Senate approves wealthy Republican donor Art Pope for UNC Board of Governors

Senate approves wealthy Republican donor Art Pope for UNC Board of Governors

- in Higher Ed, News, Top Story
Art Pope

Art Pope — Raleigh millionaire, ex-state budget director, former House member and financial underwriter of controversial arch-conservative and libertarian causes — has been appointed to a seat on the UNC Board of Governors.

In what appears as if it will be one of the final actions of the 2020 “short session,” the state Senate voted 32-15 last night to approve the appointment. Pope’s one-year term begins July 1, to fill the vacancy left by Bob Rucho.

“It is my honor to recommend Art Pope,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Sampson County. “He will be a valuable asset to UNC. We need people serving on that board with business experience and more than one or two employees.”

Pope is the CEO of Variety Wholesalers, which operates 370 discount stores, such as Rose’s and Maxway, in 17 states. His father, John William Pope, started the company.

It’s not surprising that the Senate Republicans supported Pope’s appointment, although he also garnered a few Democratic votes.

Pope has contributed more than $200,000 since 2012 to the NC Republican Party for political campaigns. In 2010, as Chris Kromm chronicled in INDY Week and Facing South, $2.2 million in Pope-related money flowed into two dozen political races. In her 2011 profile of Pope in The New Yorker (“State for Sale”), journalist Jane Mayer reported that Pope sought appointment to the Board of Governors as early as 1995.

Earlier in the afternoon, Pope appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee, where he said he had “asked to be considered at this point in time,” as the UNC System faces challenges related to COVID-19 and the economic shutdown.

Pope said there is a need for “diverse views” on the board and that he wants to “improve the quality and affordability” of a UNC education.

To offset budget shortfalls related to the concurrent public health and economic crises, Pope said he would advocate for postponing unnecessary construction and examining salaries for non-teaching administrators and non-tenured professors.

“We have tenure-track professors who are very well compensated,” Pope told the committee. “Associates and adjuncts need addressed.”

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat from Guilford County, asked Pope how he would address the funding disparities between wealthier majority-white institutions and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities within the UNC System.

Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford)

“I am very aware of the disparities,” Pope said, acknowledging that beyond state appropriations, private endowments boost the fortunes of majority-white schools.

The flagship school, UNC-Chapel Hill has an endowment of $3.4 billion; by comparison, NC Central University, an HBCU in Durham, has an endowment of $23 million, tax records show.

However Pope’s own foundation, the John W. Pope Foundation, of which he is chairman, has not spread its largesse to HBCUs, according to tax records.

Of the more than $10.4 million the foundation gave to various causes in 2018-2019 — education, conservative media outlets, charter school advocates, think tanks, churches, as well as the arts and youth organizations —$1.23 million went to colleges and universities. None of them were HBCUs.

However, in 2011, the Pope Foundation offered NC Central $600,000 to launch a center for the study of the state constitution there. Many law school faculty, as well as students and alumni, opposed the offer because they were concerned about how much academic control the Pope Foundation would wield over the center. 

Former state Supreme Court Associate Justice Bob Orr, a former adjunct law professor at NCCU, would have been the center’s director. In the face of opposition, Orr withdrew the proposal.

It is difficult to square the Pope Foundation’s financial gesture  with its longstanding support of causes anathema to racial justice.

For example, in 2018-2019, the foundation donated a small amount of money, $7,500, to the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity. The think tank features an “Affirmative Action Watch” and “Anti-Discrimination Hotline” for white people, presumably, to report alleged injustices. These include “minority job fairs” and “minority-only summer programs.”

The Pope Foundation also contributed $50,000 last year to the Jesse Helms Center Foundation, created in honor of the former U.S. Senator and an outspoken racist.

The foundation also gave $15,000 to Prager University, which is not an academic institution but rather a generator of videos and podcasts. 

Among its projects is DivestU, which states: 

Today, with few exceptions, America’s institutions of higher learning are indoctrination factories for leftist, anti-American sentiment. Professors and faculty are hostile to Western Civilization, hostile to capitalism and free speech, and hostile to you. (Emphasis in the original.) And yet, they’re hungry for your money. Every “Dean of Diversity and Inclusion” and “social justice rally” depends on your financial gift.

DivestU is a major new campaign to divert $1 billion away from America’s colleges and universities.

Are you ready to cut them off?”

Pope is also a longtime supporter of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal – a Raleigh-based think tank that was originally named for Pope’s father. That organization has, since its founding in 2003, generated a large volume of hard right analyses and commentaries calling for funding cuts to (and frequently disparaging the state of) higher education, as well as a supposed “leftist” hegemony therein. Recent posts on the organization’s website include “The Academic and Social Benefits of Homeschooling,” “How Colleges Get Rid of Conservative Admins: An Example from UNC,” and “How Political Ideology Is Pushing Religion Out of Religious Studies.”