Art Pope and the Threat to N.C. Higher Ed

The state budget director uses his position to bully UNC


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You may have seen The Washington Post’s long, thorough profile of Art Pope yesterday, outlining in detail the unique position the man holds: Nowhere else in the nation does a wealthy conservative donor and think tank founder hold perhaps the most important job in a state government: budget director.

In the McCrory Administration, the story makes clear, Pope clearly holds the reins of state government, although Pope himself takes great pains to deny it. He insists he defers to Gov. McCrory and merely advises him. That may be technically correct. But as a Republican  lobbyist notes in the story, “He drives the budgetary policy goals of the administration. The governor yields to Art.” It’s something we’ve known for a while now. But it’s comforting to hear someone say it aloud, even if it’s someone who has to conceal his or her identity in fear of backlash.

But that’s not the most important point in the story, much of which people already knew or could intuit. The truly chilling section of Jane Mayer’s 2011 profile of Pope in The New Yorker--the piece that effectively introduced Pope to a national audience--concerned his attempts to apply the boot heel to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina.

Bear with me here. The following is a long section from the last half of Mayer’s piece that’s worth reading, or re-reading, in full (emphasis mine):

Pope’s network has campaigned to slash education budgets, which is a controversial move. George Leef, the director of research at the Center for Higher Education Policy, has described the funding of higher education as “a boondoggle” that robs taxpayers, and Shaw has demanded that the legislature “starve the beast.” Last spring, the Republican majority voted to cut four hundred and fourteen million dollars from the state-university budget—a sixteen-per-cent reduction. Funds were also severely cut for public schools and preschool programs. Even though public opinion overwhelmingly supported leaving a penny sales tax in place, in order to sustain education funding, Republican legislators instituted the cut anyway, overriding a veto by Perdue, the Democratic governor. (Many of the Republicans had signed a no-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Prosperity.) At the university level, the cuts are expected to result in layoffs, tuition hikes, and fewer scholarships, even though the state’s constitution specifically requires that higher education be made as free “as practicable” to all residents. The former U.N.C. president Bill Friday told me that the changes may place higher education out of reach for many poor and middle-income families. “What are you doing, closing the door to them?” he asked. “That’s the war that’s on. It’s against the role that government can play. I think it’s really tragic. That’s what made North Carolina different—it was far ahead. We’re going through a crisis.”

At the same time that Pope’s network has been fighting to get university budgets cut, Pope has offered to fund academic programs in subjects that he deems worthwhile, like Western civilization and free-market economics. Some faculty members have seen Pope’s offers as attempts to buy academic control. Burley Mitchell, a Democratic member of the university system’s board of governors, defended Pope as “seriously interested in the betterment of the university. He’s certainly been a generous supporter.” But in 2004, faculty protested a grant proposal from Pope that would have amounted to as much as twenty-five million dollars, and the proposal was eventually scrapped. Bill Race, the former chairman of the classics department at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill, told me, “The Pope machine is narrow-minded and mean-spirited and poisoned the university.” Pope reacted angrily to the notion that some professors consider his money tainted. “We’re in retailing!” he said. “It’s not as if it’s blood diamonds!”

The issue of academic control surfaced again in September, when the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy offered to help fund a Western-philosophy course that the university had included in budget cuts. At the same time, the center publicly ridiculed other courses, such as one on the culture of the Beat Generation. Some faculty members objected to an outside political organization trying to hold sway over which courses survived. “It’s sad and blatant,” Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, who has been critical of Pope, says. “This is an organization that succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase its leverage and influence over course content.”

Pope, she believes, has already encroached too far on the economics department at N.C. State, where he has donated more than half a million dollars for free-market-related programs. The grant has funded annual lectures, all of which have been given by prominent conservative and free-market thinkers. The speakers are picked by Steven Margolis, the former department chair, and Andrew Taylor, a political-science professor who is a columnist for Carolina Journal, a John Locke Foundation publication. “I’m pretty sure we would not invite Paul Krugman,” Margolis told me. A dozen members of the economics faculty have been listed as “John Locke Foundation Affiliates.” Among them is Roy Cordato, of the John Locke Foundation. His previous research, including a paper he wrote opposing cigarette taxes, was funded, in part, by tobacco companies. Like Pope, he strongly opposes government efforts to combat climate change. Warren says, “I find it incredibly troubling that there are all these faculty members associated with this particular foundation.”

The John Locke Foundation, meanwhile, is sponsoring what it calls the North Carolina History Project, an online teaching tool aimed at reorienting the study of the state’s history away from social movements and government and toward the celebration of the “personal creation of wealth.” Fitzsimon, of NC Policy Watch, says, “It’s all part of Pope’s plan to build up more institutional support for his philosophy. He’s very savvy about not leaving any strategy unaddressed.”

The Post story addresses some of this as well, citing an extraordinary memo Pope sent to UNC’s Board of Governors in February, after the board submitted its budget request. Pope requested “a more realistic proposal.” This is highly unusual for a government budget director. Departments always submit budget requests that surpass what the government is likely to pay for. Reconciling the requests with what the government can fund is the budget director’s job. So what’s the point of sending--and making public--a snotty memo with lines like, “[state law] requires the Board of Governors to submit a ‘budget,’ not ‘needs,’” as if there was a difference?

It’s leash-yanking, is the point. It’s showing the intelligentsia over at Chapel Hill who’s boss. In the process, it’s spitting on the liberal arts, an area of higher education both Pope and McCrory have shown over and over again they neither understand nor value.

That’s one of the reasons why “Poetgate” from last week turned into a far bigger story than it seemed at first. Much of the coverage and debate had a half-joking tone, as if to chuckle that a furor over a Poet Laureate could get people so riled up.

But underneath the chuckling was something more serious, a suspicion that McCrory’s snide references to literary “elite groups” reflects his (and Pope’s) real position on higher education: Humanities are a waste of time and taxpayer dollars, and I can’t stand the hifalutin latte-sippers who defend them.

Remember McCrory’s appearance early last year on Bill Bennett’s national radio show, in which he suggested that UNC system funding should depend “not on how many butts in seats but how many butts can get jobs.” He quickly backtracked, saying he didn’t mean to disparage the UNC system.

Well, he doesn’t need to, does he? He has a guy controlling the purse strings who can do that all by himself. But what sends a shiver up the spine isn’t so much a question of adequate funding but the outcome of making funding dependent on ideology--turning universities into not just four-year trade schools but degree-granting cousins of the conservative think tanks our budget director has founded over the years.

If that’s the goal--and I think it’s pretty apparent that Pope wants to at least turn North Carolina’s universities in that direction, and use his position to make it happen--then we’re facing something much worse than underfunded universities. We’re looking at an ideological demolition of what was one of the best systems of public universities in the nation.

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Charlotte had a Democratic mayor that got rebuffed by a Democratic majority council before the president appointed him to his cabinet; a former mayor in the Governor's Mansion after an oh-for-infinity streak; membership in a state that sees Charlotte as, well, another state; a neighboring state where public officials do very, very silly things (and sometimes go "hiking"); and a county commissioner who specializes in insulting constituents yet can't seem to get himself unelected. Sounds interesting to me, so I write about it and other matters public. Hashtag #nestpoke. You want to yell at me, email nestpoke@gmail.com.

About Greg Lacour

Greg Lacour spent nearly 10 years as a reporter for the Observer, where he covered Charlotte and Mecklenburg County government, including the infamous Nick Mackey for Sheriff farce of 2007-08, which made him simultaneously homesick for his hometown of New Orleans and hopeful that Charlotte might yet attain "world-class" status. He has written several features for this magazine and took part in the Hurricane Katrina coverage that won The Sun Herald of Biloxi/Gulfport, Miss., another former employer, a Pulitzer Prize. Lacour is single and lives in NoDa.

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