Jim Leutze, former UNC professor, wrote a book about the tumultuous history of North Carolina politics.
In the early 1800s, North Carolina was branded the “Rip Van Winkle State” for its backward, racist attitudes and comatose approach to the changing environment around it. But starting around 1835 and lasting until 2010, effective leaders and state constitutional reforms earned North Carolina a new nickname: progressive.
This is the argument of former UNC professor Jim Leutze in his new book, “Entering North Carolina: Set Clocks Back 100 Years.” Leutze, also the former chancellor of UNC-Wilmington, spoke with staff writer Blake Dodge about his book.
THE DAILY TAR HEEL: What led you to write the book?
JIM LEUTZE: I wanted to raise my family and make my career here because I came to the conclusion that this was a state that had a vision of where it wanted to go, that it no longer wanted to be a southern state mired in racism and poverty, that it wanted to be a “New South.” And from the time that I came in 1964 through about 2010, I thought it was going to continue and follow a new course, and it did. I was complacently happy. But the changes that came in 2010 made me distinctly unhappy.
DTH: What made you unhappy?
JL: We didn’t only put the brakes on, but we wanted to go backward, all the way back to the late 19th century — which was not only less progressive, but less successful. We had poor schools, low wages and a poor reputation for the state. I wrote the book because I was unhappy with the way things were going, and I was very puzzled about what had happened and why it happened.
DTH: What specific 2010 policies are you talking about?
JL: Well, obviously, as a professional educator, I am very unhappy about what’s happened to our public education system. And I am pretty sure that the people who are currently in power do not favor public education. The 7 percent teacher raise — for some — is a cynical political move for an election year, and it cannot fool me. They are not supporters of public education. And they are not supporters of the University. I’ve seen what they’ve done as far as the University is concerned — the cuts they have made, the way in which we have had to cut back on faculty and the increasing cost for students and their parents.
DTH: What has the N.C. General Assembly done exactly, and what kind of impact has it had on students?
JL: I believe that education is a public good. I believe you want an educated populace, so that those people can become tax creators, they can earn a good living, they can run a good business, they can come up with new ideas that will lead to hiring people and, furthermore, that they will be able to make wise choices politically. When I was at Chapel Hill, the state paid more than half the cost of education. Now the state pays more like 25 percent of the cost of education, with the idea that education is a private good. It’s a whole different philosophy about the value of education. But education is a public good. You will be a taxpayer, you won’t be in jail, you won’t be on welfare — you’ll be a taxpayer. I see the reduction in the amount that the state pays for in education as bad public policy.
DTH: What makes for a good leader of North Carolina?
JL: We have had some governors who were business people who have been good governors. But I don’t think we can necessarily identify a profile. We have had several effective governors who have been farmers, like Jim Hunt. But what he did was organize the business people; he met with them regularly and persuaded them to support his programs. Terry Sanford was a lawyer. We’ve had governors who used to be chemistry professors. There is no one profile that can make a good leader or governor. What made them great? They had a vision of where they wanted the state to go, and they were willing to get out front and lead. They would do unpopular things, like raise taxes. Good leaders figure out what they want to do and then find the money for it. They don’t settle for, “We don’t know where the money went.”
DTH: What would be your caveat to UNC system students? What do you think they should know about the legislature?
JL: I think they should know that they’re getting screwed, that their long-range interests are not being taken into consideration. They need to get out of their cocoon and realize there’s a broader world out there and that decisions are being made today that will affect the world they live in, that their children live in. They need to force themselves to think about what they want when they’re 40. Students have to be impressed with the fact that it’s their future. I’m 78 years old, and I’m the one doing all the fighting. They should do their own fighting, or at least, help me fight for them.