HILL: Holden Thorp and the charade of political neutrality

View of the main quad area at UNC Chapel Hill.

Former UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp published “The Charade of Political Neutrality” in the September 16 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

He tried to argue that conservative politicians want to dictate what colleges teach and who teaches which subjects. What he and virtually all administrators and faculty fail to understand about conservatives is that they don’t care what administrators or faculty say in Carolina or any other college — as long as other faculty and students have guaranteed freedom to say whatever they want in response without fear of reprisals, ostracism, oppression or ridicule, supported by the administration. Or worse, being turned down as a young professor or getting a bad grade as a student for not adhering to the liberal ideology imposed by their superiors.

Once such a balance is struck on college campuses, conservatives will find other things to worry about. Trust me on that.

Chancellor Thorp declined permission to reprint his opinion piece in its entirety, so follows an edited version of his article in quotation marks, with comments, observations, and questions after each section:

“Abolition. Guns. Climate change. The role of race and slavery in United States history. Transgender rights. Are these political issues? Sure. Are they right in the wheelhouse of higher education too? You bet. Everyone. Single. One. But as we head into the November 2022 elections, university administrators will be scrambling to try to somehow remain neutral on issues that are clearly the purview of research and teaching at their institutions.It won’t work very well.”

How difficult is it nowadays to guarantee free and fair civil society discourse on campus? Colleges are meant to be places of free thought, where presidents, chancellors, faculty and, most importantly, students can argue and debate in a safe place. To many conservatives, college campuses appear as unilaterally demilitarized intellectual zones where far-left liberal professors and administrators seek the unanimity of liberal faith at the expense of free speech and political philosophy from the conservative side.

“I strongly support access to abortion services and will do everything in my power as President to ensure that we continue to provide this extremely important care,” said Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan. “I am deeply concerned about how the ban on abortion would impact UM’s medical teaching, our research and our service to communities in need.”

Thorp says wistfully that President Coleman is retiring this fall so she can speak freely and honestly. Anyone who serves in public should be bold enough to speak the truth as he sees it and engage in civil discourse with those who disagree. It also obscures the fact that the Dobbs decision returns the issue of abortion regulation to the states — it nowhere “banned abortion.”

“This tension has prompted many universities to adopt the so-called Chicago Principles, a largely benign statement by the University of Chicago to welcome differing viewpoints. But for conservative advocacy groups at universities, it sounds like something that will quash the campus’ supposedly liberal bias and lead to speakers and courses on conservative ideals. This is ostensibly to set the stage for the administration to attempt to remain neutral and validate the faculty’s ability to voice their opinions. But as we have seen in recent reports on the University of Florida, the politicians’ end goal is also to silence the faculty.”

The Chicago Principles are not intended to “silence the faculty.” The Chicago Principles aim to “open up a broad frontier dialogue” in a very simple, small ‘d’ democratic way.

What’s so scary about having conservative speakers and classes on campus, anyway? If conservative ideas and ideals are so stupid, why not air them publicly where everyone can see how stupid they really are?

The solution is not restricting the expression of opinion, but more freedom of expression.

“Presidents are in an impossible situation, but this presidential squirm is not good for higher education. Faculty, staff and students know that Presidents are people with views on these issues. Many of them knew the President before taking on the role. So who are they fooling by saying they are neutral? No one. I should know I wriggled myself a fair bit, but always ended up giving my true position. Eventually I learned I was better off just going ahead and doing it.”

No one ever thought Holden Thorp wasn’t a liberal. No one ever really cared whether or not he, James Moeser, or Carol Folt were card-carrying members of America’s far-left progressive socialist Democratic Party — as long as they ran the University of the People so professionally that they could offer every student , who attended Chapel Hill, an Ivy League-level education at public school awards.

Conservatives want education at Chapel Hill and all public universities – which is 40% subsidized by North Carolina taxpayers – to be “classically liberal” in all its connotations, meaning a full and fair treatment of all political philosophies.

Administrators and faculty in Carolina have a golden opportunity at their fingertips. Not only should they welcome debate from “the other side,” they should actively encourage conservative students and faculty to come to Carolina and set the standard for free speech and thought at every university and college in America.