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The Selling of the Curriculum?

March 7, 2005

Members of the Pope family, retail magnates in North Carolina, have never been shy about sharing their opinions about higher education.

Through a family foundation, they created the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a research organization that regularly releases studies that criticize colleges in North Carolina for lack of rigor, too much excitement over trendy disciplines and wasting taxpayer funds. Pope publications mix serious analysis with a lot of mocking -- and individual faculty members are frequently the target.

So when faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill heard that the Pope family was talking to administrators about a multi-year grant to support study of Western civilization, many were upset. Seventy-one faculty members signed an open letter in The Daily Tar Heel complaining that the negotiations have been conducted secretly, in a manner that is "disrespectful to the faculty," and urging that the talks be suspended.

Other faculty members -- including some who find the Pope family's vision of higher education distasteful -- back the project. And the Pope family says that the protest is nothing more than political correctness.

"If a left-wing faculty member wants to get a left-wing foundation to support more diversity courses or more 'ism' courses, they are welcome to do that. Why can't we give money for Western civilization," says James Arthur Pope, president of the foundation.

Pope, a Chapel Hill alumnus, says the discussions with the university started when administrators asked him for a large gift for capital projects. He replied that the foundation might be willing to make a large gift to support operations, and the foundation provided $25,000 for Chapel Hill to prepare ideas.

While the specifics of the gift aren't final, the idea is to provide several years of renewable support (somewhere in the range of $600,000 to $1 million a year) to create  a new minor in Western civilization, and to promote the study of the subject in other ways, such as financing travel by students to study the classics in Greece and Italy. If all goes well, the foundation might then provide an endowment -- possibly worth more than $10 million -- to cover the costs of the program permanently.

While the gift would support certain areas of study, Pope is quick to state what he has not asked in the negotiations:  "We have not been telling the university what to offer or whom should teach. There's been none of that. It's all been controlled by the university."

To many faculty members, however, it's not so simple.

Sue E. Estroff, a professor of social medicine, says that the negotiations over the Pope gift have gone ahead without talking about some key issues that apply beyond this issue. "What this situation has brought to light is the need for this university to talk about what our principles are and what our values are and the sources of funds we will accept and their potential impact on the curriculum and the university."

Don Nonini, a professor and director of graduate students in the anthropology department, said he was concerned about the arrangement where the grant would be renewable, with the possible large payout in the form of the endowment in the final year. "This gives major financial leverage on a curricular matter to an outside group at a time when the university is having to rely on private donors," he said. So even if the Pope family does not impose demands now, it could do so in the future, at a time that the university will already have promoted the Western civilization program and had students start in the new minor.

Nononi, Estroff and other professors also argue that the university has plenty of courses and programs in Western civilization and does not need new efforts in this area.

"Nobody at the university has stopped reading Euripides or Homer because they are reading W.E.B. Du Bois or Judith Butler. Let's get real here," Nononi said. The Pope program to add more Western civilization courses reflects a desire to shift the emphasis of the curriculum, he said, to reflect the Pope family's politics.

There are already plenty of courses in classics, European history, religion and similar subjects, Nonini said. "It's just that the courses that do emphasize diversity, or the sometimes oppressive past histories of American expansion, or colonialism -- these courses are distressing to the white bread form of history that the right wing is most comfortable with."

Judith Wegner, chair of the faculty and a professor of law at Chapel Hill, said that while opposition to the Pope grant is "heartfelt," she did not think it was valid. Wegner said that the negotiations and the proposed grant were "pretty standard stuff."

Wegner, a former dean of Chapel Hill's law school, said that she has a lot of experience seeking grants and being sure that nothing inappropriate is being sought by a donor. And she doesn't think anything is wrong here.

"I would never accept anything with strings attached," she said. "I have no reason to believe that there is anything nefarious going on."

Bernadette Gray-Little, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the lead negotiator over the proposed gift, did not respond to a request for an interview. But in a letter to The Daily Tar Heel, she said that the proposed Pope grant has received more public discussion and more faculty input than similar grants. And she insisted that there were no unusual conditions attached.

"I have openly repeated my firm support of academic freedom and made it clear that funders will not be allowed to control or direct the content of our academic programs," she said.

 

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