Art Pope’s new gig at UNC

Sometimes, you have to wonder how Art Pope — a wealthy heir to a chain of lower rung retail stores and North Carolina’s preeminent funder of conservative political causes — lets it be known to the leaders of the political party he’s long helped underwrite that he’s ready for a new gig.

Does he drop hints at fundraisers? Pick up the phone and call? Send an explicit email? Does he dispatch a lobbyist from one of his think tanks to chat things up with a staffer for Senate leader Phil Berger?

Maybe it’s just the case that whenever something big comes up that seems to be in his areas of special interest (slashing taxes and public services, ensuring Republican political hegemony, eviscerating higher education as we’ve known it) Republican powers-that-be know to always check to see.

One thing is for certain though about Pope — a former state House Minority Leader and failed candidate for Lt. Governor who Pat McCrory made his first state budget director and Republican leaders at the General Assembly announced last night would be their new nominee for the UNC Board of Governors — the man is serious about this stuff. Unlike some ultra-conservative American political moneybags, Pope is no dabbler; he’s a genuine policy wonk. Whether he’s helping to lead Republican efforts to gerrymander the state’s political maps, negotiating a scheme to alter how redistricting is done altogether or drawing up a new austerity budget for the state, he really thinks he knows what he’s talking about and has a vision — if you want to dignify it with that term — for what North Carolina (and, indeed, America) should look like.

And when it comes to higher education, North Carolinians should have no doubt what that “vision” entails. For years now, people funded with Pope contributions at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly the Pope Center for Higher Education) have churned out a torrent of hard right propaganda — relentlessly attacking supposed left-wing biases in American colleges and universities, calling for less public spending on higher education, arguing that too many young people attend college in the first place, lamenting the supposed suppression of conservative voices, and, well, you get the picture.

Given this backdrop, there seems little doubt as to the kinds of policies Pope will champion at UNC.

All that said, it’s also clear that Pope, unlike so many of the conservative cronies with which the legislature has stocked the Board of Governors in recent years, is not a loudmouth blowhard or a corrupt schemer looking to line his pockets. He’s serious about this stuff. It almost feels like, having watched the crazy dysfunction that conservatives have brought to UNC in recent years, the head coach is coming down off of his high perch to take direct control.

Those who care about the UNC system and its longstanding position as one of the nation’s great public universities should be very concerned.

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