Board of Governors considers launching conservative academic centers at UNC

Board of Governors considers launching conservative academic centers at UNC

- in News
Professor Robert George (center) with UNC President Margaret Spellings and Chairman Louis Bissette. (Photo by Joe Killian)

At last week’s UNC Board of Governors meeting, Professor Robert George of Princeton University held forth on the merits of his James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

George, who is hailed as America’s foremost Christian conservative intellectual, calls his program an excellent example of teaching courses dealing with government and civics from a balanced point of view, including ideas from across the political spectrum.

George’s program is seen by its conservative funders, however, as a successful “beachhead” in a political war for the soul of U.S. academia – and one of the best tools to eventually “bring the entire ideological house of cards crashing down upon itself.”

Members of UNC’s Board of Governors, appointed by the state’s GOP-dominated General Assembly, see it as an ideal model for a future UNC program.

Bob Rucho

“I think the program has brought a lot of balance, political and ideological balance, to Princeton,” said Board of Governors member Bob Rucho. “I think that’s something that is needed at every school and certainly at our schools.”

Rucho, new to the board this year, spent 17 years in the N.C. Senate, where he was one of the most powerful and most combative GOP legislators in the state.

But as much as Rucho and other board members admire George and his program, they acknowledge the difficulty of replicating it in a large public university system like UNC.

The Madison program was one of a number funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation. The foundation put more than $200 million into academic programs, fellows and publications to promote conservative ideas in academia — sometimes with less than academically laudable results.

As Jane Mayer wrote in a piece on the Olin Foundation for the Chronicle of Higher Education last year:

These funds enabled scores of young academics to take the time needed to do research and write in order to further their careers. The roster of recipients includes John Yoo, the legal scholar who went on to become the author of the George W. Bush administration’s controversial ‘torture memo’ legalizing the American government’s brutalization of terror suspects.

Without the rigorous peer ­review standards required by prestigious academic publications, the Olin foundation was able to inject into the mainstream a number of works whose scholarship was debatable at best. For example, Olin­ foundation funds enabled John R. Lott Jr., then an Olin fellow at the University of Chicago, to write his influential book More Guns, Less Crime. In the work, Lott argued that more guns actually reduce crime and that the legalization of concealed weapons would make citizens safer.

Politicians advocating weaker gun­ control laws frequently cited Lott’s findings. But according to Adam Winkler, the author of Gunfight, Lott’s scholarship was suspect. Winkler wrote that ‘Lott’s claimed source for this information was “national surveys,”‘ which under questioning he revised to just one survey that he and research assistants had conducted. When asked to provide the data, Winkler recounts, Lott said he had lost it in a computer crash. Asked for any evidence of the survey, writes Winkler, ‘Lott said he had no such evidence.’ (Proving that the recipients of Olin funds weren’t ideologically monolithic, Winkler, too, had received funds from the foundation.)

Another Olin ­funded book that made headlines and ended in accusations of intellectual dishonesty was David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill, to which the foundation gave a small research stipend. In the book, Brock defended the Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas by accusing Hill of fabricating her sworn testimony against him during his Senate confirmation hearings. Later, though, Brock recanted, admitting that he had been wrong. He apologized for the book and said that he had been deceived by conservative sources who had misled him.”

Academic centers and programs at public universities are more unwieldy and difficult to control than those at smaller but greatly influential schools. They’re also much more expensive to fund, as George himself acknowledged to the Board of Governors in his appearance last week.

For those reasons, as Olin Foundation Executive Director James Piereson wrote in a piece for Philanthropy magazine, private conservative foundations and funders don’t often flock to universities like UNC.

“University faculty have erected a series of governing presumptions that make it quite difficult for anyone outside the academy—even a major donor—to influence curriculum or the selection of faculty,” Piereson wrote. “The canons of academic freedom are the only sacred documents on the modern campus; they decree that decisions on appointments, tenure, and curriculum are the sole province of the faculty. Any outsider who seeks to influence those decisions will be accused of violating the faculty’s academic freedom, even though the faculty often makes such decisions in the most political of ways.”

Piereson’s conviction that most academic institutions are captives of entrenched liberals and ire at adherence to the established and accepted ideas of academic freedom is common among movement conservatives — including a number of members of the UNC Board of Governors.

Dr. Gabriel Lugo

But that’s not an accurate or fair assessment of the UNC system, said Gabriel Lugo, chair of UNC’s Faculty Assembly.

“He gave a very good speech, a very reasonable speech,” Lugo said of George’s remarks to the Board of Governors on the importance of ideological balance in academia. “But you could go to nearly any classroom in any UNC school and get the same talk and the same beliefs from any professor.”

“There is this perception that professors are all liberal, or are all on the same page politically,” Lugo said. “But I can tell you that is simply not true.”

Lugo, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, said he frequently works productively with colleagues whose politics are 180 degrees from his own. Professors whose students would never be able to guess their personal politics are more the rule than the exception at UNC schools in his experience, Lugo said.

Rucho acknowledged funding — tens of millions of dollars at a minimum, by his estimation — would be a challenge in UNC putting together a program like George’s at Princeton. Any such program would also have to have buy-in from faculty and administration, Rucho said.

“You have to have that,” Rucho said. “And there are some programs at larger public schools that we’re also going to have to look at. We’re just at the beginning of looking at this.”

UNC President Margaret Spellings agreed.

“Absolutely we are [looking at schools and programs beyond George’s at Princeton],” Spellings said in an interview after last week’s meeting. “There are efforts at Arizona State University… Texas A&M, the University of Missouri has a center – there are a number of models that we’ll look at in the private and public sector.”

“I think the thing that intrigued us about Professor George is they’ve been at it a long time,” Spellings said.

George has recently gotten a lot of press for teaching classes with his left-leaning Princeton colleague Cornel West, Spellings said, and the two are an excellent example of faculty with competing ideologies coming together to make a program better.

Board Member Steve Long said that, in the end, the existence of any such program will depend on buy-in from UNC faculty and administrators.

“It’s not going to go anywhere unless the faculty supports the program,” Long said. “[George’s] program was a faculty supported and initiated program — it really depends on who the faculty are. You’re not going to reproduce what’s he’s done — it’s a completely different environment. But in the end you can start a center, but it will die without [faulty and administration] support.”

That support may be hard to get.

Faculty and administrators across the system are still smarting from the targeting of a number of successful UNC academic centers to which the conservative board have been ideologically opposed. That includes the shuttering of UNC’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and the closure of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, strongly opposed those moves.

In an interview after last week’s board meeting he said any move to open new centers will have to have the chancellors at the table.

“If I’m not at the table on this then I probably won’t be very supportive,” Anderson said. He speculated that other chancellors would agree and that they will want heavy support from their faculty for whatever moves forward.

Something on the model of the Madison program will be a tough sell, said Dr. Michael C. Behrent, an associate professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University.

“A center created like this is going to be seen as transparently ideological,” Behrent said. “Because of that they’ll have second rate, non-tenure track professors and people they bring in from think tanks teaching these courses. They’ll attract conservative students, who are not really the maligned group on campuses they think they are, but it won’t engage with and become a part of the larger campus.”

Though the Board of Governors says it’s looking beyond conservatives, private schools and programs funded by conservative groups as it considers building a new program, Behrent and other faculty said their actions tell a different story.

Next month, the board of governors will host an annual luncheon. Their guest?

Dr. James R. Otteson

Dr. James R. Otteson, executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism and the Eudaimonia Institute at Wake Forest University.

The BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism is funded by the conservative Thomas W. Smith Foundation, which shares its devotion to the conservative “Objectivist” philosophy of Ayn Rand. The Smith foundation has a number of ties to the Olin foundation and counts James Piereson, Olin’s former director, among its board members.

The Eudaimonia Institute was founded with millions of dollars from the Charles Koch Foundation, prompting protests from the faculty of Wake Forest University itself.

Otteson, a conservative academic star in the mold of Robert George, will talk to the Board  of Governors about the importance of intellectual diversity on campuses.

About the author

Joe Killian, Investigative Reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in August of 2016. His work takes a closer look at government, politics and policy in North Carolina and their impact on the lives of everyday people. Before joining Policy Watch, Joe spent a decade at the News & Record in Greensboro, reporting on everything from cops and courts to higher education. He covered the city councils of High Point and Greensboro and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners before becoming the paper’s full-time government and politics reporter. His work has also appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal, Go Triad, the Bristol Press in Bristol, Conn., and the Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, Mass.
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