Deception and bad faith at UNC

By: - October 31, 2017 5:00 am

The Board of Governors is not just pushing the Right’s agenda, it’s intentionally withholding information from the public

[Note: This story has been updated — see below.] That there is a war underway for the heart and soul of higher education in North Carolina comes as no surprise to anyone who follows the state policy debate. For years now, North Carolina’s conservative think tanks and politicians have, along with the people who fund them, been waging a relentless effort to seize control of what they, rather bizarrely when you think about it for a minute, view as a bastion of the radical left.

Whether they’re firing able and honorable public servants like Tom Ross, railing against non-traditional instructors and curricula, attacking rules designed to promote equality for women, racial minorities and LGBTQ people, touting a supposed commitment to “free speech” in order to silence protesters who would challenge voices of hate and exclusion, defunding shoestring efforts at law schools designed to enforce civil rights laws and combat poverty, or just simply slashing funding and jacking up tuition and fees, conservative ideologues have, as the saying goes, “an agenda.”

At its heart, that agenda is about transforming higher education in North Carolina from an affordable and accessible source of enlightenment for the many into a much more expensive and exclusive training ground for employment in the corporate world.

Michael Palm, an associate professor of Communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, offered a somewhat blunter assessment of the ongoing shift in a recent story by Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian. “The Board of Governors’ five year plan seems to be to turn Chapel Hill into a vocational college with really good sports teams,” Palm said.

All guns blazing

Given the scale and scope of the Right’s ambitions in this area, it comes as no shock that the tactics employed have been anything but understated. As in so many other areas of the modern public policy debate in North Carolina—be it redistricting/gerrymandering, voting rights, environmental protection, tax fairness or even the procedures employed at the General Assembly—conservative activists have embarked upon this particular crusade with a take-no-prisoners, all-guns-blazing approach.

Rather than working for gradual, consensus-driven change, the scheme has been to pack the UNC Board of Governors with partisan ideologues and push hard and fast for dramatic change that is clearly and inextricably linked to the agenda of conservative legislative leaders. This is from a story authored by reporter Jane Stancill for this past Sunday’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer:

The board that oversees the state’s public university system has always been political. After all, its members are elected by the legislature.

Now, though, the UNC Board of Governors is viewed by some as an extension of the Republican-dominated legislature. The 28 voting members include five ex-legislators, three lobbyists and two former lobbyists, along with others who have business ties to lawmakers. Legislators routinely sit in on board meetings, a relatively new practice. Increasingly, board members reference the legislature’s wishes in policy debates.

The entanglements have led to questions about the board’s independence and its ability to make decisions in the best interest of the 225,000 students enrolled in the university system. Faculty leaders have voiced opposition about the board’s intervention into campus and academic matters in recent months.”

And this is from another recent story by Joe Killian (“The battle for the future of UNC: Conservative members of the Board of Governors push for dramatic change”) that describes the rapid rise of new Board of Governors member and long-time conservative firebrand, Tom Fetzer, and a fiery speech he delivered at a September board meeting:

Like the N.C. Senate that elected him, Fetzer made it clear that the more conservative wing of the almost entirely Republican board does not just consider political consensus inefficient or unnecessary but a sign of political and moral weakness.”

Stealthy tactics raise serious questions

If there is a most egregious and outrageous aspect to this particular conservative policy putsch of late, however, it has to be the deception and bad faith that the conservative architects have brought to the process.

If you doubt this, consider the following:

As a part of the radical system overhaul the right-wing members of the Board of Governors are seeking to effect, the Board has established new task forces and/or subcommittees that are charged with looking at various aspects of the UNC system. One such subgroup is meeting to examine the university’s “free expression” policies. As best as can be determined, two other task forces are charged with examining how the board conducts its meetings and the overall purpose of UNC General Administration.

While not remarkable in and of themselves, there is one truly outrageous aspect to the establishment of these groups: No one in the public knows who is on them.

What’s more, this is not an accident. As Killian reported almost three weeks ago, “no list of the members of these task forces and sub-committees has been made publicly available and our request for their membership has not been answered.”

Yes, you read that right. The public body that runs of the University of North Carolina is taking important action in all of our names to restructure one of the state’s most important public institutions and refuses to say who has even been assigned to do the work. Even the current leaders of the General Assembly wouldn’t try such a stunt.

What’s more, Josh Ellis, the university’s Associate Vice President for Media Relations, apparently knows this information and refuses to disclose it. In response to Killian’s request for a simple list of who serves on these task forces and subcommittees, Ellis replied that Killian would have to wait until the minutes of the full board’s last meeting are made public in November. This is the case despite the fact that the task forces/subcommittees are already meeting and despite the fact that Killian went to Ellis’ office a few weeks back to make the request in face to face.

But wait, it gets worse. Ellis is also refusing to disclose other simple and basic bits of information about the board’s activities that clearly belong in the public sphere. For instance, the full board has embarked upon a fact finding tour of various UNC campuses. Last week, several board members, along with President Margaret Spellings, visited UNC Pembroke as part of the tour. Other visits are reportedly planned.

Unfortunately, no one in the public—except perhaps the individual campus leaders themselves—will be privy to this information. As far as Mr. Ellis and, presumably, his bosses are concerned, the public has no right to this information as he has, again, refused to fulfill Killian’s request for details. Ellis similarly did not respond to voice and email messages I left with him yesterday afternoon.

[UPDATE: Shortly after this story was posted, Ellis contacted Killian and, after having said that things had taken him longer than he had expected, provided some of the requested information. He stated, however, that tour dates for the board’s campus visits “have not been finalized yet.” Look for further updates on The Progressive Pulse blog.] 

Paranoia at work

If, as was intimated above, there is a most bizarre aspect to the assault on UNC, it has to be the Right’s misapprehension of the reality on university campuses. Simply put, the University of North Carolina is nothing if not a multi-billion dollar “establishment” enterprise. It is, in effect, a giant, publicly-owned, multi-national corporation. In countless ways, it is at one with corporate America and anything but a hotbed of left-wing radicalism.

Sadly, however, in the paranoid and insecure version of reality that’s so prevalent amongst modern American conservatives in the era of Trump, anyone who questions any aspect of the dominant power structure is suspect and subject to being labeled a subversive. Like the McCarthyites of the mid-20th Century, the people driving the UNC Board of Governors think thy know who their enemies are and are not terribly concerned about bothering with the niceties of open and honest government when it comes to rooting them out and imposing a new order.

Let’s hope other voices speak up loudly and soon in opposition to the board’s secrecy and deception. There may not be much that caring and thinking people can do to stop the conservative war on UNC in the near term, but the public ought to, at the very least, be able to bear witness.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.