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Koch brothers

Charles and David Koch – Image: www.thinkprogress.org

As multiple news outlets have reported of late, the controversial and conservative fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch have spurred a rising tide of controversy in recent years with dozens of gifts to universities around the nation. Moreover, as The Atlantic reported last month in “Spreading the Free-Market Gospel: What’s new and interesting about the Koch brothers’ approach to funding academics” there is clearly a method to their largess:

“Last year, a staffer for Charles and David Koch’s network of philanthropic institutions laid out the billionaire brothers’ strategy to spread their views on economic freedom.

Political success, Kevin Gentry told a crowd of elite supporters attending the annual Koch meeting in Dana Point, California, begins with reaching young minds in college lecture halls, thereby preparing bright, libertarian-leaning students to one day occupy the halls of political power.

‘The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building state-based capabilities and election capabilities and integrating this talent pipeline,’ he said.”

Click here to check out a database that demonstrates just how broadly their tentacles have already spread.

Edward Lopez

Prof. Edward Lopez

Now, comes word that the Kochs have offered to make a UNC system school — Western Carolina University in Cullowhee — one of their largest university gift recipients. Under a proposal currently under consideration by WCU administrators, the Charles Koch Foundation would give $2 million to the university to establish the WCU “Center for Study of Free Enterprise.” The faculty member driving the process appears to be Economics Department Professor Edward Lopez, who also boasts the title of “BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism.” Lopez, who gave the “Friedman Legacy Lecture” this summer at the John Locke Foundation, is a graduate of the Kochs’ largest university grantee, George Mason University, and an energetic proponent of “free market” economic theories.

While accepting one of the Kochs’ largest gifts in the country to promote conservative economic theory is, for some, controversial in and of itself, what has added extra impetus to the debate at WCU in recent weeks is the fact that the grant is contingent upon the university kicking in another $1.4 million of its own. Read More

Commentary, News

App StateAs the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations convenes this morning to review, among other things, the generous new pay hikes provided to various UNC system chancellors, it’s increasingly clear that rank and file university personnel will get no more than the one-time, across-the-board $750 bonus authorized by the new state budget.

According to a post on the Facebook page Aaup Appalachian (AAUP stands for American Association of University Professors) the Human Resources Director at Appalachian State informed staff on the Boone campus last night that plans to supplement the bonus with another $750 out of university funds has been nixed by the lawyers:

“Dear Appalachian Colleagues,

On November 5, I sent you an email indicating that: “This year, the university has identified non-state funds to provide all SHRA employees with an additional campus-based $750 bonus, doubling the legislated bonus to $1,500.” It was my belief that providing these one-time lump sum bonuses was within our discretion, since we were not increasing base compensation and were not committing any State funds, and I advised our campus senior leadership accordingly.

With deep and sincere regret I must now inform you that I have recently been told by legal counsel that we are not allowed to make additional lump sum payments to employees subject to the State Human Resources Act (SHRA), above the legislated $750 bonus. Unfortunately, my interpretation of Appalachian’s ability to provide an additional bonus for SHRA employees was incorrect. Any such payments fall exclusively within the purview of the North Carolina General Assembly, regardless of the source of funding.”

The letter goes on to apologize profusely and acknowledge the sorry state of campus salaries.

At least the folks in Boone are keeping their (dark) sense of humor about the whole thing. This is from the intro to the Facebook post:

“Good news: The pay raises have been withdrawn!!
Bad news: Not the $50,000 raise for App State’s chancellor, but the $750 bonus for App State’s staff (in addition to the $750 bonus all employees are receiving)”

Commentary

The University of North Carolina has a new president. As Jim Jenkins notes in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer, let’s hope that Margaret Spellings makes her mark and does a good job.

That said, there are good reasons to be concerned about Spellings. Be sure to check out yesterday afternoon’s news story by Sarah Ovaska-Few and this afternoon’s Fitzsimon File for a thorough list of the reasons.

And here’s one area that will bear close watching: let’s hope Spellings resists the temptation to bash the liberal arts.

As most North Carolinians are well aware, it has become a bit of a right-wing parlor game to attack university programs that are not exclusively about cranking out worker bees for corporate employers. Gov. Pat McCrory made a big splash early in his term spouting such nonsense and, as the Charlotte Observer editorial page highlights this morning, the game continues. Over the weekend, presidential candidate Jeb Bush said the following:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.'”

By all indications, Mr. Bush was serious.

Spellings, of course, worked for Bush’s brother and a decade ago helped to churn out a big study that arguably gave voice to a similar position — even if it was stated in a less boneheaded way. Let’s hope that since that time, Spellings has learned a thing or two and realizes that, in her new position, she should be working to promote a truly diverse vision of higher education.

Perhaps there is hope though. After all, Spellings was a liberal arts major herself as an undergrad. Then again, so was Pat McCrory.

News

The University of North Carolina’s Faculty Assembly issued a strongly worded statement Friday, saying that the system’s governing board has repeatedly ignored faculty input and pushed forward a secretive process to find a new leader.

(For more about the expected presidential announcement tomorrow, read my story from earlier today here.)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

Margaret Spellings (Source: Bush Presidential Center)

The Faculty Assembly, which represents professors and faculty and serves in an advisory capacity to the UNC system and UNC Board of Governors, warned that the new president opted not to meet with faculty during the search process, and could face difficulties in gaining the trust of faculty.

“The faculty will not prejudge the commitment of new President to the well-being of the University,” wrote Stephen Leonard and Gabriel Lugo, on behalf of the UNC system Faculty Assembly. “But he or she must understand that the secretive character of this search, and his or her own indifference to consulting with staff and faculty when s/he was an active candidate for the position, will make it difficult to win the confidence and trust of the University community.”

The statement also said the board has repeatedly ignored faculty input on admissions, tuition and financial aid and instead adopted “ill-advised policies and practices that have proven detrimental to the best interests of public higher education in this state.”

Read More

Commentary
UNC Nobel prize

Image: UNC Chapel Hill

As one of the first acts of his governorship back in 2013, Pat McCrory went on a national right-wing radio show to attack “the educational elite” in our university system who supposedly weren’t doing enough to gets student “butts in jobs.” Since that time, his administration has waged a more or less permanent war against academia by repeatedly allowing faculty salaries to slide and just generally under-investing in public colleges and universities.

Whether a sincerely held belief or just a convenient scrap of red meat to toss to the intellectual-hating far right, McCrory’s stance is predicated on the notion (regularly championed by denizens of the Art Pope empire) that universities should be more like training institutes in which faculty devote the overwhelming majority of their time to preparing students for employment. Meanwhile, “luxuries” like the liberal arts and research for the sake of advancing knowledge are just that — extravagances to be left to the vagaries of the “market” and the “demand” provided by well-off students and parents willing to underwrite their cost via private school tuition.

This morning, North Carolinians received yet another powerful reminder of the absurdity of the Governor’s stance on these issues when Prof. Aziz Sancar of the UNC School of Medicine was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. According to the Associated Press:

“The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said their [Pro. Sancar’s and his fellow recipients’] work on DNA repair had provided ‘fundamental knowledge’ about how cells function and shed light on the mechanisms behind both cancer and aging.”

You got that? Prof. Sancar helped advance an important piece of “fundamental knowledge” that has the potential to greatly benefit all of humankind. From this vantage point, that sounds like a pretty darned good use of tax dollars.

Let’s hope Sancar’s award spurs the Guv and his allies to think a little harder about their simplistic takes on higher education — especially when it comes to the numerous would-be Aziz Sancars who continue to be driven out of North Carolina by the administration’s shortsighted approach to faculty compensation and duties.