Bipartisan or a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? The Controversy of the Carolina Center for Public Discourse
Bipartisanship is cast as one of the most noble political virtues in our current, highly polarized political climate. Everything from POLI 100 to shows like The West Wing and Designated Survivor focus on altruistic political figureheads who strikes deals with both sides and gain favor among the general American public. This principle has recently been brought a little bit closer to home here at UNC - or so we’re told.
The UNC Administration recently announced the creation of a “Carolina Center for Public Discourse.” While proposed as a representation of the bipartisanship ideal and intellectual diversity on the college campus, many argue that it is an instance of corruption under the guise of noble bipartisanship. According to a recent editorial piece published in The News & Observer, there is “evidence [indicating] that the UNC program might be less about those high-minded objectives and more about promoting conservative thought.”
The editorial piece notably mentions that the planning team for the program visited the conservative Arizona State School of Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State. In addition, acting director of the program, Chris Clemens, described himself as being “intrigued to learn of our administration’s interest in housing a conservative center on campus.” Faculty members, according to the editorial piece, are not unhappy with the idea of conservative thought on campus; rather, they are disappointed with the construction of a partisan institution on campus which is being disguised by the university as politically neutral.
The Center, according to Clemens, will exist to “help build our capacity for civil argument, discussion, and conversation.” In a statement, Clemens focused on the importance of “academic freedom” being granted “to all regulations, policies, and norms of faculty governance.” The Center maintains that there will be “an agreement that states that the faculty and dean have sole discretion over the content of courses and the selection of faculty.” Conservative pundits from outside the University such as Jay Schauley also defended the proposition of the program, stating that the UNC faculty’s complaints make the case that “the board should indeed be more valued in the curriculum in order to protect the university’s most fundamental values.”
With the recent politics of both the UNC System Board of Governors and the UNC-Chapel Hill administration, it should be a refreshing headline for the student body to see that there is a concerted effort from the university to foster neutral political discourse. However, the lack of transparency around the program raises some important questions on the efficacy of such an initiative.
For example, Chris Clemens and his ties to other conservative academics is not an inherent disqualification — UNC faculty, as well as UNC students, are encouraging and even engaged in politically diverse endeavors. A few of the most well-known organizations in student life, such as Student Government and the Institute of Politics, pride themselves on strictly non-partisan policies which focus on the empowerment of the entire student body.
It is rather the fact that discussions about the program have taken place almost entirely behind closed doors, as well as the unclear motives of the Center’s acting director, which show an absence of attention towards the student body. Students are concerned about the rising costs of tuition, the gaudy general education requirements and issues of equity around campus — it would serve the program well to make explicitly clear how its mission would contribute to those discussions.
It is only proper to question whether an institution that claims nonpartisanship while advocating for conservative thought should be allowed to influence the curriculum at Carolina. This program, and the controversy around it, highlights the need for greater foresight over any neutral, political discourse channel on our campus. It would be unwise to stock the faculty with renowned academics, either left or right leaning, if the aim is truly nonpartisan, civil discourse. If anything, policymakers and other civil servants who are focused on creating common ground should be brought to our campus to educate on bipartisanship, separate from the politics of the Carolina politics. Until then, the Center for Public Discourse will always be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.