Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Right wants to control education—and in North Carolina, they’re doing it

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One thing the Right really, truly hates are views opposed to their own, particularly views back by evidence and sound reasoning, which seems to strike them as somehow unfair. And now they’re in a position to do something about that. Jedediah Purdy writes in the New Yorker:

On January 16th, Tom Ross, the president of the University of North Carolina, and John Fennebresque, the chair of its board of governors, held a press conference to announce that the board had asked for and received Ross’s resignation. With Ross sitting beside him, Fennebresque insisted, in effect, that he had been fired for no reason. Ross had been successful in every way, he told reporters: “exemplary” in his handling of recent athletic scandals, and a model of “work ethic” and “perfect integrity.” “There was no precipitating event,” Fennebresque, who looked by turns mournful and defensive during the twenty-minute exchange, said. “He’s been wonderful.”

In response to a series of questions, Fennebresque insisted that the decision was not about politics, at least not “to the best of my knowledge.” Few observers believed that there was not some political motivation. Ross, a former judge, once headed the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a major funder of progressive causes in North Carolina. Since Republicans, many of them affiliated with the Tea Party movement, took over the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010, the board of governors has become a Republican redoubt. Ross, in an answer to one question, did allude to the elephant in the room, observing, “There’s been a dramatic change in the state’s leadership, in policymakers.”

For several years, there have been indications that the state’s new leaders want to change the mission of public higher education in North Carolina. In 2013, the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, told William Bennett, a conservative talk-show host and former Secretary of Education, that the state shouldn’t “subsidize” courses in gender studies or Swahili (that is, offer them at public universities). The following year, he laid out his agenda in a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using the language of business schools, he urged his audience to “reform and adapt the U.N.C. brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the twenty-first century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.” McCrory also had a warning for faculty members whose subjects could be understood as political: “Our universities should not be used to indoctrinate our students to become liberals or conservatives, but should teach a diversity of opinions which will allow our future leaders to decide for themselves.”

On February 27th, the board, which had conducted a five-month-long review of all two hundred and forty centers and institutes at U.N.C., voted to eliminate three of them. Although the board has legal authority to govern U.N.C. as it sees fit, university policy and tradition had reserved this sort of decision for the schools. One of the closed centers was dedicated to the environment, another to voter engagement. The third, which many faculty members describe as the real target, was the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, run by Gene Nichol, a law professor and a vituperative critic of the Republican legislature. In one of a series of opinion pieces criticizing spending cuts, published in Raleigh’s News & Observer, he had referred to the legislature’s “unforgivable war on poor people.” Nichol has no doubt that the closing of the center was intended as punishment. On several occasions, “my dean was compelled to call me into his office and relate threats received from Republican leaders of the General Assembly if I didn’t stop writing articles for the News & Observer,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The center would be closed, or I’d be fired.”

Nichol, who has tenure, still holds his teaching position, and more than a hundred faculty members have signed a statement supporting him, but both the closing of his center and Ross’s dismissal have created an atmosphere of anxiety and caution. “People are telling me not to use their work e-mail, to call on their cell phone, if we’re going to talk about anything controversial,” Tamar Birckhead, an associate professor at the law school, told me. An untenured member of the humanities faculty, who requested anonymity, wrote in an e-mail, “I am constantly aware of the state’s charged political atmosphere and the scrutiny of the university’s political enemies. I know there are certain subjects I simply cannot write about in a public forum and topics I must handle gingerly in my teaching.” Other faculty members spoke of receiving phone calls from legislators and requests to review syllabi from conservative advocacy groups. Donald Raleigh, a history professor, said that one of those groups, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, requested the syllabus for his course “Gorbachev, the Collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Rise of the New Russia.” The syllabus was freely available online, but the Pope Center wrote to the university legal office to request it under the state’s open-records law. “I really don’t know why they wanted the syllabus for this fairly conventional course, nor do I know what they did with it,” Raleigh said.

Republican politics in North Carolina are characterized by a tight interweaving of elected officials with think tanks and advocacy groups. At the center of this network is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 March 2015 at 3:49 pm

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