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.
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.
Exhibit B is Eshelman, a member of the UNC Board of Governors. In 2010, the pharmaceutical mogul contributed $3 million to Rightchange.com, a conservative group whose goals is to "counter the internet dominance by liberal and progressive groups."
The group ran a last-minute ad in the 2008 election using images of the burning World Trade Center to assail Barack Obama as a candidate that would "undermine the terror strategy that protects us," according to The Wall Street Journal. Rightchange spent upward of $1.5 million to broadcast six TV ads during the 2008 elections, according to The New York Times, and is continuing its factually loose attacks on Obama and other Democrats.
In addition to his $3 million to Rightchange.com, since 2007, Eshelman has contributed more than $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee; $20,500 to N.C. Republican Executive Committee, $7,700 to the Republican National Committee, $2,500 to Mitt Romney, $2,000 to conservative Democrat Mike McIntyre and $2,700 to Richard Burr, among others.
And as CEO of PPD (Pharmaceutical Product Development), Eshelman testified before a House Energy & Commerce oversight committee about his firm's relationship with a doctor who worked on the clinical trial of an antibiotic called Ketek. Eshelman testified that although PPD knew the doctor was faking the data, it didn't tell the FDA because of confidentiality clauses with the drug maker, Sanofi-Aventis. Ketek has been linked to reports of liver failure. PPD was paid $20 million to run the trial.
Other notable conservatives on the committee:
Newby's record, as reported by The News & Observer, includes ruling against same-sex couple adoption and dismissing a lawsuit about predatory lending. And this weekend, Newby has been invited to speak, along with GOP operatives, anti-immigrant representatives, "second amendment practitioners" and a FOX News contributor, at the Great Gathering of the Tea Party Constitution Day event in Pinnacle, N.C.
Joni Worthington, UNC vice president for communications, said president Tom Ross appointed members to the committee with input from Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans.
Worthington emphasized that "this is an advisory committee" composed of a "relatively large and diverse group." She added that the committee won't be the same group that will ultimately adopt the five-year strategic plan.
According to UNC, committee meetings will be open to the public. The first meeting is scheduled for late September. Keep an eye on the committee via the UNC System website, www.northcarolina.edu.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Destination on right."