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How a Right-Wing Political Machine Is Dismantling Higher Education in North Carolina

What began as isolated ideological attacks is looking more and more like a wholesale gutting of the state’s public colleges.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill seal. What began as isolated ideological attacks is looking more and more like a wholesale gutting of the state's public colleges. (Photo: William Yeung; Edited: LW / TO)

On a Monday afternoon in April, a few dozen people gathered in a windowless room in Raleigh, North Carolina, to discuss the crisis in higher education. As they dug into plates of Tex-Mex, the featured speaker, Jay Schalin, ascended the podium and adjusted his notes. The crisis isn’t cost or access, he informed the room. “The main problem has to do with the ideas that are being discussed and promoted,” Schalin explained, those being “multiculturalism, collectivism, left-wing post-modernism.”

Schalin is the director of policy analysis at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education, a right-wing think tank funded by discount-store magnate Art Pope, the conservative kingmaker who helped flip the state legislature to the Republicans in 2010 and bankrolled the 2012 election of Republican Governor Pat McCrory. The organization that hosted Schalin’s lecture, the John Locke Foundation, is also funded by Pope’s family foundation. As I walked into the building, I passed the local office of Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group founded by Charles and David Koch; Pope once chaired its national board. Two blocks away is the John W. Pope Civitas Institute and Civitas Action, another Pope-funded think tank and dark-money group, respectively.

Though Pope’s tentacles reach into many state institutions now, his empire of conservative idea-factories was originally established to counter what he and his associates perceived as liberal bias in the North Carolina’s university system, as Jane Mayer reported in a 2011 profile in The New Yorker. Pope’s interest in UNC goes back to his father, a trustee at UNC–Chapel Hill, who believed that the university, as Mayer reported, had been “taken over by radical scholars.” Pope himself made a bid for a seat on UNC’s Board of Governors in 1995. He was rebuffed. So he turned his attention upstream, to the North Carolina state legislature, which appoints the 32-member board. When Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010—for the first time since 1870—Pope’s network looked less like a counterweight to campus liberalism than a conservative wrecking ball aimed at the entire state.

Up at the podium, Schalin laid out part of the Pope Center’s vision for “renewal at the university,” which, he argued, could be achieved through the propagation of privately funded academic centers. In a related report Schalin described how these centers would balance “academia’s gradual purging” of courses dedicated to “liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives,” more specifically by supplanting the “French communist[s]” Derrida, Bourdieu, and Foucault with Ayn Rand. Schalin assured his audience that these centers wouldn’t be political—though, he said, “when you study capitalism on an objective basis, you are going to notice this very strong correlation between prosperity and capitalism—and that’s okay to bring up.”

What Schalin does not think is okay is advocacy, and on that point he acknowledged an elephant in the room. “There’s no way we can discuss academic centers without bringing up a certain academic center,” he said. Knowing chuckles rippled through the crowd. He was talking about the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, housed at UNC Chapel Hill and run by law professor Gene Nichol, a disparaging critic of the state’s conservative leadership. Schalin ridiculed the Poverty Center for working as an “advocate for the poor,” which, he said, was “actually a reason for getting rid of it.”

And that’s exactly what UNC’s Board of Governors had done, just weeks earlier. At a tense public meeting in Charlotte in late February, the board voted unanimously to close the poverty center and two other academic institutes—one dedicated to civic engagement and another to biodiversity. (Twenty-four of the current board’s 32 members are white men, the vast majority are Republicans, and many have contributed tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to the legislators who appointed them.) Nichol, who teaches constitutional law and federal court issues had long been a target of Pope-backed groups and the Republican legislature, which had ordered the Board of Governors to consider redirecting $15 million from the 240 centers on the 16 university campuses in the UNC system—a move suggested by Civitas in June 2014, and by Pope himself that September.

The board denies politics motivated their decision to close the centers. But it wasn’t for financial reasons; the three centers are funded largely through private grants, and the closures will save the state just $6,000 a year. “It’s hard to examine the board’s February action through any thing other than a political lens,” Hannah Gage, a former chair of the Board of Governors who serves now in an emeritus position, wrote in an e-mail. “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”

There are a number of other quacking ducks, notably the sudden and unexplained firing of UNC President Tom Ross in January. The board and the legislature’s two-step has sparked a public outcry over intellectual freedom. But just as pertinent as the question of what should be taught at UNC is the question of whom. Since its founding in 1789 as America’s first public university, UNC has fought to preserve the “public” part of its mission; high-quality education plus low tuition has kept more students in-state in North Carolina than anywhere else in the country. Now the board appears to be dismantling the system’s ability to fulfill that goal.

In response to deep cuts to state funding, the board has approved a series of tuition hikes—in-state students will pay 4.3 percent more next year on average—while imposing a cap on financial aid that may impact nearly 22,000 low-income students next year. Governor McCrory has suggested that schools compensate by limiting enrollment to “those who are ready for college,” a distinction that smacks of euphemism. Despite these austere times, the board voted in April to boost the salaries of top administrators to as much as $1 million a year.

The goal, apparently, is not only to put Ayn Rand into the hands of students but also to force UNC into the sort of economic order she envisioned. It matches the agenda that the legislature and McCrory have advanced throughout the state with the backing of the Pope network: cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and use the resulting revenue gap to justify the evisceration of safety-net programs like unemployment insurance, and public institutions like schools. “You can’t separate what’s happening at the Board of Governors from what’s happening in the legislature,” Gene Nichol said over the phone in March. “They govern for the white, wealthy, straight Christians, mostly for the males, and all the rest be damned.”

“We’re capitalists,” explained Steven Long, a former Civitas board member who now sits on the Board of Governors, after the body voted in May to cut dozens of academic programs across the system. “We have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.”


If there is a crisis at UNC, many professors and students perceive it not as a scarcity of Ayn Rand but of money. North Carolina’s constitution directs the legislature to “provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” But since 2008, the state has cut its higher education spending per-student by 25 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Public Priorities. Tuition went up by nearly 35 percent over the same period.

The Board of Governors has gone out of its way to make it difficult for schools to lighten the burden of rising tuition for students. In August, after less than 10 minutes of discussion, the board voted to cap the amount of tuition revenue that universities can direct to need-based financial aid at 15 percent. Five schools already spend more than that, including UNC Chapel Hill, which currently draws over 20 percent of tuition revenue into aid. The school’s Office of Scholarship and Student Aid estimates the new limit will double the average student’s debt.

“If only the wealthiest and whitest come to UNC Chapel Hill, all the better. That doesn’t trouble them at all,” Nichol said when I met him in April at the off-campus office building that houses the poverty center, which he took over in 2008 after a stint as the president of the College of William & Mary. A former college football player, Nichol is imposing both in his physicality and in manner of speaking. “He has the capacity to rivet attention,” Jack Boger, the dean of law school at Chapel Hill, told me when I asked what made Nichol so controversial—particularly in his writing. In 2013, Nichol wrote a monthly column for the Raleigh News and Observer highlighting North Carolina’s concentrated poverty, which has risen more sharply there over the last decade than in any other state. North Carolina ranked 26th for poverty in 2003; by 2013 the state was the 12th poorest in the country, with over 18 percent of the population below the poverty line, including 40 percent of children of color.

He also publicly excoriated Governor McCrory and the General Assembly for launching “a war on poor people…which is virtually unprecedented in modern times,” as he put it when we spoke. In the three years since Republicans took over the state they’ve blocked 500,000 people from Medicaid, shrunk the employment insurance program down smaller than any other state’s, shut 30,000 children out of preschool, eliminated tax credits that primarily benefit low- and middle-income families, and passed one of the most stringent voter-suppression laws in the country. Nichol did not gloss over his contempt. “McCrory may be a smiling back-slapper, but he’s also a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus,” he wrote in an op-ed on voting rights in October 2013.

The comparison enraged the state’s right-wing leadership. “Gene Nichols [sic] is at it again!! Pat called from Mississippi this morning,” board member Ed McMahan wrote to chairman Peter Hans, referring to the governor. Pope’s cronies piled on, and Civitas filed an open-records request for months of Nichol’s emails. Boger, the law school dean, alerted Nichol that legislators were threatening to find a way to close the center or remove him as director if he didn’t stop writing his column. “This guy is going to be a major pain in the took us for those of you who really love UNC and want to see more cooperation with the people who are probably going to be in majority control of the legislature for the next decade,” a Republican political strategist warned Chapel Hill trustees.

Though the board’s efforts to silence Nichol captured most of the press attention, its actions towards other academic centers have been equally troubling. One of the other centers singled out for closure, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University—founded by civil- rights leader Julius Chambers—is run by Jarvis Hall, a leader in the North Carolina NAACP and a friend of Reverend William Barber II of the Moral Mondays movement. Hall, Nichol and others suspect that this affiliation made him a target. Like the poverty center, the institute receives no taxpayer funding. It promotes civic engagement and voter empowerment, objectives at odds with the General Assembly’s priorities vis-à-vis voter ID.

“When you just look at the basic missions and names that have been targeted, it really gives you an indication of the direction of the Board of Governors, and the state legislature,” Hall said. “The message that is sent is that we don’t want young African-American and Latino and other grassroots people to participate. That is the core message that appears from this decision [to close the institute]. And this is something we think should not go unanswered.”

The Board of Governors has sent other signals that it is paying special attention to academic programs that focus on minorities. The board singled out the Center for Civil Rights, a legal-aid group at UNC– Chapel Hill law school, for an extended review to take place this year. Steven Long, the former Civitas board member, launched a diatribe at a February meeting against the center, which focuses on the continuing impacts of residential segregation and racial exclusion and often represents low-income plaintiffs. Long wanted to know why the center focused on racial equality rather than “other civil rights,” such as religious freedom and the right to bear arms. Referencing a school segregation case the center had filed Long asked, “Why is UNC–Chapel Hill suing Pitt County, when we’re here to serve the state and not sue the state?”

The center’s managing attorney, Mark Dorosin, speculates that the board is trying to find a way to prevent the center from suing state agencies. “If you’re civil-rights lawyers trying to help communities address the structural racism that they face, you want to attack that problem with the full range of tools available, and one of those tools is litigation,” he said. “If the idea is that the law school shouldn’t be engaged in advocacy, that’s a much bigger conversation than the Center for Civil Rights.”

Board members have also threatened North Carolina’s five public historically black colleges and universities, which enroll a higher proportion of low-income students than other schools (and have serious financial troubles of their own). In March, the board announced that it would conduct a system-wide review that could result in campus closures or consolidation. Member Harry Smith Jr. told a reporter that HBCUs would be a focus of this “right-sizing,” as he called it. “It’s hard not to think race is a factor,” Chris Fitzsimon, the director of the progressive organization NC Policy Watch, said in response. Nichol was more blunt. “It’s unsurprising that [conservative leaders] would quickly turned on the HBCUs, as they have turned on people of color in every other area.”

The backlash to Long’s comment was perhaps more than the board expected. Two members I asked to comment privately on plans regarding the HBCUs at the April board meeting denied that any of those campuses were being considered for closure.

* * *

The board made its most perplexing move in January, when UNC President Tom Ross appeared at a press conference alongside John Fennebresque, the chair of the Board of Governors, to announce that he’d been asked for and had submitted his resignation. Fennebresque praised Ross’s work ethic and his “perfect integrity,” but he was, and the board continues to be, unable to explain Ross’s termination beyond saying it was time for a leadership change. “That’s indicative of the power they feel they have—they didn’t even have to state [a reason],” said Mark Driscoll, an associate professor in International Studies at Chapel Hill and the president of UNC branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ross is a Democrat, but Driscoll described him as a “patrician liberal”—hardly a firebrand like Nichol, a characterization that other UNC faculty members affirmed.

“Everybody’s kind of watching to see, how serious is this threat?” said Jack Boger. “What we heard was two cracks of thunder. What everyone is waiting for is another one of these. Then, I think we’d have a thunderstorm and things would get much worse. Or maybe this is just summer and it’s headed in another direction.” Hannah Gage wrote to me, “I think folks got a bad case of ‘genenicholitis,’ have gotten most of it out of their system, and are sensitive to ‘overreaching.’” In the last month Fennebresque has adopted a conciliatory tone in public. He’s described himself as a “a big believer in liberal arts,” decried the legislature’s budget cuts, and suggested that faculty should get a raise. (Fennebresque did not respond to a request for comment. Ross declined to be interviewed.)

Simmering in the background is a power struggle within North Carolina’s Republican party, which is most obvious in the acrimonious relationship between Governor McCrory and Senate president Phil Berger, who represents an even more conservative, rurally based wing of the state GOP. The two have recently clashed over business incentives, the budget, and corporate taxes, which Berger wants to reduce further. McCrory, who is up for reelection in 2016, and other business-oriented Republicans from urban districts appear uneasy about overreach. But extreme gerrymandering has allowed other Republican legislators to “go off the deep end,” as one progressive activist put it.

The Pope network is far from satisfied—not with the state legislature, nor with the changes at UNC. “Stuffed with pork barrel spending” is how Civitas characterized a budget proposal released by the Republican-led House in May that would cut UNC’s budget by another $26 million When I approached Schalin after his lecture, he referred to the Board of Governors as “cowardly little—you know.” He elaborated, “They closed three [academic centers]. They could have closed 20.”

* * *

Of all the non-explanations the Board of Governors has offered for its actions, Frennebresque’s defense of the closure of the poverty center was the most absurd. “[T]he center was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty,” he wrote in The Charlotte Observer. Frennebresque went on to praise other parts of the university system, such as the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at Chapel Hill, for being “actively engaged in combating poverty.”

It’s not hard to trace the impact of the Poverty Center. Adjacent to the UNC Chapel Hill campus are the offices of the Community Empowerment Fund, a nonprofit run by UNC alums that covers gaps in access to financial services for low-income people, who often can’t access traditional banking structures or have been exploited by them. Poverty Center staff helped CEF get off the ground in 2009. Today, some 300 homeless and near-homeless people have over $300,000 in savings accounts facilitated by CEF. More than a hundred student volunteers meet weekly with them to help them secure housing and health insurance, and reenter the workforce. “The Poverty Center gave us legitimacy,” Jon Young, CEF’s operations coordinator, told me. “I didn’t know any of this—what it was like to be low-income, to not be an upper-middle-class white male. I wouldn’t have known that if not for influences like the Poverty Center.”

When I visited Chapel Hill in April, professors were circulating small powder-blue stickers to place on their office doors, identifying them as “branch offices” of the Center. There are now more than 60 branches—defined as two or more professors and students collaborating on research or teaching about poverty—across the UNC system, including UNC-Pembroke and UNC-Greensboro. Law professor Tamar Birckhead told me that she can’t remember any other issue that united students and faculty as the board’s recent actions have. “It’s a right-wing Republican-controlled operation at this point, and no one can really stand in their way. But we’re going to continue to speak out. I feel I’ve got no choice when things like this are happening,” she said.

If the conservative machine in Raleigh is unable to stifle discussion of poverty, it may still be able to put what was once one of the great and affordable university systems out of reach for many of the state’s aspiring students. “We can’t afford to go to other schools,” a student named Vashti Hinton told me. Hinton’s first-choice school, UNC Charlotte, was already too expensive, so she ended up at A&T, one of the five HBCUs. “I found myself there,” she said. “I met teachers who saw me. They taught me how to be vocal, opinionated, how to have these conversations—to stand up for myself.” That might be exactly what Raleigh is afraid of.

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