Exile on Jones Street: Purges of UNC

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

There’s a chill in the air and I’m not talking about the weather.

It was just a matter of time before the “reformers” driving policy in this state got their hooks into the University of North Carolina System.

For a few years, they left the thing alone, for the most part content to shake some millions here or there out the campus budgets. But now, after disrupting most every other corner of state government, the time has come it seems to disrupt UNC.

There were a lot of expectations that this would happen. In the past two sessions there have been occasional tremors, including open discussion about closing a campus or two — namely Winston-Salem State University and Elizabeth City State University — in the name of efficiency.

Traditionally, the university has relied on powerful friends and excellent lobbyists to protect the campuses and the flow of revenue. And for several decades it has successfully resisted large, structural change. Significant change has proven even harder for state leaders to affect after the amount of funding from other sources, primarily those precious federal research grants, eclipsed the state’s contribution.

What we’ve seen instead of major change has been more nibbling around the edges, with the occasional full-on chomp.

But this year, the dynamics are different. The legislature has found a much more willing partner in the new Board of Governors. In an early sign of its new cooperative spirit the board has taken a legislative mandate to winnow down its hundreds of centers, programs and institutes and turned it in to an open purge of those with views contrary to the party line.

A special committee of the BOG narrowed the list down to 34 centers and institutes, most of which are focused on poverty, civil rights, economic and environmental issues. It looks like another criteria was whether the organization is focused on a specific, gender or race and whether the word “diversity” appears anywhere in the name. Seven of the centers are in the Triad.

Apparently what the BOG is after is anything in the system that has an advocacy role or is doing research on what might be best described as uncomfortable truths, be they civil rights, emerging issues or climate science.

How the university community responds will be telling. The BOG for now is saying that it is up to the campuses to make the adjustments, but that denies a long history of centers and institutes seeing their funding slashed or even zeroed out when the budget rolls around.

When that happens will the university blink or fight for their independence? Will they throw a few centers under the bus thinking that will placate the ardent disrupters?

I sure as hell hope not, because it won’t.

The recent election emboldened a lot of people fairly new to power and far more ideologically driven than most of their predecessors. Last year we saw legislators willing to play hardball, threatening to close campuses. It’s hard to see UNC, an institution with all the problems and scandals it can handle, going all out to save all 34, but maybe they’ll surprise us.

We don’t know for now exactly what the BOG is up to and where they’ll go, but they certainly have put the university administration as well as the 34 organizations on notice that they are watching.

In that, the disrupters have already chalked up a major accomplishment. There’s a chill in the air and I’m not talking about the weather.

  • Elizabeth Keathley

    Aren’t members of the BOG appointed by the legislature? This attack on the Centers is just an escalation of Civitas’s (a branch of the Karl Rove emprire) war on Gene Nichol. And the BoG has done plenty to eviscerate education besides this, including institute new rules for faculty workloads that make it impossible to give students the individual attention they need, a tuition surcharge for taking too long to graduate, and a limit on how many times students can withdraw from courses without an academic penalty. These changes punish the working class and minority students disproportionately. The push to find “new revenue streams” has also come mainly from the BOG, along with diminished state funds to the UNCG campuses and luxurious recreation facilities have sprung up on most campuses—a big both to attract more affluent students and to make their time in college cozy and memorable so they donate big as alums. A pox on all that.