The meddlers behind the mess in the UNC system

The meddlers behind the mess in the UNC system

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

Tim Moore is looking for a “gold parachute.” That’s the news that Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian confirmed in an exclusive story last week.

Two members of the East Carolina University Board of Trustees and three members of the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) confirmed to Killian that North Carolina’s three-term House Speaker – a small town lawyer from the western part of the state with no professional experience in higher education – is actively seeking the chancellorship at ECU.

In some ways, of course, the news comes as little surprise. It’s been reported previously by multiple news outlets that Moore has been seeking the presidency of the entire UNC system for some time. As one member of the BOG told Killian:

It is a continuing issue we have had to deal with. He is obviously interested in a leadership position and we are going to have to deal with the question of what that means and whether it’s appropriate.”

Another BOG member described a leadership position in the UNC system as Moore’s “gold parachute plan” in the event the Republicans lose control of the state House this fall:

Cecil Staton was making $450,000 a year as chancellor at ECU and we paid him almost $600,000 in a separation deal when he was forced out,” said a Board of Governors member. “If you are a state legislator, even if you’re the Speaker, that looks like pretty good money. That’s not a bad way to retire from Raleigh.”

The news of Moore’s job search may be unsurprising, but that doesn’t make it right – especially since Moore helped appoint the BOG, which will make the hire.

Indeed, the idea of someone with no evident qualifications being taken at all seriously for such an important administrative position (one that oversees tens of thousands of individuals at a struggling institution badly in need of an injection of professionalism and stability) is emblematic of two giant afflictions that plague the UNC system right now: an anti-intellectual hostility to academia and good, old-fashioned greed.

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new for the political Right. Donald Trump may have taken things to new lows, but the phenomenon has a long history – both in the U.S. and abroad.

And here in North Carolina, of course, many conservatives have waged war on the UNC system for a long, long time. From the segregationist holdouts and “speaker ban” proponents of the mid-20th Century, to Jesse Helms’ attacks on the “zoo” in Chapel Hill, down through to the ideological siege laid by Art Pope and his minions in recent decades, it’s clearly driven many conservatives crazy that a great university – one that they think ought to champion their backward-looking, Silent Sam-loving vision of the Old North State – has instead been a frequent force for integration, modernity, open-mindedness and progress.

The last decade of conservative rule in the General Assembly provided the Right with the opportunity to act upon this disdain for the progressive establishment in higher education and the results have been plain to see – first in the way Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger packed the UNC Board with ideologues and political cronies – and then, in everything that followed: from the relentless budget cuts and tuition hikes to the unexplained ouster of a popular and successful system president to the repeated attacks on the liberal arts to the elimination of law school centers devoted to championing civil rights and combating poverty.

But perhaps even more disturbing than the conservative ideological crusade at UNC has been the sordid spectacle of politicos on the make – denizens of the Right who rose to prominence railing against “big government” suddenly seeking to cash in via handsomely-paid public jobs and contracts and sweetheart lobbying gigs.

Tim Moore’s attempted skydive for cash may be the most visible example of this phenomenon, but it’s far from the only one. As Kate Murphy of Raleigh’s News & Observer reported last week, a bevy of conservative pols and pals are already on the UNC payroll – including, remarkably, longtime Phil Berger aide and hyper-prolific far-right tweeter, Jim Blaine, to whom the taxpayers of North Carolina are now forking over $15,000 per month as a “strategic adviser.”

Add to this the cringe-inducing behavior of lobbyist/BOG members like Tom Fetzer – a walking conflict of interest who has repeatedly sought chancellor posts for himself even as he improperly meddled in controversies at ECU and lobbied for profit amongst the very legislative leaders responsible for installing him on the board – and the mess looks all the more troubling.

The bottom line: the UNC system remains one of the shining stars of our state and one of its greatest hopes for building a prosperous and sustainable future. But a toxic combination of self-dealing and a backward-looking ideology driven by legislative leaders continues to put all of that at great risk.