SMITH: UNC Chapel Hill is emerging as a national free speech leader 

The Old Well on the campus of The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Three cheers for UNC Chapel Hill.  

The public institution — paid for in large part by taxpayer dollars — has become a national leader of the anti-woke backlash in higher education. This development is as surprising as it is welcome, since many public colleges and universities are doubling down on political indoctrination and ideological discrimination.  

UNC Chapel Hill provides a roadmap — and better yet, some cover — for any institution that wants to restore true education and intellectual inquiry to their rightful place on campus. 

I say this having just visited UNC Chapel Hill. I traveled there with Douglas Murray, the British author and journalist, to help launch an alumni group focused on defending free speech and defeating woke “cancel culture.”  

Our organization, Common Sense Society, was originally founded in Central Europe when I was there leading student debates. It was very easy for former communists to advocate “cancel culture” due to their familiarity with conformity of thought and action. 

It is very troubling to see the same fear of debate rear its ugly head here on college campuses in America.  

The Common Sense Society now seeks to ensure that American and European students and young professionals have forums to debate ideas and pursue truth, free from the fear of cancellation or censorship. 

To my surprise, shortly after Mr. Murray and I arrived in Chapel Hill, the chancellor and provost asked to meet with us. We and leading alumnus Doug Monroe had a frank discussion with them about the danger posed by woke ideology, which blatantly seeks to stifle any voice or view that doesn’t accord with a modern Marxist party line. We agreed that diversity of thought is essential to the success of higher education. So is the ability of students to assess arguments on their merits and not by pure emotion.  

I found it refreshing to have two university leaders defend the very essence of higher education. 

Last month, the UNC Board of Governors voted to stop requiring so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” statements from applicants and hires, including in the student body and the faculty. Contrary to the name, these DEI statements eviscerate diversity by essentially requiring uniformity of thought.  Wherever DEI statements exist, you can all but guarantee that intellectual freedom is in danger, since the only students admitted and professors hired are those that espouse or cower to woke doctrines.  

That is not higher education; it is the definition of lowering the bar. 

UNC has gone even further by making plans to create an entirely new “School of Civic Life and Leadership.” The school is expressly designed to ensure a more intellectually diverse atmosphere, pushing back against the leftward decline that defines virtually every college campus nowadays. The resulting blowback, mainly from the most woke ― and least intellectually tolerant ― faculty, only proves the wisdom of this move.  

UNC Chapel Hill is committed to cultivating an environment in which students and faculty alike can tackle tough questions and challenge the status quo. Last I checked, that’s the essential mission of a university. 

My sense, based on our conversation with the chancellor and provost, is that even more reforms are on the way. That’s good news for UNC Chapel Hill — and America as a whole. Our country needs more public colleges and universities to renew their commitment to giving students access to the best educational experience possible, for which freedom of thought and expression is a necessary condition. UNC Chapel Hill’s leadership will hopefully inspire more university leaders to, well, lead their universities, instead of letting the woke mob shout down speakers and shut up students and faculty. 

Prior to visiting UNC Chapel Hill, Mr. Murray and I traveled to the University of Virginia, where the educational climate is still trending in the wrong direction. There is little-to-no institutional willingness to defend free speech or create an environment in which different views are tolerated, much less openly debated. UVA’s leaders have turned the campus of Thomas Jefferson — one of the most forward-thinking, curious, and enlightened leaders of his day — into a fortress of intellectual groupthink stagnation.  

Graduates, both young and old, have a unique ability to affect change at their alma maters — both by raising their voices and withholding donations. As they see their beloved campuses undermine education and embrace woke ideology, alumni should band together and demand better.  

When alumni speak, university leaders listen. 

At UNC Chapel Hill, alumni are already acting. Sitting in the room as more than 100 UNC alumni announced the formation of the UNC Alumni for Free Speech Alliance, I saw the courageous leadership of UNC alums and the administration which will lead the way in reforming their institution and defending the highest ideals of their university.  

Here’s hoping what starts there doesn’t stop there. Woke conformity needs to be driven from every public campus, so that students can engage in freedom of academic inquiry and be unafraid to speak freely.  

Marion Smith is president and CEO of the Common Sense Society.