What does it take to be named to the 27-member UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions?
Political clout: That explains Republicans Phil Berger and Thom Tillis, among the most powerful people in the Legislature. Business and financial connections: That explains Lew Ebert, president of the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and Robert Ingram, retired executive at GlaxoSmithKline. Big donors: That explains Fred Eshelman, who gave $35 million to the UNC pharmacy school that bears his name.
But there are reasons to be worried about the composition of the committee, whose membership UNC President Tom Ross announced last week. The committee charged with recommending the course for the 17-campus system through 2018—its academic standards, financial planning and overarching mission—includes some of the most powerful Republican operatives in North Carolina politics.
We should be concerned about the committee’s direction not because of its members’ party affiliation—Democrats fill out the panel’s ranks, too—but because of the extent of some of the conservative members’ activism.
Committee members and millionaires Art Pope and Eshelman are not just businessmen, but also political activists who have contributed to arch-conservative groups with an aggressive agenda. By contrast, there is arguably not a Democratic equivalent, in terms of political power or pocketbook, on the committee.
Exhibit A is Pope, the CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a chain of discount stores. As the Indy and the Institute for Southern Studies reported last year, the Pope empire spans across ultra-conservative foundations, think tanks, institutes, media outlets and political campaigns. You can credit, in part, Pope and his significant largesse for ushering in the Republican-majority General Assembly, and for the placement of former staffers of Pope-backed groups in key legislative advisory positions.
Ironically, Pope supports charter schools—raising the cap on them is among his favorite causes. His think tanks have called for deep budget cuts to the UNC system. And yet he sits now on a committee that is setting the moral and fiscal compass of the UNC system.
The Pope Foundation has donated to UNC, giving $3 million to expand its Academic Center for Student Athletes (how’s that working out?). To UNC’s credit, it did rebuff Pope’s offer of a multimillion-dollar grant from the family foundation to expand the university’s offerings in Western studies.
Update: A reader pointed out that UNC faculty and students organized and fought for months to defeat the proposal; they, not the administration, were largely responsible for UNC's rejection of Pope's offer.
The N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, funded by the Pope Foundation, offered $600,000 to another UNC system institution, N.C. Central University, startup money for a constitutional law institute. When NCCU didn’t immediately accept—there was consternation among the law faculty about the possible strings attached to such a proposal—the NCICL withdrew the offer.