The Education Bait-and-Switch: How North Carolina’s Power-Holders are Altering the UNC System

University of North Carolina Board of GovernorsThe University of North Carolina Board of Governors is considering making cuts to some centers and institutes in the university system. Earlier this year, the mostly-Republican North Carolina General Assembly mandated the examination of some of the school system’s most liberal parts.  In the last few years, North Carolina policy choices have been starkly unrepresentative of the will of the people, and members of the government have repeatedly called for broad, potentially devastating changes to higher education. The move to rein in the UNC system has been years in the making, but this looks to be an important stratagem by the Republican regime and those whose interests they represent.

Some members of the Board claim that the review is not politically motivated, but to consider the nine centers and institutes that are being singled out, the purported non-partisan nature of this exercise is not so clear: the Carolina Center for Public Service; the Carolina Women’s Center; the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence; the Center for Law and Government; the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity; the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy; the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History; the UNC Center for Civil Rights; and the UNC Institute on Aging. These centers and institutes embody some of the liberal causes pursued by the UNC system and higher education at large. This is enough to raise an eyebrow on its own, but when one considers the context and decades-long history of higher education, in North Carolina and in America at large, the story seems to become clearer.

University of North Carolina SystemFrom the end of WWII until the mid-1970s, the United States experienced a golden age of unprecedented income equality and broad prosperity. From 1958 to 1965, the G. I. Bill and Cold War-era research led to expansion of the University of California system from two campuses to ten campuses. But in 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected to the governorship of California. He made a pledge to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” and instituted a sort of martial law in response to campus protests. While this reaction may have seemed extreme, then, he set a precedent that is largely followed today. Before Reagan took office, the UC system was free to California residents, as were all of the state’s public universities, but Reagan was determined to undermine what he saw as a lot of liberal immorality and civil disruption that stemmed from these universities. He introduced fees to the UC system in 1969, and in a twist of irony, protests to the prohibitive costs have been common on UC campuses in recent years. This would prove to have been a sign of things to come.

In 1975, the Trilateral Commission (a group of some of the most powerful people in the industrialized world) produced a report titled “A Crisis of Democracy.” In the report, its writers found that expanded higher education had dangerously empowered citizens. According to the report’s writers, excessive American democracy threatened social order by way of civil unrest and distrust in government’s authority. Since this time, the founding of new universities has slowed dramatically. In fact, very few universities have been founded since the mid-1970s, despite growth in demand for higher education.

Politicians routinely talk about reining in government spending and offer that we should concentrate education on less-liberal areas: science-, technology-, engineering-, mathematics-, and business-related fields. This runs counter to the notion that America’s greatest time of growth and widespread prosperity coincided with its greatest expansion of education as a whole, including liberal studies. These policy initiatives help to preserve the status quo and perpetuate established power dynamics. Viewed in light of a strategy to diminish democracy and to diminish inevitable dissent, the counter-intuitive education policy outcomes seem more reasonable.

Art Pope
Art Pope

North Carolina politics have, in recent years, been consistent with the decades-long trend to diminish the effects of liberal higher education. While the Koch brothers may be well-recognized across the country for their political influence, North Carolina has its own brazen, forceful, moneyed right-wing political activist. Art Pope’s influence in North Carolina politics has made him into a kingmaker in recent years. It is asserted by some that he has essentially bought himself a state government.

Art Pope is a North Carolina millionaire who heads a network of right-leaning political fundraising entities, thinktanks, charities, and political watchdog groups. He was instrumental both in getting Pat McCrory elected to the North Carolina governorship and in ensuring bold gerrymandering of North Carolina’s electoral districts. After getting millions of dollars to McCrory’s campaign, McCrory chose Pope as his state budget director, where Pope took a salary of $1. Pope runs the John William Pope Foundation for Higher Education Policy, which serves to criticize public universities in North Carolina, primarily for being too liberal. For all of Pope’s influence with McCrory, McCrory seems to be singing the company tune.

Pat McCrory
Pat McCrory

In a recent radio interview, McCrory stated that “educational elite” have taken over colleges, providing courses that offer “no chances of getting people jobs.” McCrory continued, “So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs, as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” and finished by proposing to change the education funding formula “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.” McCrory has been instrumental in the unpopular stripping down of North Carolina’s education budget. So despite the insistence that the review of UNC system centers and institutes is not partisan, it is worth noting the brazen steps that Pope and McCrory have been willing to take in getting an agenda passed despite its opposition in the state.

The UNC Board of Governors will decide in February what to do with these centers and institutes. Given that the leaders of this North Carolina government have been willing to pass a number of very unpopular policies, it is not hard to see the Board of Governors making the choice to close these centers and institutes. They may close them despite that the centers and institutes are effective in rallying fundraising around the missions that they support. When Board member Jim Holmes claims that “this is really not a partisan activity,” and when Board member Steven Long asks each center and institute if their work could be done within their departments, it may be worth considering history, both recent and long-past.

The website for the UNC Board of Governors is here, and you may find their email addresses by hovering over, or clicking on, any of their names. Happy lobbying.

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About Shaun Terry 6 Articles
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1 Comment

  1. Shaun,

    I grew up during WW II in Ann Arbor. Part of the war effort involved universities. There were several groupings, one of which was the “Grand Triangle” of Michigan, Princeton, and North Carolina. (Do you see an analog with the more local Triangle Research Institute of today?) These three universities had strong abilities in pure and applied mathematics and their efforts led to many new defense strategies–especially logistics, computing, and quality assurance. It is no coincidence that Princeton is an “ivy league” university and that Michigan and North Carolina are sometimes called “Public Ivies.”

    It amazes me that supposedly smart people are so stupid as to not see that education and job training are very different services. To criticize our higher educational system for teaching courses which have no relation to job preparation is both false and short-sighted. I applaud you and others who stand for what education really is and refuse to believe that the only purpose of colleges and universities is to convert people into flesh-and-blood robots.

    Without higher education, or indeed education at all, there is no vision for a better society or for a future. Let us hope those without vision do not define the society for us all.

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