There's a moment in Gov. Pat McCrory's chortling interview with conservative radio host Bill Bennett—somewhere between the cracks on Swahili-studying basketball players, the "educational elite" and out-of-touch gender studies students—in which the state's newly minted governor sheds his happy-go-lucky image.
"Since you're governor, when you talk, things happen. Don't they?" asks Bennett.
"I learned as a mayor you can use the bully pulpit," McCrory answers. "Sway public opinion, push agenda. If you're not willing to do that, you shouldn't be in the job."
McCrory, a seven-term Charlotte mayor with a reputation for middle-of-the-road likability, used that pulpit on Bennett's show last week, espousing reform at North Carolina universities. Those reforms include redistributing education dollars to programs that can prove their graduates get jobs.
Since that well-parsed interview, McCrory's team has downplayed his comments, deflecting questions from INDY Week toward an op-ed published last weekend in which the governor bemoaned the state's unemployment troubles while tossing a few compliments toward the state's universities.
A McCrory spokeswoman declined to offer specifics on such a dramatic restructuring of higher education funding.
Meanwhile, policy watchers and education lobbyists say there's a subtext to McCrory's assault that is more troubling than a passing joke between conservative buds. It is a clear foreshadowing of legislative priorities that should alarm both public education advocates and progressives.
To his backers, McCrory's a crusader seeking long-overdue education reform. To his critics, he's ignorant to the inner workings of a university and the benefits of liberal arts graduates.
"I honestly don't perceive that Gov. McCrory has thought these issues through very deeply," says Rob Schofield, policy director for the progressive N.C. Policy Watch. "I don't know that the comments made on the Bennett show was someone trying to offend someone. It just struck me as someone who wasn't thinking very clearly."
This week, McCrory offered no apologies for his statements, which prompted a somewhat lukewarm response from UNC President Tom Ross. Ross indicated university leaders are already drafting a strategic plan that includes "student success and academic and operational efficiencies" in a campus funding model. The plan was drafted by an advisory committee that included conservative bankroller Art Pope, who resigned in December after McCrory appointed him deputy budget director.
Meanwhile, liberal arts backers rushed to offer a defense."It makes sense to have students who are independent creative thinkers," says Chris Hill, director of the N.C. Justice Center's Education and Law Project. "Those are the kinds who create jobs."
Agreed, says Will Leimenstoll, student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill. Leimenstoll, a senior, is majoring in environmental studies.
"Liberal arts education is incredibly important for building critical skills for students," Leimenstoll says. "They're the ones who innovate, who create jobs."
McCrory and his bullish interviewer might disagree. Bennett, a former education secretary under President Reagan, has been outspoken when taking shots at the liberal arts, despite his graduate degree in political philosophy.
"We've really created this elitist cult of hierarchy," Bennett mused during the interview, "where people who know how to do things with their hands are looked down on by people who don't know how to do anything."
Joanne Hershfield, chair of UNC-Chapel Hill's Women's and Gender Studies Department, might be one of those people who, according to Bennett, doesn't know how to do anything.
Hershfield's department, which specializes in studying gender roles in society, is often assailed by the right. Hershfield noted the department has long been targeted by Pope's conservative think tanks, even as the department's graduates went on to wide-ranging careers in business, health care, law and education.
"Business and commerce needs people who can write, who can engage in critical thinking, who have a broad educational training, who are well-read, who have communication skills, who have an understanding of the global issues facing North Carolina and the United States," Hershfield says. "We address all of those things."
But perhaps none of this controversy should be a surprise, say analysts such as Schofield. McCrory's campaign platform called for education reforms, including splitting high school students into two camps: one bound for a "college-ready" diploma, the other for a "career-ready" diploma. In drafting Senate Bill 14 and House Bill 51—measures introduced last week by N.C. General Assembly Republicans Jerry Tillman, Harry Brown, Bryan Holloway and others—lawmakers are pushing the McCrory formula.
McCrory has also long advocated for charter schools. He supported the state's removal of the cap on charters in 2011 and campaigned for the speedy approval of new charter schools. His positions mirror those of many state Republicans advancing privatization in the state's education system.
"Frankly, if you want to take gender studies, that's fine, go to a private school and take it," McCrory said in last week's interview with Bennett. "But I don't want to subsidize that if it's not going to get someone a job."
Hershfield bristles at McCrory's suggestion, calling it an "elitist response."
"We have an obligation as a public university to educate the citizens of North Carolina," she says. "Not just to educate a certain portion of the citizens of North Carolina."
Hill says McCrory's plans and the expense of private schools will segregate higher education. "Only people who will be able to afford the private schools will be the ones who can get a liberal arts education," he says.
Hill also slams McCrory's "college-ready" and "career-ready" tracks, arguing they would continue a trend of steering low-income and minority students toward vocational training rather than a four-year college.
"You shouldn't have to make a decision for the rest of your life on whether you should go to college or start a career at 16 years old," Hill says.
Meanwhile, Leimenstoll says McCrory's comments weren't "grounded in any sort of facts."
"Maybe if McCrory wanted to do some empirical research on jobs placement and graduate school admission rates, maybe he can speak from that angle," Leimenstoll says.
Schofield says North Carolina might be getting its first glimpse at the real McCrory.
"A lot of people were holding out the hope that the governor would govern as a moderate," Schofield says. "He has this background as being sort of a moderate city mayor. So far, I'm not seeing that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Too cool for school."