Faculty Council discusses public discourse program

The public discourse program is intended to enhance existing courses and new ones being developed for the new IDEAs in Action curriculum.

Discussion of the UNC Program for Public Discourse and a data science study dominated the Faculty Council’s first meeting of the academic year on Sept. 13.

The public discourse program is intended to enhance existing courses and new ones being developed for the new IDEAs in Action curriculum, said the program’s acting director Chris Clemens, senior associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Clemens called it a “uniquely Carolina” program that will also provide students with “campus life experiences” – such as a student fellows program, guest speakers and a new student periodical dedicated to public discourse. (Clemens submitted a statement about the program and a frequently asked questions sheet for the meeting.)

“I think it is indisputable that discourse in this country is broken,” Clemens said. “Whatever the cause of this, Carolina is uniquely suited to address the problem, and I believe it is our responsibility as a public institution to do so.”

The program was first proposed in 2017 by some members of the UNC System Board of Governors and University trustees.

History professor Jay Smith submitted a resolution to Faculty Council to delay the implementation of the program. Smith and others opposed to the program said that there has been a conservative political agenda behind the program’s development from the beginning. Faculty Council voted to postpone consideration of the resolution until October.

A private donor provided the program’s seed funding of $1 million, and its early models, based in part on site visits by University leaders, were Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and Arizona State’s School of Civic and Economic Thought.

Clemens and the program’s faculty committee said that the program has shifted dramatically away from those models and is now meant to encourage “socializing debate and democratic culture.”

“Origins are not destiny,” said Chris Lundberg, associate professor in the communication department who is among five faculty members on the program advisory committee. “I didn’t know what the donor’s original vision was, but I knew what our vision was.”

Lundberg said the changes in the program are reflected in its evolving names: Center for American Values and Civil Discourse to Program for Civic Virtue and Civil Discourse to UNC Program for Public Discourse.

“The faculty has shaped the vision and direction of this in ways that are significant. In many ways, this is a win for faculty,” Lundberg said.

Interim College Dean Terry Rhodes said she is scheduling roundtable discussions in the coming weeks to explain more about the program and to hear from faculty their ideas on how best to support discourse across the curriculum.

Before the public discourse discussion, Faculty Council heard a report on the Data Science Initiative feasibility study, introduced by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin. The study’s goal is to determine which entity (center, institute, school) is most feasible to house a campus-wide initiative on data science. “We are moving too slowly in this space,” Blouin said. The University’s peer institutions are “already out of the gates and running in this space. The concern I hear is that we need to accelerate our pace.”

The council also welcomed four new staff members:  David Perry, assistant vice chancellor and chief of UNC Police; Barbara Stephenson, vice provost for global affairs and chief global officer; Suzanne Barbour, dean of The Graduate School; and Charles Marshall, vice chancellor and general counsel.