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Compromising curriculum? 

The Pope Foundation wants to fund a new program in Western civilization at UNC. But some faculty say the foundation's conservative backers have made an offer that should be refused.

A proposal for a new undergraduate "Studies in Western Civilization" program at UNC-Chapel Hill got a skeptical hearing last week before a select group of faculty. Organizers of the Sept. 28 meeting say it wasn't so much the proposal's academic merit that raised concern as the source of potential funding: the John William Pope Foundation in Raleigh. "The main issue was the donors," says Reid Barbour, an English professor who chairs the College of Arts and Sciences committee that presented the proposal.

The Pope Foundation is the philanthropic arm of former Republican state legislator Art Pope and his father, John Pope Sr. --both of whom are UNC graduates. It's part of a network of conservative organizations created with Pope family money that includes the John Locke Foundation and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which recently opened an office in Chapel Hill.

The Pope Center has been sharply critical of UNC's undergraduate requirements as being low on Western civilization and high on multiculturalism. In a recent publication called "How Solid is the Core?" the center disparages general education requirements at 11 campuses of the UNC system, including Chapel Hill, noting that only 36 percent require some type of Western history or Western civilization course while 64 percent require a multicultural or cultural diversity course. The latter it describes as "all too often an exercise in politically correct 'education.'"

In the past two years, the Pope Center has also helped organize a campaign against freshmen reading choices at UNC and has supported student claims of "liberal bias" in the classroom. The center's upcoming annual conference will feature a speech by David Horowitz, a leader in the push for a national "Academic Bill of Rights" aimed at securing equal time for conservative views on campus.

That critical drumbeat is what led many who attended last week's faculty meeting to question the implications of taking money from the Pope Center's financial backers for academic programs at UNC. "What does it say about a university if its leaders accept 'gifts' from those who support organizations that systematically attack the university's faculty and programs?" says Sherryl Kleinman, a sociology professor who was among those invited to the presentation.

While committee members gave assurances that the new program was designed without input from the Pope Foundation, meeting attendees pointed out that the foundation gave the College of Arts and Sciences a $25,000 "planning grant" to create the blueprint.

"When we asked 'Why was this Western civilization program being proposed?' we were told 'It's because the Popes might be responsive to such a proposal,'" says Steve Wing, an associate professor of epidemiology who was invited to the meeting through his membership in the Progressive Faculty Network. "So, although on the one hand there was an attempt by committee members to distance themselves from the Popes, their center and their politics, on the other hand it seemed clear that the topic and form of the proposal were chosen with the Popes in mind. It's very contradictory."

UNC administrators defend their decision to seek Pope Foundation backing for "Studies in Western Civilization," which is designed as an interdisciplinary program emphasizing study abroad and a two-semester "gateway course" in Western history and culture.

"This is an opportunity to do something that would enrich the undergraduate curriculum," says Bernadette Gray-Little, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "The proposal is neither conservative nor liberal. Our interest in this is not political."

Pope Foundation leaders say their interest in the program stems from a long-term commitment to undergraduate education, particularly "Western Studies."

"To me it's a very positive step to be offering fellowships, research grants--that's just all very positive for the university," says Art Pope, the foundation's president. "I will be disappointed if it's found to be controversial."

At least one aspect of last week's meeting suggests organizers may have been expecting controversy. Their first order of business was to close the gathering to the press.

Gray-Little, who was not in attendance, defends that decision, too. "This was a meeting of the faculty to discuss a curriculum issue," she says. "Those are not usually public meetings."

But Chuck Stone, a journalism professor who arrived after the press had been ousted, disagrees. He says he told conveners, "I'm here illegally. State law prevents you from doing this. The only exception to open meetings is when you're discussing personnel."

In addition to raising red flags about its funding source, faculty at the meeting also questioned the academic aims of the proposed Western civilization program. The "mission" of the curriculum is to "examine and interrogate the cultures and traditions of the West through sustained and rigorous encounters with primary texts and art forms," according to a four-page draft passed out at last week's meeting. It describes an academic program that will "feature a distinctive emphasis on study abroad and foreign languages," and will encourage students to explore "the meaning and boundaries of the 'West.'"

But some faculty who attended the presentation felt the proposal gave too vague a definition of what constitutes "the West."

"We weren't given a clear sense of whether this is something spatial or ideological," says William "Sandy" Darity Jr., an economics professor and director of the Institute of African American Research, who was among those invited to the meeting. "What distinguishes this from European studies?"

Others expressed doubts about adding a program in Western civilization when the direction of current policy debates argues for a broader, global focus to undergraduate study.

"In the highly charged environment of conflict espoused by current political leaders and embraced by the recent September 11 Commission report, cultural conflict and the imposition of 'Western civilization' on the rest of the world is a major theme," says Carl Ernst, a professor of religious studies, echoing comments he says he made at last week's meeting. "I just don't think it is possible to discuss setting up a new curriculum in Western civilization without facing these political agendas."

Some who attended the meeting left wondering whether there are agendas at work in how the proposal is being shaped. "I'm a bit concerned that this may already be a done deal," Darity says. "I don't think the committee has been told that. But I'm afraid that may be the case."

One key unanswered question is where the idea for the new curriculum originated. Art Pope says the discussion started in the university development office. When UNC fundraisers approached him and his father about making a donation to the "Carolina First" capital campaign, the Popes expressed their preference for contributing through their foundation to some aspect of undergraduate education.

"In the give and take of discussions, we thought perhaps we would do a program in the area of Western studies for a commitment of five years," Art Pope says. "We made a grant like that to North Carolina State this past fall. We made similar challenges to both universities to come forward with proposals." (In June, N.C. State announced the receipt of a $511,500 five-year Pope Foundation grant to develop programs exploring "the relationship between economics and politics in free societies," as the press release states.)

Administrators at UNC-Chapel Hill's College of Arts and Sciences say the idea for a program in Western civilization was theirs. "We had originally conceived of something like this a couple of years before to possibly interest donors," says Peter Coclanis, a history professor and associate provost of the college. "We teach a lot of Western civilization as it is. Part of the idea for this [new curriculum] was getting that message out."

Administrators were also eager to land private donations to expand faculty hiring and student fellowships. "The reality is the state is reducing the percentage of its budget that goes to higher education," says Richard Soloway, a history professor who was interim dean of the college when the decision to seek funding from the Pope Foundation was made. "This was a way to build up a first year program, an honors program."

Last spring, Soloway convened a six-member faculty committee that, armed with the $25,000 planning grant, would come up with a Western civilization proposal for the Pope Foundation. Barbour, the committee chair, says the group "started from scratch" without any consultation with foundation officials. The only parameters were that the program be funded for an initial five-year trial period. At the end of that time, it would be evaluated to see whether permanent funding would be forthcoming.

Neither UNC administrators nor foundation officials will say how much permanent funding could add up to. "We haven't seen the detailed program yet," Art Pope points out. But faculty members who attended last week's meeting say they were told it could be as much as $25 million.

College administrators stress that the proposed curriculum is still being developed and in the end, may not be approved by either the Pope Foundation or, more importantly, UNC's faculty. "Curriculum on this campus is determined by the faculty," says Soloway, the former interim dean. "The Popes understand that. They could decide if they liked or didn't like what we proposed, but it is the university that determines what is acceptable."

Barbour says the planning committee "is almost certainly going to make some changes" based on the response to last week's meeting. "Several members of the audience made incisive comments about the proposal, and we will attend to what they said with as much care and rigor as we can muster," he adds.

But many who heard the presentation are hoping administrators will decide to shelve the request to the Pope Foundation. Instead, they want to see more discussion about the type of financial support the university should be pursuing for academic programs, and what sorts of outside controls are unacceptable in the planning process.

"I hope that administrators and faculty will face up to our responsibilities in dealing, together, with our financial difficulties and what we are willing to do to have the university's needs met," says Kleinman, the sociology professor. "If the university is to retain its integrity, we should have basic principles that underlie whose money we are willing to accept."

Darity, whose course on the "Social and Economic History of the Black Presence at UNC-Chapel Hill" was ridiculed in the Pope Center's Sept. 1 "Course of the Month" column, says seeking Pope Foundation support would be less problematic if such attacks weren't occurring.

"There is just so much evidence that they have an agenda," says Darity, whose family has ties to UNC-Chapel Hill over three generations. "I think there needs to be an answer from the highest level of the university on this."

More by Barbara Solow

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