Conservative North Carolina businessman and millionaire James Arthur "Art" Pope has been appointed to the UNC System Board of Governors, the N.C. Senate voted this evening.
A 1978 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, Pope said during Thursday’s Senate Select Committee on Nominations meeting that he hoped to give back to the UNC System.
“As a graduate of the University of North Carolina, I personally have benefited from the system of higher education, and highly value the incredible contributions to our state that the University brings,” Pope said.
The Board of Governors oversees 17 institutions in the UNC System, and its 24 voting members are elected by the N.C. General Assembly to four-year terms.
Pope will be filling the vacant BOG position left after former state Sen. Bob Rucho resigned last week. Rucho was the second BOG member to resign this spring, following Tom Fetzer's resignation in May.
‘The godfather of Republican politics’
Pope is a prominent player in state politics and has been credited with helping flip North Carolina to Republican control in 2010.
He previously served four terms in the N.C. House of Representatives and was budget director for former Gov. Pat McCrory. He has been "widely viewed as one of the most influential people in Raleigh," according to a 2014 article from The Washington Post.
N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, said he was “completely blindsided” by the pick.
“He has been the godfather of Republican politics for at least the last decade,” Jackson said. “And apparently, that is a favor they've decided to repay by installing him in the top level of leadership for our University system.”
Multiple sources have reported that Pope was one of the most prolific donors to RedMap, a nationwide initiative that aimed to flip statehouses to Republican majorities in 2010 — particularly in areas with pending congressional redistricting.
Between 2001 and 2011, the John Williams Pope Family Foundation, of which Pope is currently chairperson, reportedly held assets of nearly $150 million, according to a report from The New Yorker.
Pope is currently the owner and chairperson of Variety Wholesalers Inc., a private family-held company that operates a chain of retail stores. Variety Wholesalers has made significant contributions to conservative political groups like Real Jobs N.C.
BOG member Marty Kotis said he believes Pope’s “financial acumen” will make him a good addition to the Board.
“I tend to not look at politics; instead I look more at their skillset,” Kotis told The Daily Tar Heel. “And in the few dealings I've had with Art Pope, he's a very savvy business guy.”
Partisan politics on BOG
Some see Pope’s appointment to the board as further indication that UNC System leadership has become increasingly political.
“There is no chance of shaking the perception that the Board is heavily partisan, no chance whatsoever,” Jackson said. “And any opportunity that we had in this moment to transition away from that perception just got smashed with a wrecking ball.”
The 2010 Republican takeover of the General Assembly mirrored a similar shift to the right on the BOG; currently, there are no self-identified Democrats on the Board.
Tom Ross — the last Democrat to serve as UNC System president — was forced to resign in 2015 amid accusations that his political affiliation was a motivating factor.
Kotis, a Republican member of the board, said that while he understands the concern about politics, he believes BOG discussions “don’t come down to Republican or Democrat issues.”
“I think that's what people are referring to, is more internal politics,” Kotis said. “And that's usually, some people that disagree on a particular issue and you have different alignments of interest.”
In addition to serving on the board of Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group founded by David Koch, Pope also co-founded North Carolina conservative think tanks the John Locke Foundation and James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center, said she believes Pope has thought carefully about higher education, and that he would serve the BOG well.
“I think that obviously his name often gets a lot of attention,” Robinson said. “But I think if people look at his qualifications, they will agree that he will be a good addition to the Board.”
Pope has spoken out about UNC System leadership in the past. As budget director under former Gov. Pat McCrory, Pope called on the UNC System to address what he viewed as wasteful spending.
Conservative think tank Civitas Institute, founded by Pope in 2005, has advocated for cost-cutting measures for UNC and UNC System programs in the past.
Jason Tyson, the director of media relations for the UNC System, said in an email statement that the UNC System and BOG would not be issuing comment on Pope’s appointment at this time.
Pope said in an interview with the DTH that he declined requests made by House and Senate members to join the Board of Governors in 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2019 due to other commitments.
Pope said he asked to be considered for the BOG at this time due to the unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though his term is set to end June 30, 2021, he said that he would consider staying longer if the System was not in a place he felt comfortable leaving it.
Pope said one key to budgeting during the pandemic will be to have “better and smarter” allocations, a practice that he said the 2014 Board of Governors failed to put in place. This course of action, he said, would help counter the inflation of college tuition relative to the economy.
“A lot of that cost is being passed on in the form of higher tuition, higher student debt, to the student, compared to the rest of the economy,” Pope said. “So, I hope to be able to bend that cost curve and allocate existing revenue, spend it better and smarter, to provide a quality education that’s more affordable.”
Kotis said he thought Pope’s experience with government budgeting could be valuable on the Committee on Budget and Finance.
“I find myself aligned with him a lot on these financially conservative thoughts, which is, you know, if I can save some money on construction costs, then that's money that could be used to educate students,” Kotis said.
Pope said his previous experience serving with the Republican Party, which still holds a bicameral majority, did play a part in his nomination.
“The reality is that generally when the Democrats have the majority, they have elected fellow Democrats to the Board of Governors, and yes, in general, before me and probably after me, when Republicans have had the majority they have generally elected Republican,” Pope said. “But I have confidence that everyone, once they are on the Board of Governors, serves the entire state, not a partisan agenda.”
Black Student Movement and UNC-Chapel Hill controversies
In 1975, Pope made DTH headlines as a UNC first-year after initiating a complaint in UNC Student Court against Algenon Marbley, then-president of Black Student Movement, for disruption of an on-campus speech by David Duke, a vocal white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan leader.
After a UNC Student Court trial, Marbley was ultimately not found in violation of the Code of Student Conduct.
Pope said that he views this incident as a matter of free speech.
“I absolutely abhor the Ku Klux Klan,” Pope said. “I never met David Duke, I never talked to David Duke, I would never endorse or support anything Mr. Duke was for.”
Tamiya Troy, incoming senior class vice president at UNC and incoming president of BSM, said she found out about Pope’s possible appointment and his connection with BSM via social media.
She said upon further research, she was troubled by his political history, but the discovery of this incident “shocked” her the most.
“In retaliation, he tried to get the president expelled through the honor court, which is obviously wrong,” Troy said. “For me, it put into perspective how bad he could be.”
Verdant Julius serves as a student leader and Campus Liaison for the UNC Association of Student Governments at N.C. A&T. He said Pope’s political ties, as well as his involvement in the 1975 David Duke incident, should concern all students and especially students of color.
Like Troy, Julius said he was alerted to the possibility of Pope’s appointment via social media. He started a petition calling for Pope’s election to the BOG to be rescinded. The petition currently has more than 500 signatures.
In November 2019, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and the UNC Board of Trustees presented the William Richardson Davie Award to Pope for “dedication, commitment and service to the University,” which University Communications described as the BOT’s highest honor.
The announcement highlighted Pope’s family foundation, which committed $10 million to different entities within the University in 2018.
Troy said this decision, especially in light of Pope’s political involvement and the causes supported by the Pope Foundation, is not an “appropriate representation” of UNC students.
“UNC’s decision to award him with the Davie Award was repulsive and shows that they care more about their reputation with the wealthy rather than the concerns of their students,” Troy said. “Allowing him to serve on the Board of Governors is not an appropriate representation of the values of students in the UNC System and contradicts the supposed values of the UNC System.”
Julius said he doubts Pope would be able to make much concrete change to the UNC System in his one-year term — but he can't say much with certainty.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know. It’s too early to tell.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.