This story originally published online at NC Newsline.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees heard more on the progress of university’s controversial new school Thursday, getting an update from the provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The school has already secured a $1 million pledge from a private foundation in addition to $4 million in funding from the General Assembly over the next two years.

At issue: The new School of Civic Life and Leadership, described as a “conservative center” from its earliest conceptions and more recently as a means of “leveling the playing field” on a campus where conservatives believe liberal views are overrepresented.

The school is a priority for the General Assembly’s Republican majority, which has made it clear it wants the school fast-tracked. The new state budget, passed last week, provides an initial $2 million allocation in each of the next two fiscal years to establish the school and mandates the hiring of between 10 and 20 tenured or tenure-track faculty from outside the university.

Faculty leaders have told NC Newsline it’s unprecedented for the General Assembly to directly mandate the creation and details of a new school through the budget process and point to understaffing and hiring freezes elsewhere at the university.

If the initial state funding isn’t enough to establish the school and hire mandated faculty, the budget item makes clear, the university will expend the money to do so. Trustees have pointed to private funders as a way to close any gap, and on Thursday Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said fundraising for the school is already well underway.

New York-based foundation with higher ed interests funds initial endowment

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz
 UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (Photo: Screen grab of videostream/

The Orville Gordon Browne Foundation has pledged $1 million to establish an endowment for a professorship that will support a faculty member in the new school for a three-to-five-year term,” Guskiewicz told the trustees. “And this is a wonderful gift to help build on our commitment to public leadership and civic engagement for our students.”

The foundation, headquartered in New York, was funded from the estate of a prominent investor, the late Christopher H. Browne. It has endowed chairs and research labs at Rockefeller University and the University of Pennsylvania, both universities where Browne was a trustee. In 2021 the foundation reported assets of $9.5 million.

The involvement of Browne’s foundation may seem an odd fit to those prepared for funding to come largely from explicitly conservative organizations, as it has at some similar conservative-driven schools. Browne was a gay man who donated $25 million to endow professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an alumnus. Those professorships were held by Amy Gutman and Rogers Smith.

Gutmann was the longest serving president of Penn, serving from 2012 to 2022. In 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, protests erupted around the country—including one at Gutmann’s house, where it interrupted a holiday party for students. Gutmann joined the protest, laying on the ground in solidarity with the students to symbolize the four hours Brown’s body was left in the street after his death. The move led to a rebuke by the union for Penn’s police force. Last year, President Joe Biden named her ambassador to Germany.

Smith is a political scientist whose work centers on racial, gender and class inequities in America. A past president of the American Political Science Association, he is the author of the 2020 book “This is Not Who We Are! Populism and Peoplehood.” The book, according to Yale University Press, “argues that nationalist populists have done a better job than liberals in providing stories of peoplehood that advance their worldview: the nation as ethnically defined, threatened by enemies, and blameless for its troubles, which come from its victimization by malign elites and foreigners. Liberals need to offer their own stories expressing more inclusive values.”

Scott Bessent, treasurer of the Orville Gordon Browne Foundation, said the foundation is honored to establish the first professorship of the new school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Chris Browne was always at the vanguard in his lifelong interests of investing, education, research and the arts,” Bessent said in a statement Thursday. “He would have been thrilled to see this gift serving as a cornerstone for the University’s exciting initiatives to equip students to serve as stewards and leaders for our democracy.”

Initial faculty will hold dual appointments

The new school’s initial faculty, drawn from those already teaching on campus, is now being identified, said Jim White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Those faculty members would hold dual appointments in the new school and their home departments. White and Senior Associate Dean Elizabeth Engelhardt have been conducting interviews with interested faculty since a recruitment message was sent over the summer, he said, with an application deadline of August 31.

“We hope that sometime later next week to have the faculty identified,” White told the trustees Thursday.

Soon thereafter, he said, he hopes to announce the inaugural faculty and task them with creating a vision for the school. It’s not yet clear how many courses will be offered initially, the content of those courses, or where on campus their classes will be held.

The budget mandates the hiring of a new dean for the school by December 31, 2023 — just over three months from now. That’s a tight turnaround for a process that often takes up to a year, faculty leaders told NC Newsline. The dean will need to be in place before hiring the mandated outside faculty.

“I would just like to say that having interviewed many, many faculty now for these positions,” White told the trustees. “I want to say how proud I am of the faculty, and their willingness to step up — and the quality of the faculty and the number of the faculty. I’ve been very heartened by their response to this. And their willingness to take on what is frankly a difficult task, and one in which we are doing as rapidly as we can, but as best as we can.”

Provost Chris Clemens echoed those sentiments. Though the faculty and its leadership have been skeptical of the school from its inception and critical of the process, he said he’s spoken to many faculty members who are looking forward to it.

“One of the things they say about the vision for the school, as a starting place [the school] can provide a home specifically for the study and practice of public discourse, civic life and civic leadership,” Clemens said, with an emphasis on “the American political experience and democracy.”

 John Preyer, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees (Photo: Joe Killian)

John Preyer, the new chair of the trustees board, told Clemens he wants the process to move quickly.

“We all have a shared desire to see Carolina lead, and on this, we have led,” Preyer said. “And there are obviously peer institutions around the country that have paid attention to what we’re doing — some that are already started, some that have started since and others that are continuing to start creating a greater urgency for a talent pool out there. So I would just underscore the degree to which you can move quicker than usual for the comfort zone and we can continue to lead in a way that will hopefully be an inspiration for those in the General Assembly that would like to see it move fast.”

Clemens said he’s aware of possible candidates for dean of the school, and could name an interim dean if necessary.

Trustee Dave Boliek, the former chair of the board and now a candidate for the GOP nomination for state auditor, said he believes the new school can me a “game changer.”

“This could have a long lasting influential effect on not only UNC-Chapel Hill in the state of North Carolina, but the academy broadly across the nation,” Boliek said.

Trustee Perrin Jones, a Republican member of the state House until 2021 and chair of the board’s University Affairs committee, said he knows there is skepticism of the school—from the faculty and beyond.

“There are a lot of people that are watching the development of the school:  people within the university, people within the state, people around the country,” Jones said. “And I’m a little concerned about some hardening of lines and regarding the development of the school, and I just would like to kind of break that frame.”

“To the faculty that are skeptical about the intent or casting aspersions about why this school was being developed, I would encourage you to get involved,” Jones said. “Get involved with the development of the program and the development of the school so that this ends up being something that you also are proud of and feel invested in.”

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