A dickens of a protest at UNC

(Note: This column was originally published in The News & Observer, Dec. 10, 2004.)

What if the petty, snarling villain in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were Bob Cratchit? What if Ebenezer Scrooge had tried from the beginning to help the hobbling young Tim, but Bob threw his money back in his face? What if the other Cratchits sat mute in fear of Bob as he said, “Bah! You don’t believe as I do, Mr. Scrooge! Sometimes you criticize my work! To me your money is tainted!”

Here’s what: You would have the situation now playing out at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Wealthy businessmen are trying to donate to fix an obvious deficiency in the curriculum, but some crotchety faculty members and students are bah-humbugging about the philanthropists’ conservative beliefs, saying their money’s tainted, calling them “Racist, Sexist, Classist, Homophobic Donors” in sign-waving protests.

As things are, UNC-Chapel Hill will soon have a new curriculum, and while the previous curriculum required students to take one course in a period of Western history before 1700, the new one will not require students to take a course in any segment of Western history.

In contrast, the proposed Western Civilization program, which would not be mandatory, would offer students a chance to engage themselves more fully in the vibrant study of the Western world. To pay for it, the College of Arts & Sciences has approached the John William Pope Foundation of Raleigh for financial support worth several millions of dollars.

The Popes are highly successful businessmen in North Carolina and, what’s more, they’re philanthropists who generously give back to the community. Faculty members normally applaud that. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the Popes fund a variety of academic programs and research initiatives. Faculty members normally applaud that, too. The Popes also provide grants to other universities, including George Mason and Campbell. Just recently, they gave a grant to start new courses in economics and political science at N.C. State University.

However, the Pope Foundation also gives to conservative causes, including the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, for which I work. The Popes’ ties to conservative causes, we’re told, are why some at Chapel Hill oppose the Western Civ program. After all — and this offense is grave — the Pope Center has written critically of things at the university. This year those included its new minor in “Latina/o studies,” its derecognition of and seizure of funds privately raised by a Christian fraternity, a Germanic language course on “Canine Culture Studies,” and lecturer Elyse Crystall’s harassment and discrimination against her “white, heterosexual, (C)hristian male” student.

But is such criticism really what concerns the critics? Or is it that they oppose the study itself? The other Pope donations received nary a peep of protest. No sign painters plumbed the shallow well of leftist insults over their other gifts to Carolina. Why this one, if not the subject matter?

Well, they snort, nobody really wants this program. At a campus meeting over the proposal, political science professor Pamela Conover asked, “Where are the students, where are the faculty, that are dying to have this?” Student Body President Matt Calabria supposedly answered for all the students: “Students don’t want it.” Geography professor Altha Cravey wrote that “It’s clear that money, not faculty initiative or student need, is driving this process.”

Besides, as was stated in the leftist listserv posting that called for the protest, the study of Western Civilization is merely “history dealing solely with the disenfranchised plight of rich, white, Protestant men.” Bah!

What’s needed now is a Dickensian ending. Someone in this tale needs a change of heart. It’s unlikely the nay-Bobs will experience one anytime soon, and it’s unclear whether they will prevail over the generous Ebenezers.

Reportedly, the rest of the Cratchits on campus support the proposal and are appalled by the protests, but they’re afraid to speak out publicly because they fear hate and chants will be leveled at them next. Maybe they are the ones who need a change of heart. Isn’t it time for them to speak out before something good for their university is lost?

It’s their campus, too — do they want governance by fear and protest?