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 BACKGROUNDER

For immediate use

Feb. 25, 2004 -- No. 96

Summer Reading Program book
panel scheduled to pick selection

Members of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Summer Reading Program Book Selection Committee are expected to choose today between two books emerging from deliberations that began last fall.

Under consideration are "Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point," by David Lipsky, a novelist and Rolling Stone magazine contributing writer, and "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age," by Bill McKibben, an author. Those titles remained contenders from a list of five finalists trimmed by the committee during a three-and-a-half-hour meeting Sunday. The panel will forward its recommendation to the co-chairs of the New Student Program Steering Committee, which includes the reading program, for final review and approval.

As part of its summer reading program, UNC asks all new students -- about 3,500 freshmen and 800 transfers -- to read a book and come prepared to participate in small group discussions led by trained faculty and staff the day before fall semester classes begin. The non-credit assignment, an academic icebreaker, is voluntary. This year’s discussion groups will be held Aug. 23, the day before fall semester classes begin.

UNC’s program focuses on discussion and dialogue, not the book itself. "Our responsibility to students is to provide an atmosphere in which they can deepen their sense of themselves and the complex, often contradictory, world around them," Chancellor James Moeser says. "That is what the Summer Reading Program is designed to do. We want to create an intellectual climate in which students themselves can come to their own conclusions and turn information into insight."

This year’s nine-member book selection committee is equally represented by undergraduates, faculty and staff and chaired by Dr. Jan Bardsley, associate professor of Asian studies. Members started with a list of nearly 500 books covering a diverse group of topics, authors and viewpoints. The list represented suggestions over the life of the program from participants (students and volunteer discussion group leaders), members of the university community and others. The list also drew from books used by other colleges and universities for similar programs. Book recommendations from the campus community included more than 100 suggestions resulting from a campuswide email inviting input sent last November.

The committee’s criteria for selecting a book include finding a work that will be intellectually stimulating to 18-year-old students and provoke thoughtful discussion. Other priorities are that the book should be engaging, relatively short and easy to read and address a topic or them that students can apply to themselves, such as societal issues.

The committee’s meetings have been regularly attended in recent weeks by observers including a student reporter and a representative from the Raleigh-based Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Although the university's position is that the committee does not meet the criteria for being subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law, Moeser and UNC vice chancellors felt strongly that an open process was in the best interest of the university and the committee. They said an open process would help the campus

community and the public better understand the care and thoughtfulness that goes into the choice. They also said such an approach was appropriate for a public university, especially since secrecy only contributes to suspense about the process as well as controversy.

When the book selection committee makes its selection, a resource development group will be formed from among faculty with expertise on the book’s topic and staff to identify resources for the reading program Web site and for use by new students and discussion group leaders. That group will also recommend related programs at Carolina during the early fall semester.

The summer reading program (www.unc.edu/srp), now in its sixth year, was among recommendations from a faculty task force convened by the late Chancellor Michael Hooker in the 1990s to enhance the intellectual climate at Carolina. Other major recommendations implemented included a first-year seminar program, in which new students tackle academic subjects in depth for an entire semester with senior faculty, and an Office of Undergraduate Research.

Since 1999, the summer reading program choices have been "There Are No Children Here" by Alex Kotlowitz, "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman, "Approaching the Qur’an" by Michael Sells and "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich -- all nonfiction.

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Contacts: Mike McFarland and the News Services staff, (919) 962-2091