In these polarized and politically tense times, it is good to revisit our foundational principle in academia, that of academic freedom. I want all who teach in the College of Arts and Sciences to know that I, as your dean, fully support the right of our instructors to address, study and teach difficult topics. That activity is an important part of our mission and one that I will staunchly defend. If we can’t have such discussions on the campus of a major, public university, it’s not clear to me where we could have them, and without them, our democracy will suffer.
With this right comes responsibility. As educators, it is our job to ensure that all students feel free, and are encouraged, to engage in classroom discussions around difficult topics. We should not put our thumbs strongly on the debate scales with our own views lest we silence some students who do not share those views. Our students are acutely aware of the power dynamic in a classroom; we, as instructors, need to continually remind ourselves of that dynamic as well. We are all free to speak our minds, but as educators, we often need to step into the role of moderator to allow space for all views to be freely expressed.
This is not to say that we should avoid difficult topics in our classrooms. Quite the opposite. We are privileged as educators and mentors to help shape the future, which is what our students represent. To be prepared for their path beyond Carolina, they need opportunities to discuss and debate with their fellow students, and yes, with us. It is our job to help them learn how to do this effectively.
Carolina can and should be known nationally and internationally as a place where critical discourse is embraced and encouraged, regardless of how politically and emotionally charged the topic is. We should be proud that Carolina included Communication Beyond Carolina in the IDEAs in Action curriculum. The faculty made a strong statement in doing so, and as your dean, it is my job to help make that statement a lasting commitment.
The College and University provide numerous resources for faculty seeking to increase engagement and dialogue in the classroom. They include:
- Center for Faculty Excellence, with resources for faculty (and graduate students) at all career stages, including workshops, course design institutes, teaching feedback and learning communities
- Program for Public Discourse, which offers consultations and classroom workshops on curricular development, facilitating class dialogue and debate and other topics
- Office of Undergraduate Curricula, which offers resources for course development, teaching and evaluation
- Office of Faculty Affairs, which lists recourses for professional skills development
As always, please reach out to me if you have concerns.
James W.C. White
Craver Family Dean
College of Arts and Sciences