Perhaps it’s fitting that the phrase “personnel is policy” came to mind when a noted conservative professor from Princeton spoke recently to the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors.
That phrase motivated President Ronald Reagan’s advisers during the earliest days of the 40th president’s administration. By repeating the mantra, Reagan’s acolytes reminded themselves that they needed to hire the right people for key jobs to ensure the new president’s agenda had a chance of succeeding.
The same is true for UNC’s governing board, if it wants to emulate the type of wide-ranging, ideologically diverse discourse fostered by Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
“As you’re designing whatever your program or school or initiative or institute will be, do your best to structure things to ensure fidelity to the mission,” said Robert George, a Princeton professor since 1985. He established the James Madison Program in 2000. “But the really, really important next decision will be: Who is your leadership?”
“At the end, it’s just personnel,” George said. “It’s people teaching. It’s people speaking. It’s people debating. It’s people running panel discussions. It’s people.”
Not even the best-designed program can withstand poor personnel choices, George warned. “The Soviet constitutions, the Chinese constitution — if you read them, they’re fantastic,” George said. “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Meaningless … because there’s that lack of virtue in the leadership, that lack of commitment to the actual freedoms that are the substance of the political order.”
No member of the Board of Governors has put forward a proposal to replicate George’s James Madison Program. But the hourlong session offered hints about the governors’ interests.
One question: Can a program that serves a private Ivy League school in New Jersey with an undergraduate enrollment of roughly 5,400 students (total enrollment of 8,000) serve as an example for a public university system with 225,000 students, or even a flagship campus in Chapel Hill serving almost 19,000 undergrads?
“Our universities are so different that it would be impossible simply to drop something based on the Madison Program into North Carolina,” George said. “Whatever you end up with, I’m sure, will look in very, very many ways different.”
A project matching the James Madison Program’s $2.3 million budget might prove effective for a campus of 5,000 undergraduate students, George said. A larger campus would require more money. “You’re going to eventually need a budget that’s two or three or more times that.”
But the benefits for campus ideological diversity could be substantial. George devoted most of his remarks to explaining how the Madison Program elevated the level of Princeton’s intellectual debate. “What we try to do in the Madison Program, in our own small way, is to empower our students to think for themselves on issues of the utmost importance, not only to our contemporary lives, but to the long-term success of the American experiment in ordered liberty and republican government.”
Openly conservative himself, George does not want his program to indoctrinate students. “We are not interested in creating a conservative ‘safe space’ or a playground for conservatives,” he said. “Our goal is not even fairness to conservatives or anybody else. … Our goal is enhancing the quality of education and scholarly discussion on the Princeton campus by broadening the range of perspectives and voices that are in the conversation.”
Benefits of that approach have extended throughout his campus, George said. Among his pieces of evidence: Conservative Princeton students have not clamored to bring in speakers such as white nationalist Richard Spencer or alt-right favorite Milo Yiannopolous. Their appearances have sparked protests in other university settings.
“Why is that the case at Princeton, where in so many places around the country conservative students, for whatever reasons, feel they have to bring in provocateurs, extremists, and people with no — or very little — academic standing?” he said. “It’s because they’re feeling so isolated and alienated, and they find the atmosphere so suffocating and oppressive that they think you need someone to cause an explosion and really shake things up. … Our situation is so much better.”
George noted the importance of building support for a new program among faculty members and administrative leaders. Board member Joe Knott asked George how he would respond if UNC faculty raised objections.
“I would just defend core, basic academic values,” George said. “We are all benefitted by expanding the opportunities for ourselves and our students to engage people across the spectrum of viewpoints held by reasonable and responsible people in a society. And one just sheer basic fact that we’ve all in this society got to recognize — on the right and on the left — is: Reasonable people of goodwill disagree with us.”
George offered his hosts no plan for moving forward in North Carolina. While emphasizing the importance of a good leader, he explained why finding that leader could prove difficult.
“An awful lot of my time has gone into building and running the Madison Program,” George said. “For a lot of scholars, including some whom I’m sure would be wonderful as leaders, that’s a sacrifice that they’re unwilling to make. … You have to find someone who’s willing to make that sacrifice because the person is really dedicated to this cause.”
At least one board member offered a solution. “Professor George, you have been at Princeton a long time,” said former state Rep. Leo Daughtry. “Don’t you think it would be time for you to move south?”
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.