Former college leaders lament GOP political push at UNC in online forum

Three former university leaders on Wednesday decried the politicization of the UNC system during a discussion with an accreditation expert about university governance and ideological struggles in higher education.

The live-streamed panel, hosted by the Coalition for Carolina, brought together former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellors James Moeser and Holden Thorp; Paul Fulton, former member of the UNC Board of Governors and member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Directors; and Belle Wheelan, president of Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schoolswhich oversees accreditation in more than 800 higher education institutions.

An old problem becomes more serious

“Political interference has always been a problem, throughout our history,” Moeser told the audience online Wednesday. “It was part of our history in the 18th century, in the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. But what is new is that it has become really extreme and very partisan. It’s a new wrinkle and something that concerns us all.

Policy Watch has extensively documented scandals and partisan political disputes in the UNC system in recent years. Moeser said the turning point he believes was the 2010 election in which Republicans took control of the General Assembly. Moeser gave the public on Wednesday a brief look at the toll of politicization from his perspective as a former chancellor.

“They started cutting taxes,” Moeser said. “I think it was completely understandable given that we were in a recession at the moment. They also stopped the tuition fee increases. It was also understandable at the time. I don’t think they realized how much we at Chapel Hill had used on-campus tuition increases as fuel for faculty salaries.

James Moeser

When he left office in 2008, Moeser said, faculty salaries were higher than University of Michigan, better than University of Virginia by rank, and slightly lower than University. from California, Berkeley and UCLA. The university has done this by raising tuition at UNC’s flagship university, Moeser said, which has benefited from the ability to attract and retain top faculty.

The campus was also able to set aside up to 40% of the dollars generated by these increases to go to student aid as needed, said Moeser – the foundation of the Carolina Pactwhich allowed people in need to continue to attend school.

But Moeser said the UNC Board of Governors, appointed by a new conservative majority in the General Assembly, eliminated the ability to do both of those things. By starving the university’s budget, lawmakers hampered the university’s ability to compete on salaries and ensure that the neediest students could attend without going into heavy debt.

But the board didn’t just take the financial reins, Moeser said. They launched an ideological offensive against everything conservatives disliked about the university.

“In 2015, they eliminated the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity from the law school“, Moeser said. “It was a political act that was intended to [law professor and author] Gene Nichol, directly targeting Gene Nichol.

The following year, they fired UNC system president Tom Ross, Moeser said, “whose only sin was that he was a Democrat.”

When Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was elected governor later that year, the General Assembly removed college-related powers from the governor’s office rather than having Cooper wield his office’s traditional power to appoint four of the 13 administrators on each of the campuses of the UNC system. .

Transferring that power with GOP-held state House and Senate leaders further politicized appointments, Moeser said, and eliminated much of the ideological diversity on boards.

In 2017, the Board of Governors went after the law school’s Center for Civil Rights, barring it from suing.

The attack on campus-level decision-making and powers has continued to this day, Moeser said, citing the botched hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as the most recent example.

Last year, a vote on Jones’ term was withheld by politicians appointed to the UNC-Chapel Hill board of directors after powerful conservative interests opposed the hiring. Under intense pressure and in the national spotlight, the board eventually voted to offer the term to Hannah-Jones, but the controversy led her to accept a position at Howard University instead. The episode also caused some longtime faculty members to leave the university or start looking for new jobs, and helped convince some highly sought-after recruits to refuse to come to the university.

“This has become a national embarrassment for UNC,” Moeser said.

Holden Thorp

More frequent and problematic political interference

Thorp, who followed Moeser as chancellor to Chapel Hill, said he certainly sees politics at play in governing the UNC system under a Democratic majority. But as political interference has become more frequent and more partisan under Republicans, Thorp said, there is also a condescending tendency to pretend that politics is not at the heart of many conflicts in Chapel Hill and in the UNC system.

“I wish a lot of people who do what they do just say, ‘Look, we won the election and we can do this stuff,'” Thorp said. “Then we could have a debate about whether their political policies are the best, as you would in any political situation.”

“A lot of time is wasted wondering if something is political or not when it obviously is,” Thorp said.

When in power, Democrats didn’t always do what university leaders liked, Thorp said. He gave the example of former state Senate leader Marc Basnight including in the state budget a mandate for UNC-Chapel Hill to help build a wind farm in Pamlico Sound. This was obviously motivated by Basnight’s environmental concerns, Thorp said, but was well outside the university’s wheelhouse.

“When the Democrats were in power, they made me do things that I didn’t really want to do,” Thorp said. “But then when the Republicans were in power, they made me stop doing things that I really, really wanted to do. The second one is much worse.

“Being asked about teaching an honest version of American history, evolution, climate change,” Thorp said. “These are questions the university should never even have to answer. And that’s what eroded trust. If we can’t believe that the people who support us want us to find out the truth, how are we supposed to do what we signed up to do? »

A call to reverse course

From his perspective as a former board member of the UNC system and UNC-Chapel Hill, Fulton said he has seen the deep politicization of policy decisions and the direction of the system over the years. now. It must be reversed, he said.

Paul Fulton

Fulton, former dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he is now work on potential solutions as co-chairman of the Higher Ed Works group.

Citing a recent Higher Ed Works essay, Fulton said the selection process for UNC’s trustees and board of governors needs to be changed. Higher Education Works is a non-profit association whose mission is to support public education.

“If not depoliticized, the UNC system will be significantly and permanently diminished,” Fulton said.

Fulton pointed to another Higher Ed Works essay from former UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette. In the essay, Bissette pointed out how its former board of trustees — predominantly white, conservative, and male — does not reflect the universities it governs or the state as a whole. The council needs to be more racially and ethnically diverse, needs more women, and needs more people from different parts of the state, Bissette wrote.

“The biggest gap, however, between a council that resembles our state and the current council, is political,” Bissette wrote. “When I first started serving, Democrats and Republicans were about equally represented on the board of governors. It functioned effectively.

After the Republican takeover of the state government, the UNC Board of Governors went years without a single Democrat. After much controversy over its lack of diversity, a Democrat was nominated last year – but that individual was former state senator Joel Ford, who lost a Democratic primary for his seat, openly considered joining the Republican Party and faces heavy criticism from progressives for its record on LGBTQ issues and his behavior when dealing with members of that community.

Higher Education Works released a series of submissions from former government and UNC leaders from across the political spectrum, Fulton said. There are ways to accomplish a depoliticization of university governance if there is political will, he said.

“The best outcome we could have would be for a commission to study these and other proposals and make a proposal to the governor and the legislature,” Fulton said.

Searching for common ground

Beautiful Wheelan

Wheelan, whose association oversees accreditation of universities in the South, said it has seen a political and ideological shift in higher education in recent years — and not just in North Carolina.

Wheelan said that while tuition fees have increased at universities across the country over the past generation, there has not been a corresponding increase in graduate earnings. This has caused people to question the value of higher education in general.

This situation exacerbates existing conflicts between political appointees who have more conservative values ​​and ideologies and university students, professors and staff who tend to be more liberal, she said.

Political and ideological shifts are as inevitable in public higher education as in any other facet of society, Wheelan said. But the recent shift has not been toward more moderate ground.

“Instead of going from the far left to the middle, we went from the far left to the far right,” Wheelan said. “And we’re trying to find a way to get back to the middle.”