The Privileged Class

Mary Easley’s job at N.C. State has been making headlines lately, and rightfully so. The circumstances surrounding her university employment appear to be part of a pattern of abuse of authority by the former governor and his wife.

But the questionable hiring and promotion of the former governor’s wife are only part of a larger pattern of political patronage and undue privilege in the UNC system. And while the Easleys’ alleged corruption is an extremely serious matter, there is a broader pattern that is more likely to have a lasting effect on the state: North Carolina’s Democratic Party is using the university system as a way to maintain influence outside of the electoral process.

The other situations in this pattern of influence lack a third party who stands to directly benefit financially, as did McQueen Campbell in the Mary Easley case. Some of these situations concern the same sort of easy employment of dubious value to the system that Mary Easley enjoyed (and continues to enjoy at this date). But they are not just about lining a few pockets with ill-gotten gains. They are also about affecting the political process, and about deciding on how future generations will be guided.

Former governor Jim Hunt was the first high-profile Democratic politician to find a soft landing spot in the University of North Carolina (UNC) system at taxpayers’ expense. In 2001, at the end of his fourth term as governor, he established the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, ostensibly to act as a “strategic catalyst for transforming public education.” The Institute is officially considered part of the UNC system, administered under UNC’s General Administration.

Initially, the Institute received no money from the state’s general fund. In fiscal year 2004-5, however, the state started giving it an annual allocation of $500,000. This was the same year that the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI), another think tank founded by Hunt in 2002 at N.C. State, started receiving $365,000 annually from the state. Nearly $1 million per year is spent annually by taxpayers to maintain Hunt’s influence in state affairs. (The ex-governor continues as chairman of both institute’s boards).

It is certainly not wrong for a former governor to found a policy think tank and remain involved in the state’s politics. But it should be a private non-profit think tank, with no official connection to any part of the state government. The official status not only makes fundraising easier, it adds inappropriate weight to the institute’s reports and pronouncements.

The two institutes have also been asked to play a role in policy formulation, beyond the detached advisory capacity that a private center would have. For instance, UNC system president Erskine Bowles chose the 2007 IEI Forum to announce the formation of the UNC Tomorrow Commission, a highly influential project that has prepared the blueprint for UNC’s future. Later in the year, IEI conducted an official study group for UNC Tomorrow, and, according to IEI’s web site, the “UNC Tomorrow Commission unanimously agreed to accept [IEI’s] recommendations in full and they were in turn subsumed into the Commission’s report which was presented to and approved by the UNC Board of Governors.”

And while these institutes purport to be “non-partisan,” such neutrality appears to be a façade. For instance, at the 2009 Emerging Issues Forum in February, the list of speakers and panelists included U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, U.S. Congressmen Heath Shuler, G.K. Butterfield, and David Price, N.C. state Senator Dan Clodfelter, and N.C. state Treasurer Janet Cowell—all Democrats. No Republican politicians stood behind the dais, but the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who has been given the nickname “Red Ken” for his radical views, was a featured speaker. The only participant with any conservative or free-market tendencies was libertarian blogger Megan McCardle.

When a governor leaves office, he or she becomes a private citizen, no more, no less. There is no more reason for the state to fund a think tank for Hunt with official UNC status (let alone two!) than there is for the state to do so for any other private citizen.

(It should be noted that former governor Mike Easley also tried unsuccessfully to create his own public policy center at UNC-Chapel Hill in his final year as well.)

Next in line for a UNC sinecure was John Edwards, the former Democratic U.S. Senator from North Carolina and vice presidential candidate. Shortly after his defeat in the 2004 elections, the one-term senator was named head of a think tank that appears to have been created specifically to be a launching pad for his further political aspirations. The Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity, housed at the UNC-Chapel Hill law school, appeared initially to be nothing more than a forum for Edward’s key campaign message about the impending emergence of “two America’s,” one rich and one poor.

Gene Nichol, the dean of the law school at that time, indicated that the decision to have a poverty center at the law school had been made before Edwards entered the picture, and that he recruited Edwards to head it. However, a source who wished to remain anonymous said that the School of Arts and Sciences had been approached as a potential location for the center, and the school decided against. Bernadette Gray-Little, the UNC-Chapel Hill provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs who was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at that time, cancelled a phone interview scheduled before publication of this article. (Her secretary said she would be busy the remainder of the week as well.)

Edwards initially received a salary of $40,000 per year, raised from private sources. Some observers suggested that he was rarely seen at the center. He resigned once the exposure of his extramarital affair dashed his presidential hopes and is now facing allegations of campaign finance infractions related to the affair.

But the center remains, without Edwards’ involvement. In fact, the center is now directed by Nichol.

Nichol has never held office in North Carolina, although he unsuccessfully ran for both U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in Colorado as a Democrat in the 1990s. However, when he was previously at Chapel Hill, he not only played a major role in bringing Edwards to UNC, but he made himself known as an ardent local advocate for liberal causes.

And his current employment with the law school is problematic. He left UNC in 2005 to be president of The College of William and Mary, and quickly plunged that school into divisive controversies that led important donors to withhold financial contributions. When he gave his blessing to a repeat performance of the shocking and perverse “Sex Workers Art Show,” William and Mary’s trustees forced his resignation.

Despite such an ignoble departure, the UNC law school quickly extended offers to teach to both him and his wife, Glenn George. The offers were made by Jack Bolger, who was Nichol’s close ally on the faculty and succeeded him as dean.

There were some complaints at the time that the announcement of Nichol’s and George’s employment occurred before proper hiring procedures had been followed. Bolger denied that this was the case. According to the Carolina Alumni Review, “Bolger said that Nichol and George are going through interviews, presentations and reviews of their scholarship. He expects their positions to be finalized by July 1.”

It would seem, however, that offers of employment should be made after such scrutiny, not before.

Questions also were raised about the school’s need for the couple, including whether the job openings had been properly advertised. There appeared to be no active recruiting for professors with their areas of expertise before Nichol resigned his prior position. Bolger, however, said, “All of those are areas where we have needs.”

Another concern is the couple’s combined salary and workload. They each teach one course a semester (and Nichol heads the Poverty Center). Nichol receives $200,000 per year from the state, and his wife gets $168,000.

While UNC’s generosity to Hunt, Edwards, Nichol, and George is disquieting, the hiring that is most likely to have a long- term effect on the state is that of Norma Houston. There appears to be nothing untoward about her employment with UNC. She was hired in the summer of 2006 by the School of Government to “teach, advise, research, and write for North Carolina’s public officials” in her “areas of expertise:” “local government law, state government law, and emergency management law.”

Her credentials for this position are impeccable. She had previously taught at the law school as an adjunct professor, she had been the Dare County attorney, and she was Democratic state senate leader Marc Basnight’s chief of staff for many years.

In February of 2007, she was named the director the UNC Tomorrow Commission. Bowles said in a recent phone conversation that upon his arrival, the then-chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, Jim Phillips, suggested that the university system needed a long-range plan that was “demand-driven” according to the needs of the state. Bowles agreed. The project become known as UNC Tomorrow Commission, with Houston in charge. She quickly hired Tony Caravano, also a member of Basnight’s staff, to become the deputy director. They formed the entire staff of the commission.

The UNC Tomorrow Report is no idle document. Chancellors of the individual constituent universities are expected to align their policies according to the report’s recommendations and guidelines. It affects hiring practices, general education requirements, admissions, scholarships—almost every possible sphere of activity the UNC undertakes.

And it strongly resembles a Democratic Party platform: more diversity, more “green” policies, more involvement in community organizing, more involvement in economic development and so on. This is no surprise: the UNC Tomorrow report was essentially written by Marc Basnight’s former staff, under the administration of Bowles, a lifelong Democrat and reportedly a close ally of Basnight’s.

This is not to say that Basnight had direct influence in the process. Both Bowles and Houston said their discussions with Basnight were limited. But it is hard to imagine that Houston would have been Basnight’s top aide for many years if their beliefs and thought processes were not in sync.

Basnight has also been criticized for his heavy-handed control of the Senate’s process for selecting Board of Governors members. Senate Republican leader Philip Berger said that “Joseph Stalin would be proud” to describe the behind-the-scenes process used to prevent the election of any candidates not favored by Basnight.

There were also murmurings about Basnight’s involvement in the selection of Bowles for the UNC president’s job as well, according to an August 15, 2005, Chapel Hill Herald editorial entitled “Basnight Should Have Kept Quiet.” (Link unavailable except to subscribers) Of course, Bowles was highly qualified for the position and had many other supporters. He has generally been an open and fair leader, and has been helpful to people on the opposite side of the political aisle.

Bowles’ qualifications and sense of fairness do not, however, erase the pattern of privilege and patronage. This pattern started before Bowles’ arrival, but has continued since. Rules have been ignored or gray areas exploited. Whether laws have been broken might never be known—as in the Easley case, much depends on private conversations that might never see the light of day.

Had not Don Carrington of the John Locke Foundation asked for her salary information from N.C. State on the very day her salary was being increased, concerns about Easley’s employment might have also remained out of sight. And had not the News & Observer pursued the story further, Carrington’s efforts might have been for naught.

The Democratic Party’s privilege and undue influence in the UNC system extend far beyond Mary Easley’s job and it has for too long been ignored. The university system should be as removed from state politics as possible. It should not be treated as the sweetest plum in a one-party spoils system, a place to employ and ordain the party faithful seeking to maintain their influence without being subject to the oversight of the electorate.