Fitzsimon File

The elephant in the room

The first meeting of the powerful committee created to chart the course for the university system for the next five years didn’t include any fireworks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming.

The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, a group that includes prominent right-wing political funders Art Pope and Fred Eshelman, heard presentations Wednesday about the state’s changing demographics, the need for more educated workers, and the state’s economic future.

Committee members also include House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, several chancellors at UNC campuses, other state officials and key business leaders, making it one of the politically powerful boards assembled in the state in recent years.

The meeting also comes in the wake of a two-year legislative session in which the new Republican legislative leadership made the biggest budget cuts in history to the university system, cuts that even included reductions to need-based financial aid in the worst economic crisis in a generation.

The cuts didn’t come up Wednesday, though UNC President Tom Ross and the lone student representative on the committee did say that access to the university must remain a priority.

The presence of Pope and Eshelman on the panel has prompted concern that the committee could threaten the integrity of the university, given the far-right’s constant attacks on public higher education and their single-minded crusade to slash public investments to reduce taxes, regardless of the impact on the state’s vital institutions and the people that benefit from them.

The meeting agenda was billed as providing context for the committee’s work and while the presentations about demographics and the workforce were interesting and valuable, there was plenty of context missing.

That was most obvious during the final presentation of the day, made by UNC Vice-President for Finance Charles Perusse, the former state budget director.

Perusse provided a reasonable baseline forecast for state revenues and expenses for the next five years, assuming no dramatic changes in the tax code or in state spending practices.

It showed that the university could expect a modest increase in funding if its share of new revenues was roughly the same as its current share of the state budget.

But everyone around the table knows that it is highly likely that dramatic changes ARE coming to the state tax code that will seriously threaten state funding for the university system and every other important state investment.

Pope and Eshelman certainly know. They have funded the campaigns of legislators who rail against government every day and pledge to slash taxes and reduce state spending.

They are now supporting candidates for governor and the General Assembly who are promising to abolish the state corporate and personal income taxes, with no plan to replace the billions in revenue the state would lose.

Pope himself funds organizations that are pushing for arbitrary constitutional limits on state spending, misleadingly called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, that would dramatically reduce the state budget and force huge cuts in education and human services.

Another group funded by Pope, the Pope Center for Higher Education, has been openly critical of UNC Tomorrow, a 2007 strategic planning effort that was also presented to the committee Thursday as part of the context for its work.

The Pope Center has an answer for the workforce problem too, advocating a few years ago that students be allowed to drop out of school at age 14 to enter the labor force. They not only openly advocate for fewer kids to go college, they seem to want fewer to finish high school.

(The folks at the Pope Center have also attacked UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Professor Jim Johnson, who made the compelling presentation about demographics at this week’s meeting. In an article last month, the Pope Center said a similar presentation to the UNC Board of Governors belongs “on the fevered sidewalks of an Occupy Wall Street camp, not in the pre-meeting materials for a serious board of university governance.”)

This is not a detached, distant advocacy group. This is an organization almost entirely funded by a man now sitting on the committee charting the university’s future. It is named after his father.

The university has a long history of enlisting important state business leaders, educators and benefactors in the cause of sustaining and improving the university system.

It hasn’t always been the most democratic system, but at least the people around the table, whatever their political allegiance, generally shared a vision of a thriving, accessible, and well-funded public university system that served the people of the state and provide an open intellectual climate to challenge the conventional wisdoms of the day.

Maybe that’s the plan here too, to try to bring Pope and Eshelman around, as well as the politicians like Tillis and Berger who their money keeps in power.

Let’s hope it works. But it’s hard to be optimistic. Things are different than they used to be.

There’s not a shared vision of a thriving university or public investments for the common good anymore. There’s a radical ideology afoot that wants to shrink government and cut taxes above all else, and what better place to start than with “liberal professors” on the tree-lined campuses of academia.

Real Jobs NC, the group funded by Pope and Eshelman that ran nasty attack ads in 2010, this week started running them in current legislative races, attacking lawmakers and candidates who opposed the slash and burn budgets of the last two years that have damaged the university system.

It’s fitting the ads started this week, as the UNC Advisory Committee held its first meeting. That’s the real context, the radical push to undermine public investments and remake North Carolina according to far-right ideological agenda.

It was the elephant in the room Wednesday. And it is not going anywhere.