In the 1990s, retail-chain magnate John W. Pope complained that the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus had been taken over by radical professors. At the time, Pope was a member of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and one of the wealthiest men in the South. He also considered himself a reformer, who would have transformed the state’s public university system a into free-market laboratory. But the radical reform he envisioned was illusory. He was a Republican in a state still dominated by centrists and conservative Democrats.
When Pope died in 2006, his passion for free-market reform and his retail-store chain were inherited by his son, Art.
Today, Art Pope runs the family business and funds a network of political-action committees and advocacy groups that pumped more than $2 million into the 2010 and 2012 statewide elections, helping to elect Governor Pat McCrory in 2012 and ushering in Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Since 2012, the General Assembly has reduced higher-education funding by $400,000; cut 10,000 teachers and teaching assistants in the state’s public schools; eliminated preschool for 30,000 children; and raised the working-class tax rate while reducing taxes for the top 5 percent. North Carolina legislators has also passed one of the most restrictive ballot-access laws in the nation.
Like his father, Art Pope is a proponent of free-market higher education reform. He founded the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in memory of his father. A year ago, we described some of the reforms proposed in a Pope Center report: reducing general-education classes from 4,000 to 717; constraining humanities professors “who teach their own brands of superficial or false economics and political theory”; and introducing a core curriculum grounded in the Western canon and focused on the writing of “Hobbes, Locke, Smith, and Burke.” The university system should meet the needs of the state’s workforce and turn out “productive, and engaged professional-level workers.” Public-policy experts at the center also urged university administrators to add more courses on capitalist theory and the morality of capitalism.
“They don’t share the mission this university has taken very seriously: our commitment to provide access to poor and working-class students, our broad commitment to community. They will end the public mission at the core of what this university system represents.”
While the GOP-led legislature has dramatically cut higher-education funding, there are still obstacles to remaking the UNC system in the Pope-mold. Tom Ross is one. The political moderate is the president of the UNC system and a defender of the educational values the system represents. With Ross running the 17 campuses that make up the UNC system, the radical reforms envisioned by Pope’s education-policy advocates would come slowly.
“This board believes Tom Ross has been a wonderful president. Fantastic work ethic. Perfect integrity,” University of North Carolina Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque told reporters gathered in a conference room on the UNC campus on January 16.
Next to him sat Ross, a popular university president with an impeccable resume: he had been a superior court judge, director of a foundation with a $400-million endowment, and president of Davidson College before accepting the top job at UNC, from which he was now being fired.
The man who fired Ross, John Fennebresque, is a North Carolina transplant. Originally a New Yorker who attended undergraduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, Fennebreque is a managing partner at a large law firm and has served on the Board of Governors since 2011. Throughout the press conference, he was as opaque and evasive with reporters as he was effusive in his praise for the man he was firing.
Everyone in the room understood what was unfolding.
The 32 members of the North Carolina University System Board of Governors are appointed to four-year terms by the General Assembly, with the upper and lower chambers each confirming 16 candidates. The terms of board governors appointed by Democrats had expired. The board that dismissed Ross was assembled by Republican legislators.
Tom Ross is a Democrat. He had served as executive director of the Z. Reynolds Smith Foundation, described by Art Pope’s Civitas Institute as an agent of “extreme and sometimes radical progressive activism that most groups try to sugarcoat with benign and benevolent sounding names.”
Ross not only came from the wrong side of the ideological tracks. His philosophy of education didn’t square with what is current in North Carolina. Two months after he was pushed out, he took a not-too-subtle swing at the free-market educational philosophy that’s gaining ground there.
“We increasingly view our colleges and universities as nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment for consumers,” he said in a speech in Raleigh. “Places that only train people for the workforce. We hear constant calls to drive out costs and produce more product at less cost.”
The speech also appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer.
New Board, New Direction
“This is not about Tom Ross, per se,” UNC Law School Professor Tamar Birckhead told me. “This is about a group of people on the Board of Governors who are placeholders for Republicans in the General Assembly.
“They [legislators and members of the Board of Governors] came out and said they don’t see any intrinsic value in learning that is not tied to the capitalist system.”
That vision of higher education clashes with UNC’s long-held social mission. The system’s first campus at Chapel Hill, chartered the year of George Washington’s inauguration, has built a reputation for academic excellence, low tuition, and outreach to minority and economically disadvantaged students.
The flagship Chapel Hill campus regularly places in the top 10 “Public Ivy” rankings—state colleges where students receive the equivalent of an Ivy League education. It also has established a “Carolina Covenant” that promises “eligible low income students who earn admission the opportunity to graduate from Carolina debt-free.”
Reductions in funding, Birckhead said, including the $400,000 cut by the General Assembly since 2012, are driving tuition up and will make the university less accessible to working-class and poor Carolinians.
“We are unique,” she said. “Michigan, Berkeley, Virginia, their tuition is many times higher than ours. We keep tuition down by funding in large part from the General Assembly.”
Funding higher education at current levels certainly won’t continue. One Pope Center white paper describes public spending on education as a “transfer of wealth from taxpayers in general to those families who take advantage of the low-cost UNC system … that works to the detriment of private colleges and universities.”
For now, Ross has imposed a 5 percent annual cap on tuition increases. But within the year, he will be replaced. He has been offered a tenured position in the political science department.
Muzzling a Critic
With Ross sidelined, the Board of Governors went to work.
In February, acting on the recommendations of the working group it had created to audit 240 university academic centers, the Board of Governors voted to close three: the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University; the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University; and the Center for Poverty, Work & Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill. The committee also issued a warning to the UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights.
The board’s actions sent a chilling message to the professoriate in the state’s public universities: those who stand in the way of North Carolina’s hard turn to the right could be punished.
Closing the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change was predictable; its director, Jarvis Hall, is also the political director for the North Carolina NAACP and had participated in a statewide “poverty tour” coordinated by the Center Poverty, Work & Opportunity two years ago. The Center for Biodiversity might be incorporated into another department.
The larger target was a tenured law school professor who has served as director of the Center for Poverty, Work & Opportunity at Chapel Hill since it was founded in 2005.
Gene Nichol is a tall, stocky man, with longish hair graying at the temples. The son of a Mesquite, Texas, sharecropper, he has served a dean at two law schools and briefly as president of the College of William & Mary. He writes a regular column for the Raleigh News & Observer and works with the Moral Monday interfaith movement founded and directed by Rev. William Barber II.
Nichol has also been a relentless and vocal critic of the General Assembly’s dismantling of the social safety net.
Nichol is a perennial target of advocacy groups funded by Art Pope. As we reported in April 2014, the Pope-funded Civitas Institute used the state’s open-records law to file a public request for six weeks of Nichol’s emails, text messages and phone records. Jane Shaw, director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, published Nichol’s salary, and that of his wife, who directs the university’s Health Care Center.
“The capstone of this careening toward ideological ignorance will be Art Pope’s ascension to the head of the UNC system. He has wanted to change how universities operate for a long time now, and his opportunities to do so are multiplying by the minute.”
The recommendation to close the center, in fact, can be found in a 2015 John William Pope Center report that accused Nichol of “using his position to fiercely attack specific Republican policies and personalities.” The report also described the Center for Poverty, Work & Opportunity as “intensely political.”
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC system President Ross, the Dean of the Law School and more than 150 members of the faculty took issue with the closing of the center, which operates on an annual budget of $109,000, contributed by outside sources.
“This is old-school stuff,” Nichols told me in a telephone interview. “My dean was required to call me in during the legislative session to tell me about threats from Republican legislators. If I didn’t stop writing my column in the News & Observer, they were going to remove me from the Poverty Center and move the center out of Chapel Hill. Later, they threatened to close the center if I spoke at Moral Monday.”
A Repressive Atmosphere
Perhaps more important than the closing of the three centers, the Board of Governors issued a warning to the UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights, describing its litigation as partisan advocacy. The board then ordered the center to “define [its] policies around advocacy [to] conform with university regulations.”
Founded by Julius Chambers, a civil-rights litigator whose home, car, and office were firebombed between 1965 and 1971, the center has been critically important to the civil-rights movement in the state. Its current director, Theodore Shaw, is a former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (“Ted Shaw is a civil-rights legend,” a UNC Law School professor told me.) Shaw left a position on the Columbia Law School faculty to direct the center in Chapel Hill.
Shaw’s work antagonized one board member in particular, Steven Long, who served on the working group evaluating the academic centers. Long confronted Shaw at a January hearing, with a long list of grievances.
The center had filed an amicus brief in a school voucher lawsuit, failing to represent both sides of the issue; the center represented African-American parents who claimed that a North Carolina county school district failed to create racially balanced school. The center, Long complained, has failed to defend the right to bear arms and freedom of religion, which are also civil rights.
Long, an attorney, had served on the Board of Directors of the Civitas Institute. (A secretary in Long’s office told me Long could not speak and that John Fennebresque is answering all questions from the press. Fennebredque did not respond to phone calls and emails.)
Shaw’s point-by-point rebuttal of the Board of Governor’s report included a response to Long’s risible notion that attorneys from the Center for Civil Rights should represent both sides of a litigated case. But Shaw has been put on notice. And university administrators were ordered to monitor the Center for Civil Rights’ “advocacy.”
“The Board of Governors and the Art Pope machine, which are not entirely separate things, have created a fearful atmosphere at the university in which ordinary ‘outside writing’ is seen as likely to incite retaliation,” explains Tim Tyson, a visiting professor at Duke University and a member of Rev. Barber’s inner circle. Tyson added that, “The repressive atmosphere in the UNC system has come to such a state that the university felt afraid for Nichol to speak without making a disclaimer.”
The board, in fact, is largely made up of business owners and lawyers who have provided financial support to Republican candidates. Fennebresque, for example, has contributed $265,000, almost all to Republican candidates, since 2004.
“These folks are petty tyrants,” Nichol said. “The Board of Governors, more of an occupying force than a governing board, doesn’t share the mission that this university has taken very seriously: our commitment to provide access to poor and working-class students, our broad commitment to community. They will end the public mission that is at the core of what this university system represents.”
“The capstone of this careening toward ideological ignorance will be Art Pope’s ascension to the head of the UNC system,” Tyson wrote in an email. “He has wanted to change how universities operate for a long time now, and his opportunities to do so are multiplying by the minute.”
Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator.