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 Sept. 16 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

He tried to make the case that conservative politicians want to dictate what colleges teach and who teaches what subjects. What he and virtually all administrators and faculty fail to understand about conservatives is they couldn’t care less what any administrator or faculty says at Carolina or any other college ― as long as other faculty and students have the guaranteed freedom to say whatever they want in response without fear of reprisal, ostracism, suppression or ridicule supported by the administration. Or worse, be declined tenure as a young professor or get a failing grade as a student for not adhering to the liberal ideology imposed by their superiors. 

Once such equilibrium is established on college campuses, conservatives will find other things to worry about. Trust me on that. 

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

“Abortion. Guns. Climate change. The role of race and slavery in the history of the United States. Transgender rights. Are these political issues? Sure. Are they also squarely within the wheelhouse of higher education? You bet. Every. Single. One. Yet, as we careen into the election of November 2022, university administrators will tie themselves in knots trying to somehow stay neutral on issues that are clearly in the purview of research and teaching at their institutions. It’s not going to work very well.” 

How difficult is it to ensure free and fair civil discourse on campuses today anyway? Colleges are supposed to be repositories of free thought where argumentation and disputation can take place in a safe place between presidents, chancellors, faculty and, most importantly, students. To many conservatives, college campuses look like unilateral demilitarized intellectual zones where far-left liberal professors and administrators seek unanimity of liberal belief at the expense of freedom of speech and political philosophy from the conservative side. 

“I strongly support access to abortion services, and I will do everything in my power as president to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care,” (said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan). “I am deeply concerned about how prohibiting abortion would affect U-M’s medical teaching, our research, and our service to communities in need.” 

Thorp wistfully says President Coleman is retiring this fall so she can speak her mind freely and honestly. Anyone who serves in the public eye should be brave enough to speak the truth as they see it and engage in civil discourse with those who disagree with them. He also obscures the fact that the Dobbs decision returns the issue of abortion governance to the states ― it did not “prohibit abortion” anywhere. 

“This tension has led many universities to adopt the so-called Chicago Principles, which is a mostly innocuous statement by the University of Chicago about welcoming different points of view. But to conservative university stakeholders, it sounds like something that will tamp down the purported liberal bias of the campus and lead to speakers and courses about conservative ideals. This supposedly sets the stage for the administration to try to stay neutral and affirm the ability for the faculty to speak their minds. But as we saw in recent reporting on the University of Florida, the end goal of the politicians is also to silence the faculty.” 

The Chicago Principles do not seek to “silence the faculty.” The Chicago Principles seek to “open up dialogue” across the board in a perfectly simple small ’d’ democratic way.  

What is so scary about having conservative speakers and courses on campus anyway? If conservative ideas and ideals are so stupid, why not let them be aired out in public where everyone can see how stupid they really are? 

The solution is not the restriction of speech but more free speech. 

“Presidents are in an impossible situation, but this presidential squirming is not good for higher education. Faculty, staff, and students know the presidents are human beings who have views on these issues. Many of them knew the president before they got in the role. So, who are they fooling by saying they’re neutral? Nobody. I ought to know. I did a good share of squirming myself, but I always ended up stating my true position. I eventually learned I was better off to go ahead and do so.” 

No one ever thought Holden Thorp was not a liberal. No one ever really cared if he, James Moeser or Carol Folt were card-carrying members of the far-left progressive socialist Democrat Party of America or not ― as long as they ran the University of the People in such a professional manner so as to provide an Ivy League-level education at public school prices for every student who attended Chapel Hill.  

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

Administrators and faculty at Carolina have a golden opportunity at hand. They should not only welcome debate from “the other side” but actively encourage conservative students and faculty to come to Carolina and set the standard for free speech and thought across all universities and colleges in America.