Are UNC centers politically biased?

Imagine that a UNC Center for Western Civilization (which, of course, does not exist) were to co-sponsor a conference with the Heritage Foundation.

Suppose that Gov. Pat McCrory was keynote speaker, that Becki Gray of the John Locke Foundation spoke on election laws, that Francis De Luca of the Civitas Institute discussed civic engagement and that the only office-holders, staff and consultants allowed were Republicans. And that businessman Art Pope served on the tax reform panel.

Can you imagine the howls of protest that would ensue? Yet centers at the University of North Carolina have held such one-sided, partisan meetings – with Democrats in charge – arousing little or no objection. That fact should be recognized now that the UNC Board of Governors is reviewing on-campus centers.

Here are some examples of past center meetings. In 2005 the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill (now the Program on Public Life) held a joint conference with the Center for American Progress.

CAP is an overtly “progressive” organization founded by John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff now with the Obama administration. The UNC program director was Ferrell Guillory, a Democrat who worked for 20 years at The News & Observer.

The conference featured the governor of North Carolina and former governors of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia (all Democrats), the executive director of the left-leaning Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation (Tom Ross, now UNC president), Democratic congressman David Price, a Democratic political consultant and a former staffer for the Democratic governor of Alabama. Tax policy was discussed by representatives of a Brookings-Urban Institute project (both are liberal Washington think tanks) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, also a liberal and activist think tank.

At that meeting, there was no one to present an alternative – such as the idea that progress in the South might come from private enterprise, not from more government.

In 2012, the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, which is sponsored by the UNC-Chapel Hill Law School and headed by law professor Gene Nichol, held a “Truth and Hope Poverty Summit.” The center collaborated with these groups: North Carolina NAACP, the N.C. Justice Center, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University, and the N.C. American Association for Retired Persons.

The NC NAACP is known for political activism. The N.C. Justice Center calls itself a “progressive research and advocacy” center. The Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change addresses “racial, gender, economic and other social injustices.” The AARP lobbies the state legislature on behalf of its over-55 members

In the 2012-13 academic year, the center hosted members of the AFL-CIO to discuss “the legislature’s war on labor”; screened clips from a “Story of America: A Nation Divided,” about “the fundamental divisions and the political struggle throughout America”; screened “The American Winter,” which “highlights the human impact of budget cuts to social services, a shrinking middle class, and the fracturing of the American Dream”; discussed “Wage Theft in North Carolina”; and invited people to projects sponsored by the Durham People’s Alliance and the N.C. Justice Center.

Where were the success stories of combating poverty through limited government and economic freedom – the approach that has saved millions from poverty in countries such as Taiwan, Estonia and South Korea?

They weren’t mentioned, as far as one can tell from the archives.

Yet just recently, a Greensboro attorney chose to attack the UNC Board of Governors for suggesting that some centers may be advocates for a single viewpoint.

Based on a few statements made at a committee meeting, the author, Lewis Pitts, wrote: “The twisted critique of the Board of Governors is unpatriotic and subversive of core values.” He called the questioning of centers “Orwellian.”

The fact is, academic centers should be academic, not political.

The Board of Governors convened the meeting to see whether funding could be shifted to more academic purposes, fulfilling a legislative recommendation to cut funding for centers by $15 million.

The reduction in funding has precedent. In 2009, the legislature cut the budgets of UNC centers by $12 million.

Where was the outcry? Nowhere. After all, the legislature had a Democratic majority and the governor, Beverly Perdue, was a Democrat. Could the current overwrought reaction be more about politics than about academics?

Jane S. Shaw is president and Jenna A. Robinson is outreach director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Raleigh News & Observer on December 21, 2014.)