Conservative Group Angers Many at UNC · 06 July 2006

By Jane Stancill--News & Observer--07/06/06

 

CHAPEL HILL -- "Canine Cultural Studies" at UNC-Chapel Hill was named Course of the Month, but that was no great honor.
The freshman seminar got the title -- and a public skewering -- this year on the Web site of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Professor Alice Kuzniar was shocked to be lampooned by the conservative think tank.

"I feel it's such an incredible misrepresentation of what we're doing in the classroom," she said. "We're reading Virginia Woolf. We're reading Franz Kafka."

In the class, Kuzniar had her Germanic language students study the representation of the dog in art, film and literature.

Still, the idea of an academic course about dogs was just too juicy to pass up for the Pope Center, which called it "deliciously absurd" and asked, "What, is barking now a Germanic language?"

"It's sort of mocking," said Jon Sanders, a Pope Center policy analyst. "I don't dispute that. I like that better than pointing at it and saying, 'This is awful, this is bad.' "

But some say the Pope Center's mockery has gone too far. Its criticism of universities -- particularly UNC-Chapel Hill -- has bruised feelings and stirred anger among many faculty members.

Emotions are so strong that some want the university to refuse a potential multimillion-dollar grant by the related John William Pope Foundation.

The money would finance a minor in Western culture studies. The plan was developed by a faculty committee after the university approached the Pope family for a large donation. The foundation gave $25,000 to plan the program.

The Popes, of Raleigh, are one of the Triangle's richest families, and they've given generously to conservative causes and universities. Their foundation is named for John Pope, a former UNC-CH trustee. It is run by his son, Art Pope, a UNC-CH alumnus and former Republican state legislator.

Some faculty members and students fear the proposed UNC-CH program could threaten academic freedom and usurp the faculty's authority to set curriculum. A graduate student association has opposed it, professors spoke against it last week, and the undergraduate Student Congress could take up a resolution against it in January.

Judith Bennett, a professor of medieval history and Western civilization, said teaching in a Pope-funded program would make her feel like "Art Pope is sitting in the back of the classroom."

"If this program goes through, I would feel vulnerable to a whole new level of hostile surveillance," she said.

Art Pope said the foundation would decide on the grant in December or January. The program would cost $600,000 or $700,000 a year for five years, after which the foundation would decide whether to set up a permanent endowment. That would be about $12 million.

If the proposal is good, the foundation will give the money, he said.

"A protest by a few is not going to prevent us from funding programs available to all students at Chapel Hill," he said.

The Pope Foundation

The Pope Foundation has supported a number of schools, including Campbell University and George Mason University in Virginia. This year, it gave N.C. State University $511,500 to develop courses that explore relationships between economics and politics in free societies.

The Popes also are big supporters of their alma mater. The foundation has given money to UNC-CH's business school, cancer center, social work school, College of Arts and Sciences, alumni center and other causes.

The foundation also supports conservative groups, including giving more than $26,000 to the Committee for a Better Carolina. That UNC-CH student group bought newspaper ads last year criticizing the university's freshman reading assignment, "Nickel and Dimed," as a liberal rant.

The Pope Center

The foundation is the main supporter of the Pope Center, though the two are separate organizations. The Pope Center has six staff members at offices in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. It has an annual budget of more than $300,000, said George Leef, executive director.

The center was founded in 1996 as a branch of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank. The center became an independent organization in 2003 and in January opened the Chapel Hill office. That was a signal, some say, that the group wants to step up its scrutiny of the flagship campus.

Besides the Course of the Month selections on its Web site, the center conducts policy studies on issues such as affirmative action, faculty salaries, tuition and higher education financing.

Faculty at UNC-CH have complained that the center engages in ridicule and mean-spirited attack, not fair criticism.

Academic degradation

Much of the group's efforts focus on what Leef calls academic degradation, or the "dumbing down" of the curriculum. A recent spotlighted course is a UNC-Charlotte music class on the "American Idol" TV show.

"The mission is to promote excellence in higher education, which largely entails criticizing the policies and curriculum decisions that get in the way of excellence," Leef said.

Judith Wegner, chairwoman of the UNC-CH faculty, said critics of the potential Pope donation may be playing into the hands of conservatives who say the campus tolerates only liberal points of view.

"This creates the perception that there is some kind of house religion," she said. "I hope we can take a step back."

Leef chuckles at the concerns of faculty and students who worry about the Pope influence.

"The university is an autonomous body," he said. "It can take the money. If it takes the money, it does not become a marionette. I think this is much ado about nothing."

But Dustin Ingalls, a sophomore from Raleigh, isn't so sure. He doesn't oppose additional Western culture courses, but he doesn't like the idea of an academic program entirely funded by a donor with a clear political agenda.

Sanders, the Pope policy analyst, said the critics seem to have a double standard when it comes to academic freedom.

"How are you threatening academic freedom by bringing more courses to the university?" he asked.