The Pope Machine's UNC Takeover

The right-wing plan for North Carolina higher ed has been apparent for years
University of North Carolina

Of course the decision to push Tom Ross out as president of the UNC system was political—more accurately, ideological. There’s never been any real doubt about the attitude of Art Pope and the far right-wing element in the General Assembly toward higher education: It’s a glorified community college, where the young people of the Old North State can learn job skills along with their Milton Friedman, the better to stock the populace with folks who never stop to wonder whether trickle-down theory never seems to actually work.

You could tell a couple of years back, when newly inaugurated Gov. Pat McCrory went on William Bennett’s radio show to share his view of higher education as a tool not to educate in any broad sense but to get “butts in jobs.” You knew even before that, when The New Yorker took a close look at the extent of Pope’s influence. I’ve quoted these paragraphs before, and I’m going to again, because they illustrate how the right-wing experiment on higher ed in this state involves far more than substituting some people in leadership spots:

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.”

It’s bad enough when the governing board of one of the country’s best systems of public universities, in effect, fires a president the board’s chairman admits served with distinction. The party that holds unchallenged political power in North Carolina is trying to reshape the UNC system in its own image—by, ultimately, restricting the kinds of ideas that can even be discussed.

That, far more than Tom Ross’s career, is what ought to scare the hell out of anyone who cares about the system and the state it serves.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest