interview applicants.”

Hiring 10 to 20 tenured or tenure-track professors all at once is also nearly unheard of, Moracco said, especially in the current budget environment in public higher education.

“Especially when some departments have hiring freezes and we do have teaching needs elsewhere, it’s disturbing,” Moracco said.

Hiring these new faculty for a new school, when it’s still unclear what related minors, majors or degrees will be offered, is confusing at best, Moracco said.

“That’s a lot of faculty,” Moracco said. “In my department I think we have 25 full time faculty members,” Moracco said. “We grant two master’s and two doctoral degrees. It’s a huge program. We have close to 250 students just in our department, let alone in the school. So something on this scale seems very large and is going to take a lot longer than nine months to do.”

The requirement that the new faculty members all be tenured or tenure-track is also puzzling, Moracco said. GOP legislators have filed bills to eliminate tenure, and members of the university’s board of trustees and the system’s board of governors have questioned tenure’s purpose and validity.

Those requirements don’t make much sense academically, said Jay Smith, history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and president of the state chapter of the American Association of University Processors. However, it is compatible as part of an ideological project, he said.

“Yes, it is hypocritical that on the one hand they would criticize the whole notion and institution of tenure and then have as many as 20 faculty brought in with tenure or tenure track, Smith said. “But if you look at it through a political lens, it makes sense.”

 Jay Smith, history professor and president of the North Carolina AAUP. (Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill)

“This is part of the subtext of the argument they have been making about tenure,” Smith said. “They regard tenure as a political tool. What does tenure do, as far as they understand it? It secures in place all these lefties that contaminate discourse at our universities. So the best way to fight back, if we’re not going to get rid of this tool of the left, is to tenure people on the right located in a school that will be hospitable them and is given a mission consistent with their ideological priorities.”

Many top scholars at UNC-Chapel Hill already teach in the areas that will be covered within new school, Smith said: history, philosophy, political science and rhetoric.

“This is just more proof — as if we needed more — that the purpose of the school is to advance the ideological objectives of the legislature,” Smith said. “And they simply don’t trust that faculty at the university will do that.”

“A serious endeavor”

 The number of initial hires and the requirement they be tenured or tenure-track is about reputation more than ideology, key members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees told Newsline this week.

“I think the intent there, and I can definitely speak to that, is to solidify [the school] as a serious endeavor,” said Dave Boliek, member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

Boliek was chairman of the board over the last two years, when the school went from an idea inspired by conservative-funded centers at Princeton University, Texas A&M and Arizona State University to a fast-tracked priority for Republican legislators and their political appointees.

Having a significant number of tenured and tenure track professors at the outset will put the school on the academic map, Boliek said.

“In the world of higher education, serious academic schools have tenure track professors and tenured professors who do research and who teach and who provide academic excellence in individual schools,” Boliek said. “And it’s those schools that have a high academic reputation as a result of having accomplished tenured and tenure track professors.”

 UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair David Boliek. (Image: UNC-Chapel Hill)

Boliek recently changed his voter registration from Democratic to Republican ahead of a run for state auditor, using his leadership of the trustees board as a key argument as he enters a GOP primary. The move was criticized by prominent faculty members as a further politicization of a board that should primarily be about the goals of the university, not a political party of ideology.

Boliek said he hopes his leadership while on the board— including aggressively promoting the idea of the new school in venues like Fox News and the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal—helped to create a more nurturing environment for students and faculty across the ideological spectrum.

“A school that is going to prepare our students, soon to be alums, with the tools they need to survive in a polarized world, we want to take that seriously,” Boliek said. “I hope that what you’re going to get are a lot of professors who bring a lot of different perspectives to the academy.”

Marty Kotis, a UNC-Chapel Hill trustee who opposed the concept of tenure since his days on the system’s board of governors, said he remains unconvinced of the value of tenure. He said he’s unsure why the tenure requirement was included in the budget. But, he said, if faculty in other schools are hired with tenure, it makes sense to hire faculty in the new school with the same opportunity.

“I used to do the protest vote against tenure all the time,” Kotis said. “It was kind of a broken record and didn’t really go anywhere. So you kind of have to pivot and think about how else you can approach things.”

As the new chair of the board’s Strategic Initiatives Committee, Kotis said he’d like to examine alternatives to tenure that would still protect academic freedom and freedom of speech. In the meantime, he said, arguments about the need for tenure to protect both controversial research and faculty speech should extend to conservative faculty as well.

Many faculty staff and students are also wondering about funding for the new school. The initial $2 million allocation in each of the next two fiscal years hardly seems sufficient to launch the school, faculty leaders said. If the allocation isn’t enough to establish the school, the budget says, the university will expend what’s necessary to do so. Members of the university’s board of trustees have said they believe private money can be secured for that purpose.

Other universities have turned to conservative individuals and organizations to fund similar programs. At Princeton, the controversial James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions is among several across the country that was in part funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation. The foundation contributed more than $200 million for academic programs, fellows and publications to promote conservative ideas in academia—and was fairly transparent about its goals.

James Piereson, the foundation’s former executive director, has written about the need to break the grip of faculty on decisions about programs and curriculum and to introduce powerful conservative voices of criticism on campuses as a means to “bring the entire ideological house of cards crashing down upon itself.”

“University faculty have erected a series of governing presumptions that make it quite difficult for anyone outside the academy—even a major donor—to influence curriculum or the selection of faculty,” Piereson wrote in a piece for Philanthropy magazine. “The canons of academic freedom are the only sacred documents on the modern campus; they decree that decisions on appointments, tenure, and curriculum are the sole province of the faculty. Any outsider who seeks to influence those decisions will be accused of violating the faculty’s academic freedom, even though the faculty often makes such decisions in the most political of ways.”

Next week, the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee and the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees will hold meetings. Moracco, the faculty chair, said she expects discussion about the specifics in the budget.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Moracco said. “This just brings up more.”

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