A plus-sized UNC advisory board—beset with controversy before the first gavel—convened for the first time Wednesday, mulling over the state universities' curriculum and changing demographics.
The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, which includes 31 leaders in education, business and politics, is expected to consider the future of the state's 17 public universities, but its makeup garnered more headlines than its actual charge before Wednesday's session.
Critics are fired up over a handful of appointments, including the selection of publicly right-tilting businessmen like Art Pope and Fred Eshelman. UNC Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans and UNC President Tom Ross made the appointments.
Pope, CEO of Variety Wholesalers Inc., has spent millions on conservative think tanks, advocacy groups and political campaigns backing right-wing causes. Ditto for Eshelman, a pharmaceutical bigwig who spent $3 million launching the conservative Rightchange.com. UNC-Chapel Hill's pharmacy school is named for Eshelman.
In Pope's case, he's also been a vocal advocate for charter schools and his groups have lobbied for budget cuts for public schools.
Neither played much part in the early proceedings Wednesday, with Pope arriving just before noon for a meeting that began at 9:30 a.m.
The commitee also includes the appointment of legislative leaders like powerful Republicans Thom Tillis and Phil Berger. Berger is president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate. Tillis is speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, is also a member of the committee.
Committee leaders are facing pressure to include more student and faculty representation on the panel. Wednesday's roll call included one UNC student and one faculty member, although officials have indicated more members may be appointed.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, who announced last week that he would end his scandal-plagued tenure next spring, said little Wednesday, although at one point prior to the committee session, a faculty member could be heard pleading with Thorp to change his mind about his resignation.
Committee members heard a presentation Wednesday morning from UNC-Chapel Hill business professor James Johnson Jr., whose overview of prevailing demographic trends in North Carolina showed the state's universities can expect radical change in student population in the coming years.
According to Johnson, North Carolina's Hispanic population grew by 829 percent from 1990 to 2007. In that time frame, the Asian population grew by 332 percent. Compare that to growth among white and black residents—127 percent and 133 percent, respectively.
"They're going to be far more diverse," Johnson said.
Johnson also urged leaders to focus efforts on narrowing the gender gap in academic achievement, pointing out boys and men are struggling mightily in the job market and academics compared to their female counterparts.
"This is imminently fixable," Johnson said. "And if we don't fix it, we're going to be in trouble."
The advisory committee is expected to present its recommendations to the UNC Board of Governors in January.
Chancellor Holden Thorp—beset by academic and athletic scandal in his short tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill—seems to at least have a chunk of the university's employees in his corner.
The school's Employee Forum, a group representing university staff, is holding a "peaceful" rally supporting the troubled chancellor this morning in front of South Building, the school's administrative HQ.
Thorp announced Monday that he would step down from his post at the close of the 2012-13 academic year after two years of an athletic scandal that began with the school's football program and expanded into the academic sphere.
In a statement Tuesday, the forum expressed "heartfelt dismay" at Thorp's decision, urging UNC President Tom Ross, the UNC board of trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors to back Thorp.
"We have found a true friend in Chancellor Thorp since he began working with us in 2008," the statement said. "Chancellor Thorp is a leader and visionary who has greatly improved working conditions for staff."
The forum credited Thorp with raising employee wages, addressing longstanding troubles in the university's housekeeping department, increasing efficiency in the university and allowing "unprecedented access to him and his office."
The forum is also circulating petitions urging the chancellor to reconsider his resignation. The petitions will be available to sign from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today in the UNC-Chapel Hill Pit, Wilson Library and South Building.
Today's rally is scheduled from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at South Building.
Dueling petitions regarding the chancellor are already circulating on social media websites like Facebook. One, simply titled "Fire Holden Thorp," had 1,458 likes as of Friday morning, as well as a smattering of anti-Thorp messages.
Another Change.org petition directed at Ross urges the system president to reject Thorp's resignation. As of Friday morning, 54 people had signed the petition.
Embattled UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp is on the way out.
WRAL reported Monday morning that Thorp will step down at the close of the 2012-13 academic year, ending a watch that has been plagued by allegations of academic improprieties, primarily associated with the school's football program.
The school confirmed the news in a press release later Monday morning. This comes after Thorp met privately Friday with the UNC Board of Governors, the panel in charge of the state's public universities. The release said Thorp on Sunday told UNC President Tom Ross of his plans to resign.
"I will always do what is best for this university," Thorp said in the release. "This wasn't an easy decision personally. But when I thought about the university and how important it's been to me, to North Carolinians and to hundreds of thousands of alumni, my answer became clear."
Thorp has held the position since 2008. A UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and former chemistry professor, Thorp was among the youngest university leaders in the nation when he accepted the chancellor's post at the age of 43.
But the school's reputation has been sullied in the last two years by allegations of improper benefits for football players, as well as an ongoing investigation into academic misconduct—including altered grades and infrequently-taught courses—in the university's Department of African or Afro-American Studies. The classes in question were popular among UNC athletes.
Most recently, the school has been in the headlines over accusations of improper travel spending among UNC fundraisers.
Thorp acknowledged the UNC scandals in Monday's release.
"Over the last two years, we have identified a number of areas that need improvement," he said. "We have a good start on reforms that are important for the future of this university. I have pledged that we will be a better university, and I am 100 percent confident in that."
Ross said he would work with UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees Chairman Wade Hargrove to find a successor to Thorp.
The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School is a long shot to open in August. Its founders are struggling to find a suitable temporary location for the school as they navigating the zoning approval process for a permanent site.
Amid opposition from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board and the local NAACP, the North Carolina State Board of Education approved fast-track status for the Lee School in February, clearing the way for the group to open later this year.
But now, as a backup plan, they say, the school’s brass has submitted a request to the state to open in 2013.
Danita Mason-Hogans, a member of the Lee board of directors, said the group identified one site in Chapel Hill and one in Carrboro but neither area was zoned for a school. She said she did not know the exact locations.
“There are some problems with both of the spaces based on the number of students we’d like to have in the school,” she said. “We had full intentions of opening in August. Now it looks like that may be put on hold.”
An N.C. State University professor who wants to start a new charter school in Raleigh was arrested earlier this month for failing to appear in court on earlier charges.
Kenan Gundogdu, 34, has applied to start the Triangle Math and Science Academy, which would be a spinoff of the Triad Math and Science Academy in Greensboro. The physics professor serves on the Greensboro school's board.
According to court records, a Raleigh police officer cited Gundogdu on Dec. 3, 2011, for driving without insurance and for driving with a canceled, revoked or suspended tag. Raleigh police later arrested Gundogdu, who lives in Cary, for failing to appear in court, a misdemeanor. He was released from the Wake County jail on $500 bail, a spokeswoman said.
Gundogdu is scheduled to appear in court March 19, according to court records.
Gundogdu has been the lead applicant in three attempts to start the science-and-math-focused charter school in Raleigh. His two previous applications were not approved during the time when the state had a cap on the number of charter schools.
Once the state lifted the cap on charters last year, Gundogdu applied again under the "fast-track" process. The State Board of Education is scheduled to approve a list of "fast-track" applications on Feb. 29 and March 1. If approved, the schools could open in fall 2012.
Applicants have told state officials that they're eying the former Exploris Middle School in downtown Raleigh as a possible site for the K-6 school with 270 students the first year.
Gundogdu couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction released reports today on school discipline and high school dropouts. The rate of dropouts decreased statewide and in Durham, Orange, Wake and Chatham counties. The rate increased slightly in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.
Statewide, the numbers of suspensions and expulsions of students decreased, as well, according to a statement from N.C. DPI.
With the approval of almost 57 percent of voters, Durham County Commissioners officially adopted a resolution Monday night to begin collecting a new quarter-cent sales tax on April 1, 2012. The tax will apply to the sales of goods, but not food, medicine, housing, gas or utilities.
Voters approved the tax, which will benefit public education in Durham County, through the Nov. 8 ballot.
That ballot also included a new half-cent tax for mass transit, which voters also approved by 60 percent. But the transit sales tax won't be levied until Durham leaders see whether leaders and residents in Wake and Orange counties will also consider a similar tax to move forward on regional commuter and light-rail projects.
The first full year of collections for the education tax in 2013 is expected to generate as much as $9.2 million. Most of the revenue will preserve teaching jobs and pay for school facility improvements in Durham Public Schools. Durham Technical Community College will also receive funds that will be used for scholarships, and Durham's Partnership for Children, which provides educational and other programs for young children.
State education officials are reviewing 27 applications for new charter schools across the state, including two in Durham County, two in Wake County and one in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district.
A new state law passed this year raised the limit on charter schools in North Carolina, which previously had been capped at 100. The applications were due last Thursday, and will be reviewed by the N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council (CSAC) before being submitted to the State Board of Education.
The applicants are aiming to have their schools up and running in August 2012. This first group of applicants is a special, "fast-tracked," pool because they have a previous relationship or record with the state, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website. For instance, several of the applicants had been interviewed by the state before, but were not granted a charter because of the previous statewide cap.
The state will hold a separate, regular application process later this fall for other charter schools. Those applications will be due in April 2012. (More information on the application process)
The applicants in Triangle school districts are:
The Howard & Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School, Angela Lee
Research Triangle High School, Pamela Blizzard
Quality Education Academy of Durham, Alethea Bell
Widsom Academy, Craig James
Triangle Math and Science Academy, Kenan Gundogdu
Brian Bower, who said his top priority if elected to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board would be “to pick my jaw from off the floor,” removed that possibility Wednesday night by dropping out of the race.
Bower, a UNC graduate student who was running primarily to establish in-state residency and earn lower tuition costs, is withdrawing from the race both because of the “remote possibility that my candidacy might jeopardize the re-election of Ms. (Jamezetta) Bedford,” he wrote in a statement, and because UNC recently approved his application to be an in-state student.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Chairwoman Jamezetta Bedford thought she had no opponents in her re-election bid. Today, eight days before the polls open, she learned she has to contend with seven other candidates also running for school board seats.
Seven other candidates, including three other incumbents, filed for four seats, all four-year terms.
But today, Bedford learned that she can't just run for a two-year term. The Orange County and North Carolina board of elections overlooked local election law passed in 1975 that requires all candidates to run in the same pool. The top four finishers will earn four-year terms, and the fifth place candidate will be awarded the two-year term.