Column: Rumors of Pope as UNC president

Seth Rose is a senior political science major from Durham.

Art Pope, CEO of Variety Wholesalers Inc. and former state budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory, has long wielded far too much power in North Carolina. He has manipulated a considerable personal fortune to create a political empire of immense and unchecked influence.

After resigning as budget director in August, rumors are circulating that his next sphere of control will be higher education. The (Raleigh) News & Observer recently printed two editorials linking his name to the UNC system’s presidency, a position currently held by Thomas Ross.

As the state’s biggest political donor, Pope’s network of organizations funded the state’s sharp conservative turn. According to an extensive profile by The New Yorker, his network has given $35 million in the last decade to supposedly non-partisan policy groups of his own creation, which are uniformly dedicated to conservative causes. In the 2010 state legislative elections, he pumped millions of dollars into 22 races, 18 of which were won by candidates with his backing.

His empire holds considerable power in the N.C. General Assembly. The Locke Foundation, one of the many conservative think-tanks Pope bankrolls, took credit for the legislature’s tax policy and its decision to lift the cap on charter schools, as well as other small-ticket items.

Pope has never held an official position in higher education in North Carolina, but as usual, his personal fortune seems to be enough justification to exert influence. Since 2003, his network has funded the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. The center advocated sharp cuts to public funding of higher education, which came to fruition when the General Assembly shanked $414 million from the university system in 2011.

Pope has used his wealth to mold the UNC system to his liking. In 2004, the John William Pope Foundation offered a $14 million donation to UNC for a program in “Western studies.”

In December 2013, The Pope Center published a report — “General Education at UNC-Chapel Hill” — that criticized the general education program at UNC for having been “influenced by many of the ills of today’s academy,” which include “political correctness” and “trendiness.” The report specifically takes aim at courses that are too narrow in scope, most of which deal with minority and global studies. It further advocates for Western studies by claiming that “not all history is equally valuable — the study of Western civilization is richer and more pertinent to U.S. students than other branches.”

When asked, Pope refused to speculate on the rumors connecting him to the presidency on the basis that Ross still holds the position. But further rumors have contained speculation that the eminently more-qualified Ross will resign from his post at the end of the year.

The mere possibility of Pope’s ascendancy to system president should inspire us to guard against further attacks upon UNC’s commitment to providing courses that challenge dominant narratives. May the rumors remain just rumors.

Thanks for reading.

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