CHAPEL HILL – The next time you hear someone say there’s no diversity of thought on college campuses, tell them about the Institute of Politics at UNC Chapel Hill.
Founded last year by undergraduate Tanner Glenn, the Institute sponsors a speaker series that includes diverse political viewpoints.
“There’s such a need for it,” says Glenn, who graduated this year. “We have students from all across the political spectrum coming out to engage with the diverse range of speakers we are bringing to campus…. The students are interested in hearing other points of view.
“We’re building a culture that reinforces the fact that this campus is a marketplace of ideas.”
In its first year alone, the Institute welcomed more than 90 speakers. They included political consultants Carter Wrenn (Republican) and Gary Pearce (Democrat), NC Attorney General Josh Stein and former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
When Republican UNC System President Margaret Spellings appeared with New York Times columnist (and UNC Chapel Hill alumnus) Frank Bruni, “It was clear where the dividing line was in terms of ideology between Bruni and Spellings,” Glenn said. “But what was more illuminating is how much common ground there was.”
The Institute’s work doesn’t stop with speakers. It also sponsors Fellows – political leaders who host eight weekly seminars and hold office hours on campus each week.
Fellows have included Democratic former US Senate candidate Deborah Ross and Thomas Stith III, chief of staff to Republican former Gov. Pat McCrory. Stith, in turn, invited McCrory and conservative political donor Art Pope to seminars with students.
Last semester, the Fellows were Republican former NC Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and Democratic former State Superintendent June Atkinson. Atkinson invited Republican former state Rep. Skip Stam to discuss school vouchers with students.
The Institute also runs several Student Programs:
- Civics in the Triangle, which places undergraduates in 4th– and 5th-grade classrooms to teach weekly civics lessons, as well as Triangle high schools to discuss the importance of voting. Last year, IOP volunteers taught more than 350 elementary and 100 high school students.
- The Carolina Political Review, an online journal that provides students an outlet to share their points of view. It also has featured interviews with former Gov. Jim Hunt, McCrory, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, Stein and Ross.
- And the Tech Team, a collection of tech-savvy undergraduates who build apps or perform other digital projects for nonprofits such as the state NAACP or government agencies such as the NC Department of Public Instruction.
The Institute also arranges internships in nonprofit and government offices as diverse as the NC Justice Center, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Lillian’s List, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office and the Washington offices of Democratic Rep. David Price and Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.
The Institute received more than 340 applications for the 16 internships it sponsored this summer. Selected students working in North Carolina internships receive $3,000, and those in Washington internships receive $4,000. Glenn hopes to grow the number of internships more than 100.
GLENN HIMSELF reflects the political tensions in a purple state. As he sorted out his own political beliefs as a teenager in Clayton, he volunteered for both the NC Republican Party and the NC Democratic Party.
“I’ve worked with so many people from across the political spectrum that it tells you a different story than what the conventional wisdom would tell you about politics,” he said. “Both sides tend to caricature the other.
“We might disagree about how to get there, but nearly everyone involved in politics is positively working toward creating a better community and state.”
Later, as he thought about college, he considered both Harvard and the University of Chicago – each of which had an Institute of Politics.
“I ultimately fell in love with UNC. But when I got here, I didn’t see anything similar on campus,” Glenn said.
A first-year seminar project to write a grant proposal eventually turned into a proposal to form an Institute of Politics at Chapel Hill. The organization has raised nearly $250,000 since May 2017, and Glenn is a Chancellor’s Fellow in South Building trying to see through the Institute’s formation.
Though many students get involved with politics through party organizations on campus, he said, “I thought there was a void there. We needed a space that was truly dedicated to the sharing of ideas and that allows us to share the true range of ideology that is on campus.”
Glenn’s vision for the Institute is a grand one.
“We are, with this initiative, working to engage and inspire the next generation of leaders in politics and public service,” he said.
Another goal that’s too often lacking in current discussions: Civility.
The Institute tries to invite speakers “who can sit next to each other and engage in a conversation that’s not a shouting match,” Glenn said.
“The camaraderie that people develop through these nonpartisan programs underscores the fact that we have to respect and approach each other with a certain level of dignity.”
Glenn stressed the importance of the Student Advisory Board, the team of undergraduate students who develop and oversee the Institute’s programming, in driving the success of its first year.
“We would not be where we are today without the passion and dedication of our student leaders – I am grateful I get to continue working with them,” he said. “The Institute of Politics was built by students, for students, and this is a fundamental principle of our organization that we hope will stand the test of time.”