The Initiation of Pat McCrory

The governor issues a clarion call to turn UNC into a community college with more trees
Gage Skidmore via Flickr

If you’re a freshly minted governor, having run on a job-creation platform, and you’re serious about investing in vocational and high-tech training for your state’s workforce, you throw your office’s resources behind an expansion and overhaul of your state’s community college system.

If you’re “looking for engineers, looking for technicians, looking for mechanics,” you pledge to fully support the science and technology-focused land grant university that happens to be in the city you now reside in.

But if you want to get the nation’s plutocrats moaning with pleasure, you go on Bill Bennett’s radio show and punch some hippies.

There’s no need to go into the details here — a goodly portion of the state’s degreed citizens are losing their assorted religions as we speak, and Inside Higher Ed has a nice piece here on the broader movement around the country to cast liberal arts education as an impediment to job growth. How serious is McCrory? I have my doubts. Bennett’s show seems an odd place to bust out with something this contentious, and as a practical matter, how would one tie university funding to its success in putting “butts in jobs”? How would the university keep track of it? If someone earned a history degree from UNC Greensboro and went to work at Starbucks for a year, would that count?

I suspect this is more about sending a signal to the upper-crust national conservatives who listen to Bennett’s show that Pat McCrory’s on board with the whole “get a real job” movement, that he’s not the light rail-loving squish he was as mayor of Charlotte and toes the line, at least philosophically, on the right-wing think tank idea of the American people as a colony of worker bees. (Just before he started talking about education, McCrory told Bennett this: “I learned as a mayor that you can use the bully pulpit — sway public opinion, push an agenda, and if you’re not willing to do that, you shouldn’t be in the job.”)

Then again, implementing more vocational programs in the UNC system would fit nicely with our new budget director’s vision of higher ed as subservient to commerce:

[Art] 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.”

Maybe McCrory really does want to turn publicly funded higher education in North Carolina into just another data-driven vocational program (at which point it wouldn’t be higher ed anymore, would it?). That would, in effect, leave the liberal arts to those rich or willing to shoulder debt enough to afford such degree programs at private schools. At that point, we could expect the creative class professionals who have flocked to North Carolina in recent years to start looking elsewhere, and talented North Carolinians to leave. A lot of those folks, turns out, have liberal arts degrees.

And those folks tend to bristle at the idea of themselves as merely “obedient workers.” Take us out, George.

Update: My colleague Lisa Rab points out that this mirrors similar “results-based” higher ed funding plans initiated by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (In fact, look at this, from October 2011: Scott taking to the radio and using some of the same language to denigrate non-trade degrees. This appears to be the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-dominated nonprofit and factory for corporation-friendly legislation in statehouses throughout the country.) I suppose I’m naive, but I really didn’t think, less than three weeks into his term, that we’d be mentioning Pat McCrory in the same breath as those two.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest