It's the ultimate irony: Ultraconservative millionaire Art Pope pumped millions of dollars into the campaigns of Republican lawmakers, many of whom led the charge to slash the state budget, including money for the UNC system. But now that courses and sections are being eliminated as a result of those cuts, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has offered to help pay for a class section that would otherwise be cut at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Last week, the Pope Center, funded largely by the Pope Foundation, offered $2,000 to UNC to reinstate one section of Larry Goldberg's "Elements of Politics" honors class. The course is a favorite among students; nearly 200 alumni signed an online petition asking UNC not to cut the class.
UNC officials estimate the classes cost $7,500 per section, according to the Pope Center. According to elementsofpolitics.com, a site set up by alumni seeking to maintain Goldberg's courses, he has previously taught the courses for free when money was tight. He would be willing to teach for free again this semester, but administrators no longer will allow adjunct professors to volunteer, because they fear the teachers will be overworked.
UNC spokesman Mike McFarland could not confirm the Pope Center's statements by press time.
The "Elements of Politics" curriculum consists of eight semesters of ancient and modern philosophy, history, essays and literature ranging from Plato and Homer to Kant, Tocqueville and Nietzsche.
Pope Center Executive Director Jane Shaw called the reduction a "travesty," and contended that Aristotle, Hobbes, Plato and Locke "are being marginalized and disparaged." (The Pope Foundation is so fond of John Locke that it has given $20 million to another of its interests, the John Locke Foundation.)
Goldberg, who is based in the English department, won a Spirit of Inquiry Award from the Pope Center in 2008. He also won a Tanner Faculty Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from UNC in 2003.
Shaw says she is particularly upset that other "lightweight courses," such as "The World of the Beat Generation: Transcultural Connections," "Conspiracy Thinking in Contemporary America" and "Costume History," are still being offered.
"This is just very dubious," Shaw said. "Under some circumstances, those might be legitimate courses, we aren't saying they aren't, but compared to this very serious course?"
However, "The World of the Beat Generation" is not being offered this semester, according to Hassan Melehy, the professor who teaches it. In fact, he hasn't taught it since 2007. As for Shaw's characterization of his class, Melehy, who is in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, said, "The Pope Center is entirely entitled to its opinions, but 'less than consequential?' It's sheer stupidity to say that my course is less consequential than politics courses. Sheer stupidity."
A Pope Center press release says UNC officials are "cutting for alleged budget reasons," although there's nothing alleged about the budget. The General Assembly, led by a Republican majority, passed a state budget earlier this year that slashed Chapel Hill campus funding by 17.9 percent, more than $100 million. That marks the largest cut, in lump sum and by percentage, in the UNC system.
Earlier this year, the Pope Center detailed its budget recommendations for the UNC system, which included an overall reduction of more than $530 million.
Two thousand dollars for a class is chump change for Pope-funded groups. According to an analysis by Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, in 2010 three independent groups backed by Pope—Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC—spent nearly $2 million in 22 state legislative races targeted by Republicans.
"On top of that," Facing South reported, "Art Pope and Pope family members make another $240,000 in personal contributions to these 22 races. Of those, Republicans won 18.
Shaw says the center offered to partially fund the course because of Goldberg's award from the Pope Center, a student recommendation and coverage in The Daily Tar Heel, in which students are quoted as being upset about the class cut. The center is working on a strategy to rescue other endangered courses and plans to use its $5,000 annual speaker series budget to fund them, Shaw says.
"We're not yet going about it systematically, partly because we aren't sure how to do that," Shaw said "It's a problem that we certainly want to address because we are especially concerned about how these cuts are going to go throughout the system. We aren't sure that the university, the whole UNC system are going to be that open about what they are doing."
The university course listings are posted online and are free for anyone to view.
Asked what the Pope Center wants in return for the donation, Shaw responded, "Frankly, I don't know that they will accept it, so that's the first thing. We just would like to see the course. We aren't going to give the money if the course isn't going to be restored."
This is the second time in the past three weeks a Pope-funded organization has offered money to a local university. Bob Orr, the director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, has proposed locating a center at the North Carolina Central University School of Law with $600,000 of Pope's money.
Another irony: In its proposed budget, the Pope Center for Higher Education recommended cutting $900,000 from the NCCU law school, a 20 percent decrease.
NCCU law school faculty are expected to vote on the issue within the next few weeks.
Additional reporting by Lisa Sorg.