The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new, subscription-only, article about the influence of the Pope Foundation and the Pope Center on North Carolina’s colleges, particularly through the legislature. As with all such articles, the crux is centered around our connection with former budget director and rich guy Art Pope. People interviewed in the piece include blogger Thomas Mills, NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon, and former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor James Moeser. Some choice quotes:

  • “To be fair, Art Pope has been very generous with his money in supporting the university,” Mr. Mills said. “I don’t think he is anti-public education. But he wants to control what is taught in higher education.”
  • “I don’t believe they support a well-funded public-university system for the people of North Carolina,” said Chris Fitzsimmon [sic], founder and executive director of the left-leaning NC Policy Watch. “They are unabashed in their view that far too many people go to college.”
  • The center promotes “a very narrow, archaic view of what a university should be,” said James C. Moeser, who served as chancellor of the flagship campus from 2000 to 2008. “They’ve strongly influenced the direction of the Republican Party in the state. Most faculty are terrified of them.”
  • “While they’re thoughtful,” Mr. Moeser said, “they’ve allied themselves with the know-nothing crowd in the legislature that doesn’t even like universities.”

We have here three different schools of thought on the agenda of Art Pope and Friends; they can be summed up as “They are benevolent authoritarians (Mills),” “They have malevolent intentions (Fitzsimon),” and “They don’t even like universities!!! (Moeser).”

While the narrative arc of the article is predictably slanted, none of the three interviewees were completely unfair.

Art Pope is obviously not anti-public education. I have no idea whether he “wants to control what is taught.” (For one, I’ve never met or spoken to him after being here for over a year.) At the Pope Center though, we do want to make sure universities, especially but not exclusively public ones, are teaching instead of indoctrinating, and offer substance instead of fluff.

Do we “support a well-funded public-university system?” We certainly want to eliminate waste and save the taxpayers money. But the state spends more than the national average on higher education expenditures, so this is hardly the death knell of the system. University functions can still be funded after a little trim.

And while I don’t know the correct number of people that should be in college, it is indeed probably too high. It’s dangerous to tell every kid that college is the ticket to the middle class, because one day it won’t be, and as with any market, no one knows when that day will come. College has been oversold, as my colleague George Leef likes to say.

Is our view of what the university should be “narrow” and “archaic?” Hardly. Take a look at Leef’s recent review of Kevin Carey’s book touting “The University of Everywhere” as the future of education. It’s true that we would prefer some things the way they used to be. But I’d be curious to hear Moeser’s thoughts on some of the great advances of the modern university we are concerned about, such as disregard for students’ rights, preaching intolerance as tolerance, and reducing academic standards.

As Art Pope himself says in the Chronicle piece:

“To question and try and improve the university is not being critical, much less any type of conflict or dichotomy,” he said. “They’re one and the same thing.”