by Benjamin Weingarten
Is the Right commencing a long countermarch through the institutions, including the very one – the academy – from which the Left’s own long march began?
Judging by the distress shown by some in the educational establishment, and like-minded corporate media, regarding higher-education reform efforts in North Carolina and Florida, one might get the impression that the countermarch is not only underway but rapidly advancing – threatening progressives’ stranglehold over schools and virtually every other American power center.
Recent efforts to promote genuine intellectual diversity at UNC-Chapel Hill and New College of Florida, spurred by Republican leaders and those to whom they have delegated power, can be seen as both modest and revolutionary.
On the one hand, looked at in isolation, such initiatives aim to alter the status quo within a mere two schools – albeit, at New College, to a dramatically greater degree.
On the other, they reflect a newfound willingness among state officials and their appointees to intervene on behalf of their constituents to shape state schools in ways that challenge the Woke, progressive, ideological monoculture that prevails within them and broadly over the academy – and which subsequently has come to pervade American life.
To the extent that such reform efforts serve as models for authorities to combat Wokeism at colleges and universities – and that they presage more widespread and aggressive efforts nationwide – such a sea change within these vital institutions might justify the Left’s alarm.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s reform effort consists of a push to develop a School of Civic Life and Leadership, codified via a resolution unanimously approved by the school’s Board of Trustees in late January.
The proposed school can be seen as responsive to UNC-Chapel Hill’s strategic plan, which counts among its aims “promoting democracy and serving to benefit society.”
According to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, David L. Boliek Jr., the school’s purpose “is to formalize curricula that really gives students the experience of being able to debate, share, learn and respect a diversity of viewpoints.”
Boliek adds that at UNC-Chapel Hill, “We have no shortage of left-of-center, progressive views on our campus…The same really can’t be said about right-of-center views. So this is an effort to try to remedy that…[to] provide equal opportunity for both views to be taught at the university.”
Yet this seemingly innocuous effort to create an undergraduate school focused on fostering constructive discourse between the Left and Right has raised hackles among some at the university.
Faculty members claim to have been blindsided by the resolution. They believe the Board of Trustees usurped their prerogative in proposing the creation of the new school.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, UNC’s accreditor, has questioned the legitimacy of the program on these grounds. Wheelan says her organization’s standards dictate that faculty have the “role of developing the curriculum,” whereas board members are supposed to be “Eyes in, hands off.” Her criticism, as well as her demand for documentation regarding the trustees’ proposal, carries an implicit threat that her organization could strip UNC of its accreditation, imperiling its federal funding.
One gets the suspicion that critics’ beef with the trustees might be more political than procedural. After all, UNC-Chapel Hill is a state-funded, managed, and maintained institution. North Carolina has vested within the Board of Trustees the power to ensure that the school serves the state’s interests.
According to the UNC Policy Manual and Code, the trustees are tasked with “promot[ing] the sound development” of the school and “helping it to serve the people of the state…and aiding it to perform at a high level of excellence in every area of endeavor.” To achieve these ends, it advises the school’s controlling Board of Governors, and its chancellor, “concerning the management and development of the institution.”
Consequently, as several former senior appointees of the Department of Education recently wrote in an open letter to the Board of Trustees at RealClearEducation, endorsing its effort to establish the new school, “As the sole constituency on campus with a fiduciary duty to the public, not only is your board’s active engagement in university governance permissible: it is in fact your duty.”
Do the board’s critics dispute this? Or do they simply resent any form of public control over education, particularly when exerted by those selected by Republicans, who believe schools have a duty to protect free and open discourse?
UNC Chapel-Hill’s Board of Trustees consists of 12 of 13 members either appointed by the state’s Republican-controlled general assembly or elected by the school’s Board of Governors – whose members, too, are elected by the state’s Republican Senate and House. They have asserted themselves in various ways in recent years – with UNC’s Board of Governors for example just voting to ban compulsory DEI statements and other political litmus tests from admissions, hiring, and advancement – much to the chagrin of some. But shouldn’t taxpayers – by way of the trustees – have a say in how institutions they underwrite are run? Isn’t this “what democracy looks like?”
Efforts underway at Florida’s New College, a public liberal arts school, are even more ambitious than UNC-Chapel Hill’s initiative. There, Governor Ron DeSantis is not trying to create a true safe space for discourse within the school, but rather to remake the small school in its entirety – specifically into a bastion of classical education “more along the lines of the Hillsdale of the South,” according to his chief of staff.
Leading that effort will be six new trustees recently appointed by the governor, including conservative intellectuals and academics Christopher Rufo, Matthew Spalding, Charles Kesler, and Mark Bauerlein. The six, alongside five members appointed by the Florida Board of Governors – 14 of 17 members of whom are appointed by the governor – and a newly appointed president, Governor DeSantis’s former education commissioner Richard Corcoran, are leading a project of “recapture and reinvention,” in Rufo’s words.
Rufo has proposed “redesigning the curriculum to align with the classical model; abolishing DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] programs and replacing them with ‘equality, merit, and colorblindness’ principles; adopting the Kalven statement on institutional neutrality; restructuring the administration and academic departments; recruiting new faculty with expertise in the classical liberal arts tradition; and establishing a graduate school for training teachers in classical education.”
A school of just 700 students, New College has struggled under progressive control and pedagogy. If conservative leaders can turn it around, it could serve as the model for reclamation projects that other red state governors might wish to emulate.
As could DeSantis’s broader higher education reform plan – arguably the most muscular such effort in the nation – of which his push to remake New College is part.
In late January, the governor and likely 2024 presidential candidate released a sweeping higher-education reform agenda that could truly make Florida’s public colleges and universities where DEI goes to die.
That legislative package, according to a press release, aims to “further elevate civil discourse and intellectual freedom in higher education…pushing back against the tactics of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination.”
It does so by, among other things:
- Specifying standards for core course requirements rooted in liberty and the Western tradition.
- Defunding campus activities and programs that promote DEI, critical race theory (CRT), and related discriminatory ideologies.
- Barring political discrimination, including “political loyalty oaths and DEI statements” in hiring; and
- Increasing the funding to civics centers promoting liberty and constitutionalism.
These reforms build on past ones, including those taking aim at “accreditation agency monopolies” – as Florida did in passing a 2022 bill requiring the state’s public schools to seek out a new accreditor.
Previously, the state’s higher educational institutions were accredited exclusively by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (the organization currently challenging UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees), which had meddled in the activities of Florida’s institutions and seemingly has an axe to grind with conservatives.
Higher education reformers are rowing upstream against several oppositional forces, including hostile faculty and administrators, intrusive accreditation agencies, and the federal largesse on which universities rely, which exerts a significant influence over schools.
Notwithstanding differences in the size, scope, and nature of their respective reforms, the North Carolina and Florida efforts illustrate that there is a way forward. What unites these efforts is a belief that states have a duty to ensure that public education institutions serve the interests of their citizens.
Moreover, they illustrate a long-overdue realization on the Right that benign neglect of the academy has proved fatal in the face of illiberal forces that have exploited the freedom of the academy in order to seize control of it.
Red states are increasingly engaging in a broad push to purge public institutions of a Wokeness antithetical to the values and principles of their constituents and to punch back against private ones that profit from public business.
Yet at root, it is the schools – where our children spend much of their waking hours – that have disproportionate influence over American society, seeding every other institution that has succumbed to left-wing ideological capture. Few institutions in American life are more vital, or in greater disrepair, than those of higher education.
It is incumbent on lawmakers and their appointees to use every lever of power they can, within every educational institution under their purview, to combat the divisiveness and forcible conformity engendered by DEI, CRT, and the like and to replace it with a system rooted in the values and principles on which Western civilization is based.
If we do not cultivate a free people – beginning with our own minds – we will cease to be a free country.
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Benjamin Weingarten is a contributor to RealClearEducation.