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Op-Ed: Sidestepping the REACH Act

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“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”

– Plato

In the ongoing debate over the University of North Carolina and its lobbying against the REACH Act, the UNC System has put forth a proposal called “Foundations of American Democracy.”

While on the surface this may seem like a step toward correcting the UNC System’s lack of civics education, a closer examination suggests that it could be a strategic maneuver to dissuade the Legislature from passing the REACH Act.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the REACH Act. If enacted, it would require all college students to complete a three-credit-hour class on American government or history to graduate. Public records requests revealed that UNC officials lobbied to stop the REACH Act in the legislature. Six hundred and seventy-three Chapel Hill professors signed a petition against the legislation. And UNC System President Peter Hans was caught saying the “Legislature [was] off the mark” and that civics should be taught only at the “high school” level.

Past opposition to college level civics raises questions about the sincerity of the “Foundations of American Democracy” proposal and whether it serves as a smokescreen to divert attention from the robust requirements outlined in the REACH Act.

So far, the UNC System has released few details on the civics proposal. But the details it has released are concerning. Examples of public colleges feigning civics instruction in neighboring South Carolina should serve as a warning against the proposal.

Lack of details in Foundations of American Democracy

On Jan. 24 and 25, the UNC Board of Governors met and discussed a new college requirement proposal called “Foundations of American Democracy.” At the January meeting, few specific details were revealed about the new requirement. But the few details shared thus far should cause concern about whether it would be a rigorous civics educational component or merely a token gesture to placate the legislative proponents of the REACH Act.

Professor Wade Maki, chairman of the UNC System Faculty Assembly, presented the proposal to the board’s Committee on Education Planning, Policies, and Programs. In contrast to the REACH Act, Maki asserted the faculty must retain “control” over any civics requirement.

While asserting the importance of “control,” Maki neglected to mention that UNC was created by the Legislature in 1789 and all its authority is delegated by the Legislature. Maki also failed to tell the committee that the REACH Act’s three-credit-hour requirement amounts to only 2.5% of “control” by the Legislature. (Most college degrees are 120 credit hours.)

Concerningly, Maki said the proposal would be taught across multiple “disciplines,” meaning that the Constitution could be taught in other subject areas other than American government or history.

The little details that Maki provided to the committee said the proposal contained two “student learning outcomes.”

• SLO 1 focuses on documents and concepts related to America’s founding as an independent nation, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.

• SLO 2 focuses on the effort to implement the nation’s ideals and requires students to engage with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail.

But the proposal made no commitments as to whether students would take a class on American government – or whether these “SLOs” would be squished into a class in an unrelated discipline, an orientation module, or some other feign requirement.

At the full UNC Board of Governors meeting the next day, Hans repeated Maki’s line that the “SLOs” would be administered across multiple “disciplines.” Hans said the faculty would prescribe the requirement in “creative ways, using their expertise.” He gave no indication if this requirement would require students to take a class on American government.

While Hans did stress the importance of civics at the college level at the Jan. 25 meeting, one can question the sincerity of his remarks since they contradict what he said nearly one year earlier. A public records request revealed that Hans previously said civics should not be taught in college. In a Feb. 15, 2023, email, he wrote to UNC System lobbyist Bart Goodson, “[T]he approach here from the legislature is off the mark when all of this is required in high school.” Hans said this in reply to Goodson’s description of the REACH Act as “red-meat theater” and that the UNC System would try to “slow it [REACH Act] down or alter it.”

The REACH Act’s Robust Requirements

As passed by the House last March, the REACH Act would require all college students in the UNC System and Community College System to complete a three-credit-hour class. To ensure a robust civics education, the legislation specifies that the class must be within the disciplines of “American government” or “American history” and that it must provide a “comprehensive overview of the major events and turning points of American history and government.” The legislation further specifies that students must study and read certain foundational documents in their “entirety.” These documents include:

• U.S. Constitution.

• North Carolina Constitution.

• Declaration of Independence.

• Five essays from the Federalist Papers.

• Gettysburg Address.

• Emancipation Proclamation.

• Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from Birmingham jail.

The legislation requires that the class “include a cumulative final exam on the principles in the documents” and that exam must “comprise at least 20% of the student’s total course grade.” This is to ensure colleges do not flout civics instructions while feigning legal compliance.

As currently presented, the UNC Board of Governors proposal does not contain the same safeguard provisions of the REACH Act.

If the UNC Board of Governors wants to implement a civics requirement on its own accord, it should pass a resolution with the REACH Act’s same language. Of course, administrators like Peter Hans will tell the board that “faculty” must retain “control.” And they will complain the REACH Act is overly prescriptive.

But the REACH Act, while including safeguards, allows plenty of faculty flexibility as is. Dr. Bradley Jackson, vice president at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, testified before the House that the REACH Act was “narrowly tailored.” He said the legislation merely “set a reasonable floor” that “insist[s] upon quite minimal, but nonetheless very important, standards for civic education in the state of North Carolina.”

The REACH Act’s requirements are minimal that allow honest faculty to tailor the course as needed – but contains reasonable safeguards to protect against fake implementation by “creative” faculty.

Examples of South Carolina colleges feigning civics requirements

The North Carolina REACH Act is modeled off the nearly identical South Carolina REACH Act, signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster in 2021.

The South Carolina REACH Act did not create a new law, but actually updated a 100-year-old South Carolina college civics law that many colleges were not following.

That older law mandated all colleges to require a “one year” founding documents class, but it did not provide specific details of how that legislative requirement should be implemented. Before the REACH Act’s update, many South Carolina colleges either outright ignored or feigned compliance with the older law.

Here are a few examples:

• The University of South Carolina famously claimed to follow the spirit of the law by handing out a pocket-sized constitution on Constitution Day. The president also said that the veterans “halftime salute” at the Gamecocks’ football stadium on Veterans Day weekend fulfilled the legal requirement of teaching civics.

• Clemson University only required that students watch a 90-minute online video module called “founding documents” within Clemson University 1000, a freshman orientation course. Students then had to take a 20-question quiz for which they had unlimited attempts to pass.

• Winthrop University required a three-credit-hour “constitutional competency” class – but allowed students to take courses in unrelated disciplines that merely mentioned the founding documents in passing reference. For example, Winthrop allowed students to complete an economics course as an option to fulfill the requirement. But a sample class syllabus revealed that the course only discussed the founding documents in passing reference while the rest was devoted to unrelated topics such as “poverty,” “the housing market,” and “the economics of marriage.”

• South Carolina State University at one point claimed that its “History of Jazz” and “History of Black Music” met the civics requirement because the course syllabi listed the founding documents as required readings.

• The University of South Carolina-Beaufort claimed “University 101,” a freshman orientation class, was an appropriate discipline to teach the founding documents.

• And the College of Charleston has claimed a theater department class was an appropriate avenue to meet the law’s requirement of a class devoted to America’s founding documents.

These are all real examples of how South Carolina colleges pretended to teach civics. Only when the Legislature stepped in and updated the law did the colleges begin requiring a robust civics course.

Other safeguards to ensure compliance:

To ensure compliance, the South Carolina REACH Act requires that the Commission on Higher Education annually report to the Legislature the compliance status each public college.

Similarly, the North Carolina REACH Act includes a provision requiring the Board of Governors to annually report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee.

South Carolina law also provides for the removal of a college president for noncompliance.

The North Carolina REACH Act similarly provides for the removal of the president for noncompliance.

The South Carolina REACH Act passed the South Carolina House 91-12. It passed the South Carolina Senate 45-0.

The North Carolina Reach Act passed the House 69-47. It is now pending in the Senate.

UNC Board of Governor’s Proposal: Good Idea or Smokescreen?

The UNC System has demonstrated its disdain for the REACH Act and college level civics. It is hard to tell if its “Foundations of American Democracy” proposal is a genuine step toward a robust course or a token gesture to the Legislature that the REACH Act is not needed.

While only few details have been released so far, both Maki and Hans stated their goal is for “faculty” to retain “control” and that civics should not be confined to, well, civics – and instead should be taught across multiple “disciplines.” If by across “disciplines” the UNC System means slapping the founding documents in a “history of jazz music” class, then to that I say, “No thanks.”

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