Former university leaders lament GOP’s political push at UNC during online forum

By: - February 4, 2022 6:00 am

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

The livestreamed panel, organized by the Coalition for Carolina, brought together former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellors James Moeser and Holden Thorp; former UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees member Paul Fulton; and Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which oversees accreditation at more than 800 higher ed institutions.

An old problem grows more serious

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

Policy Watch has extensively documented the scandals and partisan political conflicts in the UNC System for the last few years. Moeser said the turning point, as he sees it, was the 2010 election in which Republicans took control of the General Assembly. Moeser gave the audience Wednesday a brief tour of the toll of politicization from his perspective as a former chancellor.

“They set about cutting taxes,” Moeser said. “I think that actually was totally understandable given that we were in a recession at the moment. They also stopped tuition increases. That was also understandable at the time. I don’t think they realized the extent that at Chapel Hill we’d been using campus-based tuition increases as the fuel for faculty salaries.”

James Moeser

When he left office in 2008, Moeser said, faculty salaries were higher than those at the University of Michigan, better than the University of Virginia by rank, and and just slightly below the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA. The university accomplished that by raising tuition at UNC’s flagship university, Moeser said, which benefited from being able to attract and retain top faculty.

The campus was also able to put aside as much as 40% of the dollars generated by those increases to go to need-based aid for students, Moeser said — the foundation of the Carolina Covenant, which made sure those in need could still attend the school.

But Moeser said the UNC Board of Governors, appointees of a new conservative majority in the General Assembly, eliminated the ability to do both those things. By starving the university’s budget, lawmakers hampered the university’s ability to compete on salaries and to assure that students most in need could attend without burdensome debt.

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

“In 2015 they eliminated the law school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity,” Moeser said. “That was a political act that was aimed at [law professor and author] Gene Nichol, directly aimed at Gene Nichol.”

The next 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 stripped university related powers from the governor’s office rather than let Cooper exercise the traditional power of his office to appoint four of the 13 trustees at each of the UNC system campuses.

Relocating that power with the leaders of the GOP-held stateHouse and Senate further politicized appointments, Moeser said, and eliminated a lot of ideological diversity on the governing boards.

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

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

Last year, a vote on Jones’s tenure was held up by political appointees on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees after powerful conservative interests objected to the hire. Under intense pressure and in the national spotlight, the board did eventually vote to offer Hannah-Jones tenure, but the controversy led her to take a position at Howard University instead. The episode also led some long-time faculty members to leave the university or begin looking for new jobs, and helped convince some highly sought-after recruits to decline to come to the university.

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

Holden Thorp

More frequent and problematic political meddling

Thorp, who followed Moeser as chancellor at Chapel Hill, said he certainly saw politics at play as part of UNC System governance under a Democratic majority. But as political meddling has become more frequent and more partisan under Republicans, Thorp said, there is also a condescending tendency to pretend that politics aren’t at the heart of many conflicts at Chapel Hill and in the UNC System.

“I wish a lot of the folks who are doing what they’re doing would just say, ‘Listen, we won the election and we get to do this stuff,’” Thorp said. “Then we could have a debate about whether their political policies are best, like you would in any political situation.”

“There’s a lot of time being wasted arguing over whether something is political or not when it obviously is,” Thorp said.

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

“When Democrats were in power they made me do some things 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 do want to do. The second one is way 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 is what has eroded trust. If we can’t believe that the people supporting us want us to go find the truth, how are we supposed to do what we signed on to do?”

A call to reverse course

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

Paul Fulton

Fulton, a former dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, said he is now working on potential solutions as co-chair of the group Higher Ed Works.

Quoting from a recent essay at Higher Ed Works, Fulton said the selection process for trustees and UNC Board of Governors members must be changed. Higher Ed Works is a nonprofit whose mission is to support public education.

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

Fulton pointed to another Higher Ed Works essay by former UNC Board of Governors Chair Lou Bissette. In the essay, Bissette pointed out the way in which his former board — overwhelmingly white, conservative and male — fails to reflect the universities it governs or the state as a whole. The board needs to be more racially and ethnically diverse, needs more women, and more people from different parts of the state, Bissette wrote.

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

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

Higher Ed Works has published a series of proposals from former governmental and UNC leaders across the political spectrum, Fulton said. There are ways to accomplish a depoliticization of university governance if there is the political will, he said.

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

Seeking middle ground

Belle Wheelan

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

Wheelan said that while the cost of tuition has increased at universities across the country in the last generation, there hasn’t been a corresponding rise in earnings for graduates. That has led to people questioning the value of higher education in general.

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

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

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

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.