It’s an age-old challenge made more daunting in a climate
overheated from the current culture wars: How do people tackle difficult questions
without becoming difficult in the process? How do people learn to attack issues
without attacking people with whom they
This challenge was a central topic of conversation at the
Jan. 20 Faculty Council as members heard details about the Difficult Dialogues
The Ford Foundation created the grants to help institutions
develop programs designed to enrich learning, encourage new scholarship and
engage students and faculty in constructive dialogue about contentious
political, religious, racial and cultural issues.
Carolina was one of 27 higher education institutions the
Ford Foundation selected in December to received grants of $100,000 each. The
universities will use the money for projects that promote campus environments
where sensitive subjects can be discussed in a spirit of scholarly inquiry,
academic freedom and with respect for different viewpoints.
To hear more about the initiative, go to
Specifically, the University campus will work to develop
discussion and moderator materials around the issue of “how religious belief
and intellectual inquiry intersect at a public university setting.”
Finding an acceptable answer to the question has grown in
urgency since Sept. 11, 2001, and the series of campus controversies that
involved religion in some way.
The first incident occurred in the summer of 2002 when the
Family Policy Network failed in its legal attempt to block Carolina’s selection
of “Approaching the Qur’án: the Early Revelations” for its summer reading
In 2003, another constitutional issue evolving academic
freedom and faith emerged when a three-member Christian fraternity lost its
status as an officially recognized student organization when it refused to sign
the University’s standard non-discrimination policy.
In spring of 2004, another furor over faith and freedom
erupted when an English instructor was disciplined for publicly accusing a
student of hate speech when he spoke out in class about his objection to
homosexuality based on religious beliefs.
A steering committee was developed in spring of 2005 in
response to the Ford Foundation’s initial call for proposals. The steering
committee has said the impetus behind its proposal to the Ford Foundation was
to counter efforts to polarize the campus community and to promote civil,
informed and productive discourse.
During his State of the University address last year,
Chancellor James Moesere underlined his dedication to the goals of the
initiative when he said, “This University was created at the beginning of the
American republic to be a laboratory for democracy. We can show America how to
have civil discourse about difficult topics.”
In his remarks before Faculty Council, Moeser praised
Faculty Chair Judith Wegner and English professor William Andrews who served as
the co-principal investigators for the Ford grant.
Moeser said Carolina is the right place to be having a
conversation on the interface between religious expression and academic
freedom. Carolina’s selection to participate in the Difficult Dialogue
initiative, he said, presented an opportunity for Carolina to show leadership
in this national conversation on how to approach difficult issues in an
atmosphere of civility and respect.
Wegner, a consultant with the National Issues Forums Network
that uses materials produced by the Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, that
offers a model for civil public discourse on sensitive issues. (For more
information, visit www.nifi.org)
Holt, a professor emerita from the University of Georgia,
said the key word in the approach is “deliberation” as opposed to debate.
The object of the approach is to frame issues in such a way
that participants can see and weigh other perspectives and other approaches to
addressing an issue. Holt played a short film on different viewpoints and
strategies related to immigration into the United States.
Even before work began on the application for the Ford
grant, though, the University had already started developing programs to bring
matters of religious faith into the realm of academic inquiry.
In 2002-03, for instance, the University’s Society of
Fellows (doctoral graduate students from a variety of disciplines) organized a
forum on “Faith and Public Life: An Exploration of the Relationship between
Private Religious Belief and Public Policy.”
In summer of 2004, the University’s Center for Teaching and
Learning, supported by the Academy of Distinguished Scholars and the Faculty
Council, began campus workshops and offered web publications on “Teaching
Controversial Subjects” and “Managing Classroom Conflict.”
In spring of 2005, the Johnston Center for Undergraduate
Excellence hosted a cross-disciplinary symposium titled “Is there a Tomorrow? —
Rapture, Extinction and Democracy.” Also in 2005, Carolina became one of the
first public colleges in the country to establish a minor in the “Study of
Christian Cultures.” That same year, sociology professor Christian Smith
conducted a National Study of Youth and Religion that examined the influence of
religion and spirituality in the lives of adolescents.
This spring, the Program on the Humanities and Human Values
will hold a weekend seminar for UNC alumni and friends on “The Book of Genesis,
Evolution and Social Conflict.”