Faculty Attack Squad

“Fascists,” “bums,” and “killing machines.”

That’s how conservatives and Republicans were described at the initial meeting of a new organization of faculty members in North Carolina. The group, named  “Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina,” was formed in response to what organizers described as “the destructive course pursued by the state legislature.”

The group’s members are primarily faculty from the state’s public and private colleges and universities, although they are also partnering with the North Carolina Justice Center, a private non-profit organization that has long advocated for left-wing causes in the state.   

The first public event was held on March 28 at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Roughly 150 people packed the meeting room; most were faculty, although others were activists and members of organizations affiliated with the state’s progressive community. Eight panelists, from Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and N.C. Central, spoke briefly; the moderators were Lisa Levenstein of UNC-Greensboro and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall of UNC-Chapel Hill, both history professors.

The event raised some troubling questions. An email invitation to the gathering sent on March 18 by East Carolina University geology professor Catherine Rigsby is of ethical concern. The email was forwarded throughout the system’s faculty “listserv” service, with Rigsby also using her title of “Chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly.”   

Should she have used the authority of her office and the taxpayer-provided UNC email system to recruit and organize for Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina?  And, in doing so, did she cross ethical lines by telling the system’s faculty members that the event was to be focused on higher education policy rather than on partisan politics?

For, despite suggestions to the contrary, this event was purely partisan; there was no discussion of specific higher education policies, nor was there a single word by any panelist or crowd member that deviated from opinions common to the left wing of the Democratic Party. The event was an attack on the Republican legislature, nothing more. Some participants threw around so much hyperbolic rhetoric and falsehoods stated as fact that their own fitness as professorial models deserves to be closely examined.

Another ethical concern is raised by the Scholars’ coordination with the N.C. Justice Center and its sister organization, N.C. Policy Watch. These two organizations are key members of Blueprint N.C., a non-profit political and fundraising network that was recently at the center of a controversy over its uncivil tactics. Blueprint’s two largest funders are the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which was formerly run by current UNC system president Thomas Ross, and the Open Institute, which was founded by George Soros.

Blueprint’s leadership sent a memo earlier this year to member organizations that called for “crippling” and “eviscerating” leading Republican politicians “to weaken their ability to govern,” and using aggressive techniques such as hiring a “staff of video trackers” to “follow the targets’ every move,” pressuring Governor Pat McCrory “at every public event,” and hiring “private investigators” to dig up dirt on prominent Republicans.

Should an organization that is largely composed of UNC professors be involved with participants in such a vicious political smear campaign as the one suggested by Blueprint N.C.? Perhaps it is within their legal rights, but the title “scholar” implies a higher standard than the down-and-dirty program planned by Blueprint.

To be a “scholar” means to adhere to a high level of objectivity. It also suggests that one uses terms with precise meaning. But there was little objectivity or precision at the Duke event, and given the lack of professionalism exhibited by some of its leaders, Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina and Blueprint NC are a natural pairing.

In one instance, UNC-Greensboro history professor Lisa Levenstein described Republicans as “ideology-driven” whereas liberals are “not driven by ideology” but are instead motivated by “the common good.” This is intentionally misleading and false; the liberal concept of “common good” in itself implies an ideology of sorts. (Unless of course, she does not comprehend the meaning of “ideology,” which would be cause for great concern about her ability to teach history at the university level.)

Levenstein also described the legislature as “bent on enacting policies that are almost wholly unsupported by any serious research.” This is again false—there is ample research supporting Republican policies, even if those who instinctively disagree with Republicans often reject it out of hand.

Duke professor of public policy and history Robert Korstad went Levenstein one better. He said that North Carolina’s politics have always featured a deep divide between a “conservative faction” and “moderates.” He said that the conservatism “has always favored,” among other things, “racial stratification,” adding that its heyday was in the late 19th century when Democratic white supremacists controlled the state.  

He then said that “conservative policies of today are the conservative policies of yesterday, although they are expressed in many new ways.” By doing so, he crafted his argument in such a way as to equate a century-old political philosophy based on racial superiority and apartheid with the modern conservative movement, which bases its philosophy on colorblind individual rights. To make such a connection, one must be deliberately duplicitous.    

In contrast to Korstad’s demonization of today’s conservatives, he praised moderates (his word for liberals) as builders “of an infrastructure that was needed for the state to grow, as a guarantor of public education for all of our children, and as a protector of every citizen’s right to have a meaningful productive life.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Jacquelyn Hall tried to convey a similar message by quoting from some unnamed person who “ended an interview by saying that she fears it will take 50 to 100 years to repair the damage that has recently been done [by the Republican legislature].”

While that might sound ominous, stating that some person somewhere holds some opinion is hardly evidence of anything. Such unsupported rhetoric was frequent at the meeting.

Perhaps the panel participant whose oratory most crossed the line of objectivity was Hodding Carter III, a professor of leadership and public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs under President Jimmy Carter. He said that the new Republican majority made him feel as if he was “back in Mississippi,” since the “name of the game is the suppression of the many for the benefit of the few.”

He said that the state was not dealing with conservatives, but with reactionaries who wish to “recreate the divine right of the rich.” Such comments have nothing to do with fact: a divine right has never been attributed to the rich, only to kings—his claim only served to inflame emotional animosity toward conservatives for something that isn’t true. He also described conservatives as “killing machines,” and said that the conservatives “attack us individually but want to hang us collectively.”

If these statements, with their loose inaccuracies and exaggerated implications of violence on the part of conservatives, truly represent Carter’s thought processes, his fitness to teach at a university is of some concern. The American Association of University Professors’ guidelines generally protect academics’ “extramural” comments but allow for punitive action or dismissal if the comments indicate a lack of fitness. Carter’s comments at the meeting might not be grounds for dismissal, but if he pays no mind to the accuracy of his remarks and makes wild baseless accusations in a public forum, can he be expected to exert more self-control in the classroom?

At this gathering, however, Carter’s vitriol barely raised an eyebrow.

Faculty members in the audience also expressed sentiments that are best described as “unhinged.” One woman called conservatives “fascists” and suggested they were conducting a “race war.”

Both assertions are absurd. The Republicans were attacked at the meeting specifically because they advocate limited government, whereas fascism is a form of extreme state control; you cannot simultaneously be a limited government advocate and a fascist. And there is nothing even imaginably close to a conservative-led race war going on. Conservatives in recent years have sought an end to racial divisions, whereas the American left has stoked racial animosity by trying to implement a multicultural society of competing ethnic interests.

At the very least, the sloppy definitions, inaccurate assertions, and exaggerated, inflammatory rhetoric expressed at the meeting speak very poorly for North Carolina “scholars.” On the other hand “Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina” are accomplishing one very important service to the state: by joining together and making their voice’s public, they are making it impossible to deny the existence of an aggressive radical element with great influence in the governance of the state’s universities.