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Three of the 2022-2023 Agora Fellows who attended theAbbey Speaker Series event, “A Conversation with Cal Cunningham and Thom Tillis,” (from left to right): Sarah Crow, Willow Yang and Maddux Vernon.
Three of the 2022-2023 Agora Fellows who attended the Abbey Speaker Series event, “A Conversation with Cal Cunningham and Thom Tillis,” (from left to right): Sarah Crow, Willow Yang and Maddux Vernon.

When asked why he supports UNC’s Program for Public Discourse, J. Flint McNaughton ’86 had a ready reply.

“Candidly, I think we should be teaching our kids how to think – not what to think. We should teach and provide encouraging educational environments that promote open dialogue, truth-seeking and understanding with those who disagree with us.”

McNaughton added, “I think we all need to listen, learn and engage others of opposite viewpoints in a civil manner. UNC’s Program for Public Discourse is showing our kids the way on this.”

Julie and Flint McNaughton
Julie and Flint McNaughton

Last year, McNaughton and his wife, Julie Wells McNaughton, established the McNaughton Family Fund in the Program for Public Discourse to provide for the program’s most urgent needs. This might include course development grants, faculty workshops, salary support and student and public programming.

For the 2023-2024 academic year, the McNaughton Fund is supporting the program’s Agora Fellows program. Some of the funds will also support a First Year Seminar, “Elements of Politics,” taught by Larry Goldberg, a lecturer in the program, and UNC Clinical Associate Professor of Law Rachel Gurvich.

“The McNaughton Family Fund assures that the Program for Public Discourse continues to lead the way in offering exceptional, thought-provoking courses and opportunities for students to engage across differences and practice constructive discourse,” said the program’s faculty director, Sarah Treul Roberts.

Giving back

“I was 11 when my father passed away,” McNaughton explained. “I had quite a few father figures in my life that stepped in and helped me along the way. They invested in me, loved me and held me accountable. I’m so grateful for that and learned that investing in and helping others is one of the greatest joys in life. I’ve been so blessed that giving back is something I’ve felt I had a responsibility to do.”

The Agora Fellows program provides undergraduate students a space to experiment with public discourse in a collaborative environment with their peers. Under the tutelage of Kevin Marinelli, executive director of the program, students meet regularly throughout the year to explore a variety of timely and timeless issues through a range of discursive modes, such as debate and critical reflection.

“During my time as an Agora Fellow, there has been an unwavering emphasis on ‘listening to listen rather than to respond,’” said Willow Yang ’25. “Listening allows some semblance of understanding between those with different opinions without the polarizing pressure of being ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ a phenomenon that I think the Agora curriculum and programming not only understands very well but enables it to make real, tangible impact.”

The Carolina connection

As a native of Miami, McNaughton knew he wanted an “out-of-state” experience for college. “A buddy of mine and I visited six schools over spring break,” he remembered. “The weather was cold and wet for most of the visits –– but when I got to Chapel Hill in the afternoon, the weather turned sunny. The azaleas were blooming, everyone was so welcoming, and the campus was glorious. I knew that if they’d let me in, I was coming to Chapel Hill.”

“I loved every minute of my time there. UNC is a pretty idyllic college experience — rigorous academics, great reputation, fantastic sporting venues and a fun social atmosphere.”

In 1994, when the McNaughtons decided to move from Miami to Charlotte, they knew they had friends in North Carolina that made for a natural and smooth transition back to the Tar Heel state. “I’ve never looked back,” said McNaughton. “There is something special about Carolina alums. You always feel at home around them.”

By Andy Berner

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