WATKINS: UNC Chapel Hill Officially Teaches What to Think, Not How to Think

(Shannon Watkins is a senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal since March 2017. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish and Linguistics from the UCLA and also studied at the University of Carlos III in Madrid, Spain. Her articles have appeared in Townhall, the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, Rare Politics, and the Carolina Journal.)

When the University of North Carolina leadership and the state’s legislators capitulated to the frenzied mob that toppled a statue of a Confederate Army soldier at the entrance to the UNC-Chapel Hill Campus in 2018, they likely thought they were putting an unpleasant issue to rest.

After all, the continual protests, riots, and confrontations over Silent Sam were disruptive and bad publicity; maybe if we give the angry people what they want, they’ll calm down, the leadership seemed to be saying.

Of course, every schoolboy who has ever been bullied understood their folly: giving in means the beginning of problems, not the end. Today, the dismantling of the university as a place of truth and reason continues at a fast pace. Only now, it is being done not by an unruly mob, but by the school’s administration.

Indeed, recent moves by the UNC-Chapel Hill administration of chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz threaten the spirit of free inquiry that is the foundation of the modern Western university. The intent appears to be to make the school’s policies and procedures accord with the beliefs of the radical elements that have been rampaging across American universities and cities in recent times.

In a June 11 email signed by Guskiewicz, provost Robert Blouin, and interim chief “diversity officer” Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, the UNC leaders decried “structural racism” and commented that “painful issues surrounding race and racism continue to plague our country and our University.” They added that “we have much work to do.”

Although they fail to point to any concrete examples of how racism continues to “plague” the university, they nevertheless are eager to signal that they and UNC have the “correct” views on the present controversies.

More troubling, however, is that UNC’s top administrators also seem eager for “every person” in the campus community to have a single politically correct perspective on race relations. In a list of actions UNC plans on undertaking to fight “structural racism,” they state:

This fall we will implement an online diversity, equity and inclusion training, similar to our required Title IX awareness and violence prevention training, for every person in our community to learn new concepts, broaden perspectives and allow us to work from a common set of terms.

The language in the above paragraph raises several important red flags. What’s included in the “common set of terms” to which they refer? Does “every person” on campus have to agree with a common set of ideas, including that the country suffers from entrenched “structural racism?” What if students or faculty at UNC do not believe that UNC—and the country—presently suffer from systemic racism? Contrary to what is implied in the email, the notion that current social ills are rooted in systemic racism is a hotly debated claim that is far from settled.

Another concern is that the administrators stated that the training will be “similar to our required Title IX awareness and violence prevention training.” Will diversity training be similarly required? If so, it seems that students will have no choice but to adjust their beliefs—or at least subject themselves—to UNC’s pre-approved “set of terms” and “institutional values.”

The Guskiewicz-endorsed propaganda regimen, however, is not the only initiative UNC administrators are undertaking to produce the right ideas on campus.

In June, UNC’s office for “diversity and inclusion” reposted a document of “anti-racism” resources on the university’s official website. The list of “resources” was recently compiled by two activists, Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein. The original document, which is being circulated nationwide, can be found here. The document states that it is intended as a resource to “white people and parents” on how to be anti-racist.

UNC reposted the activists’ language verbatim: “This page is intended to serve as a resource to White people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now.” The webpage also included a header that read: “Resources for White parents to raise anti-racist children.”

However, on June 15, UNC erased the word “white” in all the above statements. No reason was given; it just disappeared. Even without the blatant racial division insinuated by the use of the word “white,” the list of “resources” on UNC’s website is alarming. They include:

Two works by the author Ibram X. Kendi are also listed on UNC’s webpage. In his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi argues that “there is no such thing as a not-racist idea,” stating that there are only “racist ideas and antiracist ideas.” He also endorses discrimination, as long as it produces “equity:”

“The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”

Another so-called “resource” is the current best-selling book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. According to DiAngelo:

“White people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. Regardless of whether a parent told you that everyone was equal, or the poster in the hall of your white suburban school proclaimed the value of diversity, or you have traveled abroad, or you have people of color in your workplace or family, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided.”

For DiAngelo, all white people are default racists—whether or not they intend to be: “The [white supremacist] messages circulate 24-7 and have little or nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is freeing because it allows us to focus on how—rather than if—our racism is manifest.”

Many of the works mentioned on the UNC website appear to be little more than propaganda intended to browbeat students and parents into being anti-American, self-loathing, and resentful. One would think that if UNC was truly interested in exposing students to the ideas, histories, and experiences of influential black leaders, they would at least briefly engage with the writings of black scholars who have differing viewpoints on key race issues.

However, of the 18 courses that made up the “Race, Memory, and Reimagining the Public University” initiative, astonishingly few required readings that even remotely contradicted the vision of hard-left activists.The initiative, implemented in fall 2019, attempted to expose students to race-related issues through courses on selected topics. The Martin Center obtained the syllabi for all the “race and memory” courses by a public records request.

There is no excuse on the part of the instructors for the paucity of alternative readings; there are plenty of black scholars who pointedly challenge many of the ideological positions that “academics” present as “anti-racist.”

Economist Thomas Sowell, for example, has argued vigorously against affirmative action—which he believes is faulty and actually harms the black community. Sowell has also made compelling cases that educational and wealth disparities are not driven by racism, but rather by other factors such as absentee fathers and the welfare state. Not surprisingly, his name does not appear on any reading list of the 18 classes.

Another name that doesn’t appear on any syllabi is that of Booker T. Washington, a former slave and American icon who authored the famous autobiography Up From Slavery. Washington encouraged black people to rise up in society by developing their talents, going to school, and becoming entrepreneurial. Washington is not listed on any of the syllabi. But one of his contemporary black leaders is required reading in the “African, African American, and Diaspora Studies” class: W.E.B. DuBois, an avowed communist who later renounced his citizenship as an American.

It likely is no accident that perspectives like Sowell’s or Washington’s are left out of the curriculum at many universities. As one young black man noted in the new documentary film Uncle Tom created by conservative black talk show host Larry Elder:

“[…] We didn’t learn about these guys [Booker T. Washington, Thomas Sowell, etc.]. I didn’t know who Thomas Sowell was until four years ago. To hear Thomas Sowell destroy all of the so-called data that all of the so-called enlightened among us were using trying to get their way and trying to shape policy…If his message would have somehow penetrated through all of the nonsense and all of the manufactured preconceived notions that I bought into and settled itself in my mind, he would have been a huge influence. […]”

It is precisely because thinkers and public figures like Sowell could “influence” students to doubt the “preconceived notions” (or “common set of terms”) that universities like UNC wish to instill that alternate ideas are kept far away from the classroom.

UNC is making it clear that there is only one acceptable viewpoint concerning race relations, and anyone who disagrees should be silenced—or, even better, “enlightened” via required training and a carefully curated curriculum.

Whether these actions—the June 11 email, the resource page, the initiative—are mere pandering to the mob or UNC’s top administrators are really that radical is unimportant; what matters is that they are being undertaken with impunity and little resistance from those entrusted with protecting the university. And that the direction of the university has been handed over to people who think these actions are good ideas.

By law and by spirit, North Carolina’s public universities should be politically neutral and encourage open dialogue on the highly contentious issues with which the country is grappling. A flagship university such as UNC-Chapel Hill should set the standard for the rest of the state: To seek the truth of the matter by exploring and debating the facts and evidence.

Instead, UNC-Chapel Hill has made it abundantly clear that extremist and unsubstantiated notions about race, such as systemic racism and white privilege, are not up for debate.  Furthermore, the school is pressuring students, faculty, and staff to submit to these beliefs.

Academia is rapidly changing in a disturbing direction, and UNC-Chapel Hill is at the forefront of this change. It is time for the public and the state’s leadership to change their perception of the university accordingly.

The barbarians—the ones who tear down statues, reject freedom of thought, and intimidate through violence—are not at the gate; they are in control and wreaking havoc from within.

(Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Find more of her writing here.)


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