The launch of UNC-Chapel Hill’s new School of Civic Life and Leadership is the right move at the right time to rebuild our strained public conversation.
As America’s first public university, UNC is uniquely situated to integrate the study and practice of civil discourse and civic engagement — work that is critical to prevent further erosion of democratic institutions and public discourse.
As interim director and dean of the School of Civic Life and Leadership (SCiLL), I will work with the inaugural faculty to leverage UNC’s strengths and create a home in the College of Arts and Sciences for the ideas and practices of democratic citizenship. A healthy democracy requires developing both knowledge and skills.
The new school will provide our students a grounding in the ideas of the past, a place to discuss ideas in the present, and train them in the practice of civil discourse that animates democratic life. That includes listening, evaluating the strength of arguments and data, extending charity to ideas and interlocutors, speaking, and perspective-taking. This work will often require wrestling with in-depth and, oftentimes, contentious issues in the pursuit of the public good.
“Doesn’t UNC already do this?” It is a reasonable question — and one we hear a lot. The goal of developing an informed and engaged citizenry has always been woven into the fabric of higher education. Our new “IDEAs in Action” curriculum puts that often taken-for-granted goal at the forefront of our general education curriculum. More than that, it provides an opportunity for America’s first public university to lead the way in demonstrating that our nation’s universities are open to a wide range of viewpoints, and that they encourage diversity of people, perspectives and ideas.
By creating a hub for the integration of the study and practice of civil discourse and civic engagement, SCiLL breaks the mold of ideological conformity that too often stems from a fragmented university. A fragmented university leads to segregated discourse that is often reduced to partisan, ideological, or identity-based talking points.
The School of Civic Life and Leadership invites students to leave the comfort of their own bubbles by equipping them with the skills to converse with the ideas and interests of those whom they perceive to be their political enemies. It is an antidote to the breakdown in discourse that reduces those who disagree with us to caricatures, harms our deliberative practices, and results in a citizenry lacking the skills, knowledge and humility needed to tackle the most challenging and contentious questions of our time.
I know firsthand the power of civil deliberation and engagement with challenging issues in the classroom. I am a professor of political science, where I focus on the U.S. Congress. About 10 years ago I developed a new course on congressional procedure that also incorporates a model congress. A key component of the model congress is the purposeful assignment of each student to a particular member of the U.S. Congress for the semester. I intentionally assign students to role-play a member who does not share their party affiliation.
As the students become versed in the positions of their assigned members a transformation takes place. First, they learn their member’s positions and the underlying reasons for those positions. Next, they masterfully articulate those positions, sometimes even persuading others in the process. This exercise prepares them to engage with disagreements across a range of issues and policies that arise across society. They leave the class with a skill set that many have told me has served them well in their remaining time at UNC and in their post-college experiences.
The success of SCiLL depends on the support of the faculty, the administration, and the involvement of its students. I invite and encourage the campus community — including the critics of SCiLL — to join me and the inaugural faculty on this journey. It is critical we get this right — for UNC, for our state, and our democracy.
Sarah Treul Roberts is Interim Dean of the UNC-CH School of Civic Life and Leadership.