The real threat to UNC

The real threat to UNC

- in Fitzsimon File

No one can argue that the reputation of the flagship institution of the University of North Carolina has been damaged in the last few years as what began as an athletics scandal led to questions about academic integrity and allegations of financial misconduct in the university’s fundraising arm.

Monday, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced he was stepping down at the end of the academic year, adding his name to the list of university officials who have resigned or been fired since the scandal began, a list that includes the athletics director, head football coach, chief fundraiser, and the chair of the Department of African-American studies.

And there may be more to come, depending on the findings of an investigation that is currently underway headed by former Governor Jim Martin.

Troubling times indeed for the nationally acclaimed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But there are even more serious threats to UNC-CH and the rest of the university system in the air and they have nothing to do with the corruption that often surrounds big money college sports.

These threats are political, financial, and philosophical, and could make the university system unrecognizable in the next ten years.

Much of the danger looms in a new 27-member UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Decisions appointed last week that is charged with coming up with a five-year plan for the university system that addresses everything from academic standards to financial planning, with even the system’s core mission up for grabs.

The commission’s members include two of the most prominent funders of right-wing political machines and campaigns in North Carolina, Art Pope and Fred Eshelman. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Phil Berger are members too, fresh from making the biggest budget cuts in the history to the UNC system in the recent two-year legislative session.

N.C. Chamber President Lew Ebert was also appointed. Under Ebert’s leadership the Chamber has become far more partisan and more interested in the tax cutting agenda of the Republican leaders than supporting important public investments in key state institutions like public schools and the universities.

Not everyone on the commission is a committed anti-government ideologue or Republican political heavyweight. Former UNC President William Friday is on it, along with a few chancellors of UNC schools, some members of the Board of Governors and a few Democratic officials.

But the appointment of Pope and Eshelman is hard to ignore, especially in the context of the current political debate in North Carolina.

Right-wing think tanks and Republican politicians, both heavily funded by Pope and Eshelman, make no secret of their disdain for the university system and that was reflected in the massive budget cuts the university suffered at the hands of the General Assembly.

But it goes much deeper than that. Folks on the Right want tuition raised dramatically too and the current Board of Governors, half of which was elected by the Republican General Assembly, is already backtracking on the policy of setting aside a percentage of every tuition increase to help low income families afford to send their children to a UNC school.

The General Assembly will elect the other half of the Board of Governors in 2013 and if Republicans maintain control of the House and Senate, it’s a safe bet all 32 members will be Republicans after the next round of board elections.

The right-wing think tanks constantly attack the UNC system for virtually every part of its operation, from curriculum to funding to the socialist professors they see behind every tree. Pope himself funds an organization whose entire thinly disguised mission is to dismantle public higher education or at least radically reform it.

The attacks reflect the anti-intellectualism that’s part of the current right-wing political dogma and it means that liberal arts may be shoved aside in favor of a curriculum designed only for job-training not critical thinking skills or an appreciation for the humanities.

Then there is the budget. The priority of the new ruling order in North Carolina is to reduce taxes first and ask questions about important investments later.

Never mind the studies that show the university system is a vital economic engine for the state. Better to slash budgets and cut taxes on businesses, the dogma holds.

And finally, UNC is a public institution, part of the government that the groups funded by the likes of Pope and Eshelman bash almost every day.

They don’t believe in public institutions. Their core mission is to radically dismantle them, from public schools to human services to the university system, and leave everything up to the vagaries of the holy free market they blindly worship. And they are on their way.

The athletic scandal that embarrassed the university and cost many good people, including Holden Thorp, their jobs was troubling enough.

But unless the ideological winds in North Carolina dramatically change soon, supporters of UNC haven’t seen anything yet.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.