Battle over partisan new Chapel Hill school goes to Congress

Republicans complain after accrediting agency questions wisdom of creating new refuge at North Carolina flagship designed to amplify conservative voices

March 3, 2023
South Building on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Source: iStock

Republican members of the US Congress are getting involved in the University of North Carolina’s creation of a new school to push conservative viewpoints, criticising an accrediting agency that challenged the development.

A group of eight lawmakers, all from North Carolina, alleged that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges – one of the nation’s six main federally recognised accrediting agencies – broke its own policies by publicly questioning the new school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Republicans cited a written account by a conservative advocacy group saying that the head of the accrediting agency, known as Sacs, warned at a state commission hearing that UNC faced possible sanctioning from Sacs if it did not change course.

The Sacs president, Belle Wheelan – a former state secretary of education in Virginia who has pushed back against political interference in higher education in the southern US states where her association operates – was described by the advocacy group, the James G. Martin Centre for Academic Renewal, as promising that she would talk with UNC’s trustees and “get them to change it” or face having UNC’s accreditation put in a warning status.

The lawmakers – led by Virginia Foxx, the chair of the House education committee – told Dr Wheelan that her reported remarks to the state commission “appear to put the institution on warning before fully understanding the board’s action”.

The trustees at UNC’s flagship campus voted in January “to support the exploration and development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership”, with the idea of encouraging “different perspectives that contribute to robust public discourse”.

The chair of the trustees, David Boliek, an attorney specialising in healthcare litigation, made clear that he saw the school’s mission as an attempt to promote right-wing perspectives, saying that it would “try to remedy” the abundance of UNC faculty with left-of-centre outlooks.

The UNC case is among a growing number of recent attempts by Republican-dominated state governments in the US, often in the South, to impose their political perspectives on college students through tighter control of what gets taught at public institutions, after years of efforts in that direction by private donors.

While accrediting agencies are non-partisan, Dr Wheelan has helped lead resistance to such strategies. She threatened investigations after the University of Florida tried to ban professors from testifying against the state in a voting rights court case; as Florida politicians took tentative steps towards installing Richard Corcoran – a former speaker of the state House of Representatives – as president of Florida State University; and as the state of Georgia made a successful move to install Sonny Perdue – a former governor with no higher education experience and a record of discounting scientific evidence – as chancellor of its public university system.

Dr Wheelan did, however, resist calls earlier this year to deny Sacs accreditation to the new law school at High Point University, a private institution in North Carolina, over the school’s choice of a prominent backer of Donald Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 US presidential election as its first dean, calling such opinions a matter of First Amendment rights.

Meanwhile Mr Corcoran – an ally of governor Ron DeSantis in his attempts to stamp right-wing perspectives on education in Florida – was recently named the new interim president of the New College of Florida, after Mr DeSantis engineered a wide-scale replacement of the trustees of the traditionally progressive public liberal arts institution.

Dr Wheelan said she was working on a response to the North Carolina lawmakers, who consist of the state’s two US senators and all but one of its Republican members of the US House.

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