Commentary

In lambasting the left over Jeffrey Warren, Senator Phil Berger forgets about the conservative hires in higher ed

Senate President Phil Berger

Senate President Phil Berger

Senate leader Phil Berger is miffed. He can ram through legislation and help orchestrate a GOP takeover of the General Assembly, but he can’t seem to get his friends hired at UNC.

Last week, NCPW reported extensively on Berger’s science adviser, Jeffrey Warren, and his bid to lead a UNC environmental think tank — the North Carolina Collaboratory — which was created by the legislature and funded with taxpayer money. Over the past five years, Warren has wielded enormous power in the General Assembly and crafted legislation that weakens environmental regulations. Warren’s pedigree and legislative track record have alarmed both UNC faculty and environmental advocates about the true intent of the collaboratory.

Neither Berger nor Warren responded to interview requests for that story, but in an article in Sunday’s News & Observer, Berger, a Republican from Eden, complained that, “on several occasions I have recommended highly qualified conservative candidates for positions at UNC and within the university system, and to my knowledge, none have been hired to date.”

But Berger doesn’t need to wedge his chosen ones into UNC jobs. Although uber-conservative millionaire Art Pope unsuccessfully bid for a seat on the UNC Board of Governors in 1995, under a Democrat-controlled legislature, since then he has injected public education and state government with a full dose of conservatism. Through the John William Pope Foundation, Art Pope, who also served as Gov. McCrory’s former deputy budget director, has given at least $775,000 to the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program, a joint curriculum between UNC and Duke.

The foundation has chipped in at least another $1 million for N.C. State University’s program, the Economic, Legal and Political Foundations of Free Societies and the Society for Politics, Economics and the Law, a student organization. Roy Cardato, the vice president for research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation — another Pope venture — served as the society’s faculty advisor.

Foundation money also helped fund two courses at N.C. State: Cordato taught the undergraduate course “the Political Economy of the Market Process.” Professor Andy Taylor, who also contributes to the Pope-funded publication, the Carolina Journal, taught “Public Choice and Political Institutions,” which examines the U.S. electoral system.

It’s true that conservative attempts to buy their way into public education have been thwarted. In 2004, the Pope Foundation offered to donate $10 million to UNC to create an undergraduate program in Western cultures; faculty bristled at accepting the money from such an ideologically driven organization. The offer was declined because of the potential that the money would come with conditions on the curriculum.

And in 2011, N.C. Central University rebuffed a $600,000 offer by the Pope-affiliated N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law to create a similar organization at the law school.

In the N&O, Berger also lashed out at “faculty leaders” and “special interest groups,” for allegedly protecting “blatantly discriminatory hiring practices by publicly attacking and disparaging a rumored candidate through the press in what appears to be a clear warning that if you want a taxpayer-funded job in academia, you will only receive a fair shake if you toe the line from the left.”

Berger’s statements make sense only if you have a short memory or just got to town. In 2015, the UNC Board of Governors — stacked with Republican appointees including Steven Long, a former board member of Civitas, another Pope think tank — shut down three UNC system academic centers for purely partisan reasons. Unlike the proposed collaboratory, which the legislature funded with a $1 million appropriation in the state budget, none of these centers received direct taxpayer funding :

  • The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, which was headed by Gene Nichol, a frequent and outspoken critic of Republican policies;
  • the Center for Biodiversity at Eastern Carolina University, which sponsored science-based symposia, including the impact of climate change on biodiversity. (Warren was the architect behind a bill that narrowly defined how coastal scientists could measure sea level rise in North Carolina.)
  • the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change, at N.C. Central, a historically black university in Durham. In 2008, the institute helped boost voter turnout to 90 percent in the precinct — predominantly African-American — that includes NCCU.

In retrospect, the shuttering of the NCCU group aligned with the Republican attempts to disenfranchise African-Americans through more restrictive voting laws that govern photo ID, same-day registration and early voting. Those requirements have recently been overturned by the federal court on constitutional grounds.

Berger’s incendiary statements are not unusual. The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy — which has influenced Republican funding priorities for the UNC system, once quoted Berger, in his criticism of state Senator Marc Basnight’s control over the selection of Board of Governors, as saying, “Joseph Stalin would be proud.”

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