A Scurrilous Attack

The New Yorker recently published a piece entitled “State for Sale” by Jane Mayer. Dressed up as journalistic reporting, it is a scurrilous attack on North Carolina philanthropist Art Pope meant to demonize him and the public policy organizations he supports, including the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

I think very poorly of the author’s project of trying to besmirch anyone who has substantial wealth and chooses to use some of it to oppose the relentless expansion of government power and the increasing politicization of life in America–the point of her previous attack on Charles and David Koch and her new one on Art Pope. Here, however, I am only going to comment on the notion she attempts to foster that Mr. Pope’s philanthropy has been harmful to the University of North Carolina.

I have been with the Pope Center longer than anyone else on the staff, but Mayer did not speak with me prior to writing her article. She quotes me as saying that state funding of higher education is a “boondoggle” that “robs taxpayers.” She then connects the North Carolina General Assembly’s recent reductions in funding for our supposedly “celebrated” university system to the malign influence of the Pope Center and, ultimately, to Art Pope himself.

Had she asked me for my views on government funding of higher education, I would have explained that there is abundant evidence that state higher education systems around the nation spend lavishly and yet accomplish little toward the education of many students. That view, moreover, has nothing to do with political alignment. It isn’t just “right-wingers” who make that point; many other observers of American higher education have come to the same conclusion. Last May, the Pope Center held a conference entitled “Higher Education Reform: Where the Right and Left Meet” that brought together equal numbers of liberal and conservative critics who agreed that colleges and universities spend lavishly but to a great extent neglect undergraduate education.

Here is an article written by one of the liberals who participated.

Despite Ms. Mayer’s implication that the Pope Center is against college education and wants only to slash funding for it, what we are against is the bad use of limited resources. Like most government-funded ventures, state colleges and universities have become rife with spending that is tangential to the mission of these institutions. We want to see students and taxpayers get far more value for the time and money devoted to higher education.

Most states have been cutting back on higher education spending for years, largely in recognition of the fact that they have gone past the point of diminishing returns. In 2009, the North Carolina legislature, under Democratic control, made modest reductions in UNC appropriations; in 2010, spending was actually increased slightly, while other parts of the budget were cut. The reduction in higher education appropriations this year, with the General Assembly under Republican control, is not emblematic of some animosity Art Pope supposedly holds against college education. Rather, it was simply a bow to the reality that spending had to be cut and the UNC system was one of the places where a lot of unnecessary spending was to be found.

In any case, the Pope Center does not lobby for or against any public policy measures. What we do is to highlight where our higher education system fails to live up to expectations and how it might do better. A few years ago, for example, we published a paper by a retired education school professor in which the author pointed out that the UNC system education schools are dominated by so-called “progressive” theories. The trouble is that those theories do not help train teachers to instruct their students as best possible. Former UNC president Erskine Bowles mentioned to us that the paper had opened his eyes to a significant problem.

We have also drawn attention to the fact that university courses are sometimes woefully inadequate for the students.  A journalism student, for example, found her freshman composition course to be a waste of time and said so. 

Perhaps Ms. Mayer thinks that universities should not be criticized, or that only criticism from the left can be valid. We at the Pope Center disagree.

Another line of attack Mayer tries to run is that Art Pope is trying to “buy control of the curriculum.” That prospect might terrify New Yorker readers and the campus thought police types she quotes are eager for her to spread that fear. Anyone remotely familiar with colleges and universities knows, however, that it’s no more possible to “buy the curriculum” than it is to corner the silver market. What Art Pope and the Pope Center have attempted to do is to add some conservative and libertarian voices in an academic environment that is dominated by left/progressive theories and sentiments. For anyone who is truly interested in education, there can be nothing harmful in that.

In her article, Ms. Mayer complains about allegedly deceptive political advertising used against Democratic candidates last year, but her slapdash treatment of the Pope Center is cut from the same cloth.