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Mcn polis
November 1, 2023+Mark McNeilly
+Campus Climate+Public Policy+Campus Policy

Truth, Academia, and the Parallel Polis

The debate on the purpose of a university has been put succinctly by Jonathan Haidt in his essay “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice.” For a public university like mine, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose motto is Lux Libertas (“light” or truth, and the “liberty” to pursue it), it’s clear we must be apolitical and set the pursuit of truth as our guiding star.

Why is the pursuit of truth and the freedom to do so important for a society and a university?

Truth means having a deep understanding of reality and how the world functions. Only by pursuing truth can we offer society and students useful knowledge about what does and doesn’t work. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, “We can avoid reality, but we cannot escape the consequences of avoiding reality.”

Unfortunately, academia has not been performing very well in the pursuit of truth, as illustrated through national research from Heterodox Academy, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, and other surveys. They all report widespread lack of free expression, viewpoint diversity, and constructive dialogue on our campuses. Without these fundamental norms, finding truth is impossible.

The Parallel Polis

The good news is that many organizations inside and outside of universities are working together to improve academia and help it get back to its proper telos. I call this ecosystem of organizations the “parallel polis.” The idea of the parallel polis comes from the Czech dissidents Václav Havel and Václav Benda. The concept was developed when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. During that time, the government and social organizations were all controlled by the party, and legal and social norms allowed no dissent. Pursuit of the truth was not allowed — what was “the truth” was decided by the party.

To combat this environment, Havel and Benda’s proposal was to create what they called a “parallel polis” of individuals and organizations that would become an alternative civil society, a mirror society that reflects the opposite values of the state.

The principles behind the parallel polis concept that I think apply to the current situation in academia (albeit with some tweaking) are:

  1. The creation of parallel organizations and information networks that exist beside but beyond the reach of those in power in academia, with the mission of reforming the institution. These parallel organizations may receive outside funding and/or support to maintain their independence and encourage their efforts. Eventually, these organizations and the individuals within them would play a bigger role in the university.
  2. Individuals in the academic parallel polis who would “live in truth.” This means not accepting the dominant ideology, narratives, and structures imposed by the dominant party but instead living according to their genuine beliefs and values.
  3. Active advocacy by the parallel polis for the protection of individual rights, academic freedom, free expression, viewpoint diversity, freedom from compelled speech, and illegal discrimination in hiring, promotion, and admissions.
  4. One area where an academic parallel polis would differ from the Czech version is that, instead of not engaging directly with the power structure and those within it, they would very much participate in the formal and informal structures within the university (faculty government, hiring committees, department meetings, etc.) with the hope of sharing values, finding allies and improving the organization from within so it returns to its original mission of the pursuit of truth

As I discuss this concept, let me be clear. I am not saying our campuses are run by Communists or that faculty, staff, and students live in a totalitarian society. However, there are parallels in that there is a dominant ideology in universities — that dissent is often limited on campuses and that the creation of alternative structures inside and outside of academia are needed to remedy the problem.

What groups compose this constellation of alternative structures that make up our parallel polis? Outside of academia there are several working on this problem. Some of the main ones include:

  • FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), which works to ensure academic freedom and free expression on campus. FIRE is critical for providing legal advice and support to faculty and students in support of academic freedom.
  • Heterodox Academy, which focuses on encouraging viewpoint diversity and constructive dialogue. It provides support and education to faculty and students who promote these values. Heterodox Academy recently began to form campus communities at many universities, and UNC has one of the first campus communities created.
  • The Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a national group of alumni organizations that support free expression, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom at their alma mater. UNC has its own chapter of AFSA, which is bringing heterodox speakers to campus such as Douglas Murray and Abigail Shrier.

Other important organizations include the Bipartisan Policy Center, Braver Angels, and state organizations such as the James C. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. There are many more.

External organizations are crucial to the parallel polis, but for major change to occur within academia, it’s important for people inside universities to create their own groups to change the culture. The good news is that moderate professors from across the political spectrum see the problem and are willing to work on it. Within UNC, here are some of the things being done:

  • In 2019–20 three UNC faculty performed research on student free expression and constructive dialogue. UNC was one of the first universities to execute such research, and the findings were useful in illustrating with data that self-censorship and other issues need to be addressed. This research was expanded in 2022 to eight North Carolina university system institutions, one of the first statewide research projects of its kind. Similar findings across the system again showed the need to improve the free expression, viewpoint diversity, and constructive dialogue on campuses across the state.
  • The UNC Program for Public Discourse (PPD) is a key institutional component of UNC’s efforts to showcase viewpoint diversity and constructive discourse. PPD’s mission is to “support a culture of robust public argument through curricular and extra-curricular engagement.” PPD’s main activities include the signature Abbey Speakers Program, which brings experts from different disciplines to UNC to foster productive dialogue on timely issues across a range of perspectives, and the Agora Fellows Program, which provides undergraduate students a space to experiment with public discourse in a collaborative environment. PPD had 1,600 attendees for their events in 2023, has 2,500 newsletter subscribers, and has 46,000 YouTube views for its videos. They have a great lineup of speakers and debates this year as well.
  • The new UNC School for Civic Life and Leadership is becoming a reality. With the mission to provide instruction on constructive dialogue to UNC students, it has brought on nine founding faculty who are developing its curriculum and organization. It will have a big role to play going forward.
  • UNC became one of Heterodox Academy’s first wave of Campus Communities. Our Heterodox Heels group has grown to 50 faculty and staff and has held seven events since its founding in early 2023. The discussion at events has exemplified free expression, viewpoint diversity, and constructive dialogue. We have built a community of academics across campus that understand the challenges and want to improve our culture.
  • Our chancellor created the faculty Committee for Academic Freedom and Free Expression in 2023. The mission of the committee is to “advise the chancellor on ways to advance academic freedom and articulate free speech norms and best practices for the Carolina community,” and it is making progress in that endeavor.
  • An Academic Freedom listserv was created to discuss that topic on campus. Composed of several faculty from across the ideological and disciplinary spectrum, the listserv is quite active in discussing topics affecting UNC and academia around academic freedom, such as the SCOTUS ruling, compelled speech, DEI, and others. Many liberal faculty on the listserv are hearing opinions they did not know other faculty held, and I believe it has been eye-opening to them. To their credit, they have engaged in the discussion, which is great. This is exactly the kind of conversation that universities are expected to hold.
  • Numerous resolutions supporting academic freedom have been made by the UNC faculty and board of trustees, the first major one being the adoption of the University of Chicago Principles by our faculty. A more recent and unique one was our trustees resolution on institutional neutrality, which adopted the University of Chicago’s Kalven statement on institutional neutrality. The resolution declared UNC as a university that would practice neutrality on controversial issues of the day. This means it will no longer make statements on political and social issues. This is important because a university should not take positions. That is the role of faculty. A university must be neutral in order for faculty to feel free to speak.
  • An academic freedom resources website was created for faculty interested in learning about academic freedom on campus. It contains definitions, research, policies, etc., on these topics and is a useful one-stop shop.

As a result of all these external and internal efforts, in addition to getting a “green light” rating from FIRE in the past, UNC Chapel Hill was one of two institutional winners of Heterodox Academy’s 2023 Open Inquiry Award.

In sum, the parallel polis must be an interlocked network of internal and external organizations all working together to help universities move back to their original mission of the pursuit of truth. They form an organic ecosystem of organizations loosely aligned around the principles of free expression, viewpoint diversity and constructive dialogue that cooperate to drive specific initiatives that advance their mutual objectives.

A lot of groundwork has been laid, but much work remains to be done. Many of the laws, policies, and resolutions are in place. However, that is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. To make further advances we need to look at four areas: Codes, Culture, Communications, and Competencies.

  1. Codes: the federal and state laws, faculty policies, and university resolutions that support academic freedom. In many universities those are mostly in place. However, additional policies may be needed to end practices such as compelled speech in the form of mandatory DEI statements.
  2. Culture: the norms and expectations around how faculty and students behave relative to free expression, viewpoint diversity, and constructive dialogue. The cultural norms need to be codified (#1), but for them to be institutionalized requires more. “More” includes consistent and constant communications by all levels of leadership to the faculty, staff, and students as well as the ability of the community to practice those norms (Competencies).
  3. Communications: the support for free expression and viewpoint diversity from the top down, from not just the university leadership but also the trustees. Again, though, it is crucial for that same support to also be communicated to the organization by school and department leaders at all levels.
  4. Competencies: a belief system that supports free expression and constructive dialogue. Having a belief system is great, but if people don’t know how to practice the beliefs, it doesn’t work. It’s crucial to give faculty and students not just the values and norms but also the skills needed to have a constructive dialogue with people we disagree with. However, the leadership needs to create programs that can educate faculty, staff, and students to practice free expression, accept viewpoint diversity, and have constructive dialogues.

I would like to leave you with one thought: The fight for the pursuit of truth and free expression on campus is important, but we must not adopt the approach or attitude of those who oppose it.

  • We must not talk down to people but instead talk with those willing to listen.
  • We must not lecture others but instead be willing to listen to them.
  • We must not promote only our viewpoints to students but instead promote viewpoint diversity.
  • We must not cancel opponents but instead convince them or be convinced ourselves by their arguments.
  • We must not push narratives but instead pursue the truth as best we can.

In sum, we must be what English poet William Wordsworth called the “Happy Warrior.” A Happy Warrior is one who is virtuous, respects his foes, cherishes his friends, loves his country, and is unafraid to take on big challenges and does so with decency, honor, and a positive, even happy, attitude. We must remember Abraham Lincoln’s wonderful saying, “Do I not destroy my enemy when I make them my friend?” Let us all be Happy Warriors.

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