He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20 NIV



In Compass posts I comment on important worldview insights concerning social or cultural trends. Today’s post centers on a virtual miracle I witnessed utterly by chance on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.

On Tuesday the day before, the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance had its annual meeting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Full disclosure: I am the chairman.) Afterward, UNC AFSA co-hosted, with the UNC Student Free Speech Alliance, Nadine Strossen, a national expert in free speech and the Constitution’s First Amendment, in several meetings and a public presentation at the University of North Carolina. It was a beautiful day altogether; one I’ll always remember.

I had planned on driving home to Virginia early the next morning, but one of UNC AFSA’s board members said that the UNC board of trustees was meeting that morning at the Carolina Inn where I was staying, and that they might be discussing DEI. Since all of the UNC board’s meetings are open to the public, I knew I could get in. Hearing this, I decided that would be interesting and that I’d leave for home at lunch time the next day.

Then early Wednesday morning, I got a text from a faculty member who said he and another colleague were presenting to the UNC board after lunch. Ok then, I decided immediately after reading the text, I’ll stay for that afternoon’s presentation, too. As it turned out, the UNC board did discuss the financial impact of defunding DEI in the morning, and the afternoon presentation occurred between about 2:30 to 3:30.

That 48-minute presentation is what’s available above for you to review.

To be specific and give credit, Professors Mark McNeilly and Emily Putnam-Hornstein made a joint, comprehensive presentation to the UNC board in 25 minutes and a Question and Answer period followed for 23 minutes.

My suggestion: Agree or disagree, every Tar Heel should watch this.

The purpose of their talk was twofold: first, to introduce Heterodox Heels, a growing UNC faculty organization on campus and second, to provide their personal perspectives (not those of the organization) about the state of academic culture and free speech at UNC-C.H. Professor McNeilly has been part of a team of faculty who surveyed students at UNC and other UNC system campuses on free expression and constructive discourse over the last several years.


Mustard Seeds


What I heard from Mark and Emily astonished me.

In the two and a half hour drive home, I stayed in a daze and decided then to write about it. All kinds of Boomer-like blog post titles presented themselves during the three-hour ride: “Now I’ve Seen an Elephant Fly” (the Disney film Dumbo), “Liberty or Death” (Patrick Henry’s speech on March 23, 1775), “The Shot Heard Round the World” (the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, beginning the American Revolution), and even mixing old sports metaphors, “Sweet D and the Cardiac-Heels Do It Again!” (Walter Davis’ last shot against Duke in 1974—I was there—and the Cardiac and Neo-Cardiac Pack in 1983 and 2024; mega-congratulations to NC State: Your last win in 2024 mattered most).

But by the time I’d arrived home, I’d decided such titles would be too triumphalist, too overconfident, and certainly counting one’s chickens before they’ve hatched. Besides, it’s altogether bad form to gloat under any circumstances. I respect too much the dignity of those who disagree for their own, presumably good reasons. That would be poor rhetorical sportsmanship or, let’s say it, unethical.

Most important, I decided that Mark and Emily wouldn’t like any of these titles, since they’d not only be inappropriate but inaccurate. Certainly, knowing them a bit, they would prefer a more “civil” or even “collegial” approach. You know, how faculty members strive to be toward each other, how they strive to model behavior to their students, and like they used to be most of the time toward each other, so they say—in public at least—back in “the good old days.”

In sum on this post’s title, what had astonished me most was Mark and Emily’s immense courage to say to the public that UNC at Chapel Hill should return to its over 200-year mission of pursuing truth, of all traditional things. (The University’s motto is Lux Libertas.)

Like many alumni, I have followed Carolina closely since entering as a freshman (in the fall of 1974), and I have two adult children who also attended the University. A dark feeling in me had started developing around the mid-2000s, or about 20 years ago, that I’d never again hear the words “pursuit of truth” on campus.

The popularity in Chapel Hill of multiculturalism and postmodernism had taken its toll during the 1990s, had morphed into the early stages of visible cultural marxism and identitarianism during the late 2000s, and had begun to masquerade in growing administrative bureaucracy, extending itself into faculty culture over the last decade, as social justice and DEI. I watched and studied “DEI” carefully as it happened.

To me, the first bookend of this 30-year trend at UNC was multiculturalism, and it quickly became, “All cultures are good but American culture.”

I am extremely proud of being an American and have worked hard at building my historical knowledge since being a history major at Carolina. My ancestors in North America go back almost 400 years. Beyond more than just a couple of generations, they are found all over America geographically from sea-to-sea, covering most political persuasions of the times. It’s completely impossible to take sides today—a fool’s errand. Most ancestors are simply heroes to me, who lived in much more difficult times. (Indeed, most people I know across all identities view their ancestors that way.)

In sum, all American citizens, especially myself, are not just lucky to be here, but blessed. And I’m quite sure the millions of illegal immigrants pouring over our borders today would agree.

The other bookend of the last 30 years at Carolina is now DEI, and today it operates as, “All people are good other than whites, straight men, Christians, and lately maybe Asians.” (Granted, Asians ruin the curve in school for everyone from grade school on because of their natural ability and the culture they’ve imported with them, highly valuing education while emphasizing merit and excellence. Imagine that.)

DEI as an ideology has become no less than racist dogma straight out of the antebellum period into the hood-wearing, Jim Crow era, but in reverse against whites.

So, how could Mark and Emily have had the courage to articulate their beliefs, as well as the feelings of so many alumni, so well on the afternoon of March 27, 2024 at the Carolina Inn?

See the quote at top, saying nothing about anyone’s religion. And see the quote here at the end of this post. I’m not sure, but I think the answer concerning courage lies somewhere in there.


Some of Mark and Emily’s Themes 


Since I’d like the video above to speak for itself, if you have time for it, I’ll only mention below seven of Mark’s and Emily’s themes. After Perrin Jones (a board of trustees member) introduced them, Mark and Emily and a group from the University posed for a picture to commemorate the national award UNC had won for advancing free speech. UNC and the State of NC are among the leaders in America striving to return their educational system back to the transfer and production of knowledge, rather than attempting to achieve narrow elitist-dictated social agendas.

At the beginning of their presentation and in their slides, Mark and Emily say their comments include only their own thoughts; they are not those of the HxA Heels organization. To complement the video above, we’ve linked their presentation deck here. You can read that quickly for key points. In addition, here are my takeaways from their presentation:

  • UNC should revise its now spent 4-year-old strategic plan to make pursuing truth its top priority, rather than designated social ends.
  • Far too many faculty and students fear speaking freely within a University culture that too often inhibits free speech, open research & debate, and academic freedom.
  • The DEI administrative bureaucracy (though not referenced much in their talk) is preventing open exchange, instituting ideological dogma, and harming the pursuit of truth; it wastes much time and resources.
  • While school diversity remains centrally important, the University suffers from a lack of viewpoint diversity, which inhibits knowledge transfer and discovery and a wide focus on truth.
  • The University must reemphasize merit and excellence in everything, while balancing belonging, to achieve a common good among its administrators, faculty, and students.
  • To better prepare students for their roles as professionals and civic leaders after graduation, various new strategies and timeless tactics need implementation, such as: forming the School of Civic Life and Leadership, re-instituting SATs required for admission, and re-imposing an historically normal grade scale across departments.
  • On politics, the University should remain institutionally neutral, while protecting all involved from physical harm.

(To the wish list above, I’d add only one more bullet point: The pursuit of truth should be the mission of all universities, everywhere.)

A glance at these bullet points explains why I’d thought I’d seen an elephant fly. All this said in Chapel Hill by faculty members?

UNC AFSA’s mission is: “To support and defend free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at UNC – Chapel Hill.” Again, just the day before, I had heard Nadine Strossen—a Democrat who UNC AFSA had sponsored, was the President of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008, and was Editor of the Harvard Law Review—in response to a student’s question asking, “Then, how do we support free speech here?,” say something like, “A few need to be brave enough to begin.”

Based on what I know (and I am no expert), some of these legal, cultural, and systemic issues are under study at UNC-C.H., across the State of NC, and in Raleigh, the state capital. My impression is that the University will proceed in a reasonably measured and collegial way to make any improvements necessary under the guidance of the General Assembly, the State Board of Governors, the University System President, the University’s Board of Trustees, and its Chancellor, Provost, administration, and faculty.

Mark and Emily (along with a growing number of other faculty members) are mustard seeds themselves, doing their best in the best interests of the students, faculty, and the People of NC to correct the University’s course. They need our support. I see their honesty and mature pragmatism growing within the boards, administration, and faculty, but, especially within the People of North Carolina. Clearly, sown seeds are sprouting roots; Mark’s and Emily’s courage are infectious. My hope is a stronger University culture featuring true intellectual diversity will grow strong and wide within a reasonable time to benefit all.


Pursuing Truth


Before moving on from Mark’s and Emily’s presentation I’d like to comment on an interchange that occurred in the Q&A.

When an important faculty member, the Faculty Chair, Dr. Beth Moracco, was asked to answer a question about DEI training, she did so and then posed her own question, an important one, “How do we define truth?”

Her point was that truth has been difficult to define through the ages and, if we’re going to pursue, study, measure, and discover truth (my elaboration), don’t we need a definition?

Mark McNeilly’s quick response was admirable: “It’s reality;” something we can and do study and measure easily.

To elaborate on Mark’s thinking, to me, truth is a judgment on reality that everyone makes every day to live and prosper—to achieve one’s goals.

Such judgements are made on an individual basis (subjective) and a group basis (objective). When they are agreed upon, they become, in a sense, a form of public knowledge. While belief and knowledge can change and be discovered, produced, and maybe even created, the West historically has seen objective truth to exist independently of any single person’s beliefs or experiences. I believe that’s right. That’s what judges and juries try to determine in courts of law or social scientists in their research.

Everyone’s “subjectivities” are part of overall reality, yes, but subjective belief needs confirmation via the judgment of others over reasonable time to become regarded as objective knowledge. Ultimately, that’s what human language does, what it tries to accomplish. That’s why an unceasing pursuit of truth in a world class university such as Carolina is vital to building knowledge. Most believe such an approach explains much of the West’s progress since the Middle Ages, “progress” as defined by values and standards applied today.

In the end, if you agree that any university is in the business of transferring and producing knowledge, then you must by definition believe in the pursuit of truth. Truth is objective knowledge, and, given my worldview, it can be of any kind of knowledge whatsoever, from scientific to political to moral to religious.

Since Dr. Moracco is a highly respected professional in the healthcare field, it’s hard to see how she could operate professionally if she does not believe in the pursuit of truth. She does it all day long. Why would anyone seek her service in healthcare if she does not? Why should anyone listen to anything she has to say as Faculty Chair if she does not believe what she says is true, no matter what the subject and no matter how sincerely or kindly she delivers her message?

The good news is, I still believe her . . . that she relies on truth, and I’m still more than willing to listen.

A typical relativist response to the assertion that “truth is” would be to highlight areas of knowledge or debate familiar to but lacking general agreement within the audience at hand that might cause friction or even violence, usually citing areas of religion, morality, culture, or politics concerning opposed groups. The idea is to get the audience to accept truth as being relative, while also accepting the speaker’s own position on the issue in question (a pawn’s move in the power game) in return for an easing of tension, peace, and safety.

Look at the world around us to see how relativism coupled with safetyism is working.

We love and welcome such discussions here at Praxis Circle because they often beg the question of one’s worldview, and we believe better understanding of one’s own worldview and those of others does create a more peaceful, civil discourse. This is also what universities should teach. It can even result in producing knowledge or, saints be praised, a better apprehension of truth.

The vexing problem is, however, that truth, as said already, just is; it remains with us everywhere, often taking the form of religious, moral, cultural, political, and even aesthetic truth (again, judgments on human reality), not just measurable STEM-like truth. Welcome to the world we live in.

But that’s getting us off on a fun tangent that we don’t have time for here. I’ll just say that one’s position on truth is one of the most fundamental aspects of everyone’s worldview. Moreover, each person’s stand on truth is one of the primary worldview issues dividing us today in the West. That was the issue dividing them, as Jesus stood before Pilate, as he washed his hands. We have written about truth many times before and look forward to continuing that in the future.

As the philosophers say, we must proceed; “the game must be played.” We can base it on power, or we can base it on reasoning together seeking justice (as defined—Beth, I will save you the trouble of asking another good question).

I recommend the latter.


Lux Libertas


It works. Light. Liberty. The truth does set us free.

UNC (and, I believe, all universities and educational institutions) is not the University of the Faculty, anymore than businesses are Corporations purely for the Benefit of Management and Owners. No, in the West, universities and businesses are intended to serve their customers first, the People. Obviously, the Academy’s “customers” are its students and their parents, who advise their “adult children” and usually pay the tuition.

Of the People, by the People, for the People.” Wasn’t it Charles Kuralt, a distinguished UNC graduate and the journalist’s journalist, who said, The University of North Carolina “is as it was meant to be, the University of the People“? (See the 2:04 video linked to the left: Hilarious delivery . . . utterly profound and true.)

So, let’s get back to that and perch ourselves on Light, Liberty, and Truth’s branches.

The Davie poplar?

We can do this together.

This is not a zero sum game; we are not enemies; we are Americans.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13: 31-32 NIV