The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

Republicans have a bone to pick with UNC. It’s a conservative vs. liberal dynamic that has defined the precarious relationship of the N.C. General Assembly with the state’s flagship public university for eons. But rarely has the hostility been this pronounced.

From the infamous (and unconstitutional) 1963 Speaker Ban law targeting communists to the bill filed earlier this month to block gender-neutral housing, conservatives in the legislature have always been fond of meddling with UNC when it’s an easy political target.

The late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was notorious for bashing UNC’s radical tendencies in the 1960s. GOP mega-donor and current head budget writer Art Pope has used his family foundation to generously support the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, UNC’s most outspoken detractor.

The opening salvo this year was the resounding backlash against Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s disparaging remarks about UNC gender studies majors and the merits (or lack thereof) of a liberal arts degree. I wonder who GOP lawmakers had in mind when they filed a bill to make it harder for college students to vote.

For the first time since the 1800s, the GOP has unchecked power to set higher education policy, write the budget and appoint the UNC-system Board of Governors. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for critics to flex their political muscle to reshape the University in their free-market vision of the future.

Veteran Democratic strategist Gary Pearce noted last week: “Chapel Hill is an essential element of North Carolina’s progressive tradition. Which is why it’s in the crosshairs.” Pearce described the current acrimony as “the Speaker Ban Law sequel.”

The response has been loud and angry. Student activists created the N.C. Student Power Union last year as a vehicle for protest. Professors formed Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina to denounce the GOP’s policy agenda.

Outgoing Chancellor Holden Thorp has vociferously opposed McCrory’s call for big tuition hikes for out-of-state students. Provost Bruce Carney described the proposal to redirect that money to the state’s general fund as morally indefensible.

Even the appointment of environmental scientist Carol Folt as UNC’s next chancellor feels like a sharp rebuttal to a Republican majority that’s not so keen on science or the environment these days. Remember, House Speaker Thom Tillis reportedly said last year his dream is “to fire all the chancellors and replace them with general managers.” Folt is a renowned Ivy League researcher, not a corporate CEO.

Conservative commentator Chub Seawell famously summed up right-wing skepticism about UNC as the state’s liberal bastion: Why should North Carolina build a zoo when the state could just put up a fence around Chapel Hill?

With no end in sight for the battle between Republicans and UNC, I’m inclined to start building a fence around the Legislative Building in Raleigh. Who’s with me?

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