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February 23, 2023+Mark McNeilly
+Teaching+Campus Policy+Constructive Disagreement

The Case for Teaching Students Constructive Dialogue at Scale: UNC’s New School of Civic Life and Leadership

At the recent Stanford Academic Freedom Conference, the subtext of the discussion was a debate about how to fundamentally fix the university. One speaker viewed universities’ academic freedom issues as fixable, whereas another saw the problems as beyond repair with the only solution being the creation of new alternatives ensuring free speech and viewpoint diversity for college students and faculty. Both models are on display everywhere: Groups like Heterodox Academy (HxA) and FIRE look to change from within, while University of Austin (UATX) and Ralston are building new institutions for brighter futures. Based on my experience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), I am in the camp that believes universities are fixable if their leadership is willing to understand they have a problem and take action before it is too late. UNC has recently taken a number of actions to improve academic freedom, free expression, and constructive dialogue on campus, including: The latest development occurred on January 26, 2023, with the adoption of a resolution by the board of trustees to create a new School of Civic Life and Leadership. While it is unclear how such a unit might be structured, where it would fit within the university’s organization, or if it will bear the name of “School” (it appears the trustees may have jumped the gun on a proposal under consideration as both the chancellor and provost seem to have been surprised by the resolution), the idea behind the concept is clear: The mission of the new organization is to better prepare all UNC students to engage in civic life by improving their ability to communicate constructively in the public square, especially with those with whom they disagree. This is a worthy mission, as these students will be tomorrow’s leaders and will have to work together with people who hold different views to address local, state, and national issues.

Constructive Dialogue in Education

Universities do a good job recruiting intelligent people and teaching them how to research subjects and argue their positions well. In fact, perhaps we do it too well. As Musa al-Gharbi states in his article, Navigating Moral Disagreements: “In fact, the more intelligent, educated, or rhetorically skilled one is, the less likely it becomes that someone will change their minds when confronted with evidence or arguments that challenge their priors.” It seems that, in the polarization wars, universities may be the arms suppliers. Particular to UNC, we have research on our undergrads that illustrates there is clearly a need for students to be able to speak with and understand the positions of those who disagree with them:
  • 35% of students are concerned about their peers’ reactions if they express their sincere political beliefs.
  • Almost 20% of students self-censored in class more than once.
  • 11% of students were willing to report a student who said something that offended them, and 20% wanted to fire a professor who did the same.
  • Almost 75% of liberal students think their conservative peers are racist, and 94% of conservative students think liberal undergrads are condescending.
  • 35% of liberal students are unwilling to have a conservative as a friend, and almost 20% of conservative students do not want liberal students as classmates.
There is some good news in the study: 50% of liberal students and 67% of conservative ones want more opportunities to have constructive discourse with peers who have opposing political views. Most students, rightly so, want to have these opportunities. However, if they are not trained in how to have constructive discourse, the probability for these encounters ending positively is low. Currently, UNC has the Program for Public Discourse (PPD), which provides excellent speakers who model constructive dialogue and offers a small group of students the opportunity to discuss difficult topics in its Agora Fellows program. However, PPD cannot scale. UNC has 20,000 undergraduate students, so constructive dialogue education needs to be embedded in the curriculum, not just in a small, separate program. And in fact, UNC’s new Ideas in Action curriculum has constructive discourse as a requirement. That’s crucial because, in addition to its being part of our accreditation requirement, less than 1% of UNC students could identify that oral communications was part of their courses. When we surveyed alumni, they stated the most relevant skill that was required was oral communications. A more expansive curriculum-based approach that can address the requirement at scale is necessary.

Faculty Concerns

Many UNC faculty were understandably concerned when they first heard of the new offering, as some felt that they had not been consulted, that the trustees had created this without faculty input, and that the new faculty being hired would be conservatives. However, UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stated unequivocally in a meeting with faculty that a political litmus test would not be a hiring criteria. Instead, he said, the program is an extension of the work of the Program for Public Discourse, is in pursuit of UNC’s focus on promoting democracy (a key priority of the UNC’s strategic plan), and will be built with faculty input. Our provost, Chris Clemens, made clear that this was something that had been proposed from within the university. He went on to say that UNC is an ideologically diverse campus and we need the ability to speak to one another constructively. Furthermore, he pointed out that constructive dialogue is not a Left or Right issue, or a conservative or liberal issue, and that America’s first public university should lead on democracy by enabling our students to engage in civic life. The need is clear. Research shows students not only need constructive dialogue skills but also demand them. UNC alumni identify constructive dialogue as a crucial skill. UNC’s new curriculum has a place for it. Moreover, it’s the logical next step in UNC’s drive toward intellectual excellence. While it’s not clear the exact form the new “School” may take, it is necessary and will give UNC students the skills they need to be productive citizens going forward.

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