North Carolina State Faculty Challenge Potential Donation

Outspoken faculty members with a strong political agenda have interfered in discussions about a potential donation to a North Carolina university.

Toby Parcel, dean of the College of Humanities and Social
Sciences at North Carolina State University, had quietly approached the Pope Foundation to explore funding for academic programs. But in a stormy public meeting in early December, some faculty members made it clear that they don’t want their college to get any money from Pope.

Apparently opposing the Pope Foundation for its conservative political philosophy, several faculty members used over-the-top language, calling the money “dirty money” and saying that to accept funds would be “a very dangerous step.” (The discussions had involved support of a study abroad program and French and German language programs.)

J. Arthur “Art” Pope responded with a column in the Raleigh News & Observer on December 13. He said that, contrary to the implication of “dirty money,” the foundation’s funds had come from “decades of general merchandise retailing in North Carolina and beyond that have provided thousands of jobs and served millions of satisfied customers.”

He found it puzzling that the attacks were made by N.C. State faculty even though the overtures had been made by the university, not by the Pope Foundation.

This incident eerily echoed the hostile faculty reaction in late 2004 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The administration had asked the Pope Foundation to consider a gift to support a Western civilization program. Some faculty members objected. The Pope Foundation has not given money for such a program, but it did provide support for university athletic programs.

Ironically, the hostility at UNC-Chapel Hill apparently encouraged Dean Toby Parcel to see a window of opportunity and thus to contact the Pope Foundation. She presumably did not expect the reaction she received from her faculty.

Resistance by faculty to traditional liberal arts education is not limited to North Carolina, of course. (Click here to read about the proposed Alexander Hamilton Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.) That such opposition can succeed is evidence that “shared governance” in American universities often means faculty control.

In addition to attacking the foundation at the meeting in December, several N. C. State faculty members directed invective toward the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (of which the author of this article is executive vice president). The center is separate from the foundation, but both were founded by the late John William Pope.

A trustee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pope was frustrated by what he saw as an increasingly close-minded and “politically correct” campus. He saw that students were failing to experience the intellectual diversity that is supposed to be a hallmark of universities. He formed the center in 1996 to improve the quality of higher education, especially in North Carolina.

Since 1996, the Pope Center has issued at least 25 formal studies and many articles that have informed North Carolina citizens about their state university system. In 2005 the center pointed out that speech codes on 13 campuses were unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny – and at least one campus changed its code. The center has issued two studies comparing faculty salaries in the UNC system with salaries of their peers. A study of UNC governance proposed changes in the selection of the board of governors.

But these were not the studies that the professors focused on. Catherine Warren, director of women’s and gender studies at N.C. State, fumed about a Pope Center study of women’s studies programs that she said was “inane” and full of inaccuracies.

The 2005 study reviewed the women’s studies programs on five campuses, including the program that Warren directs at N.C. State. The author, Melana Zyla Vickers, pointed out that the field of women’s studies tends to be polemical and doctrinaire, that it is not a popular major, and that it is financed primarily by public (i.e., taxpayer) funds, with little private support.

At N.C. State, for example, she found that only nine students were preparing for majors or minors in women’s studies in 2004 (out of a total undergraduate population of 22,971), and the department received no private funds.

Commenting on programs statewide, Vickers wrote: “Their [the programs’] sickly state can be measured in a variety of ways, ranging from the fact that these programs have sought and attracted very little independent funding and are on life-support from taxpayer-backed university operations budgets, to the intellectually biased and repetitive material presented in their courses, to the negligible and ever-declining number of students interested in actually majoring or minoring in women’s studies.”

At the same time, the study did recognize some modest strengths of the N.C. State program. Vickers found at least two courses, “Women and Music” and “Gender Law and Policies,” that showed promise of being other than simply rehashes of outdated feminist diagnoses of social conditions.

Vickers has said that she is willing to participate in a forum with Dr. Warren on the merits of women’s studies programs in North Carolina. Vickers is a former member of the editorial board of USA Today. She has worked at the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the Globe and Mail, and has a master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Responding to the faculty criticisms, George Leef, vice president for research for the Pope Center, remarked, “The center has often criticized what we see as frivolous, academically weak courses and programs like women’s studies. That is not at all the same as ‘denigrating women,’ as one faculty member says.

“Attacks like that, impugning motives rather than dealing with the substance of arguments, ought to be beneath faculty members at a major (or any) university.”

Jane S. Shaw is executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the January 2007 edition of Carolina Journal.