The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy says critics of a proposed “Studies in Western Cultures” minor at the University of North Carolina–to be funded by the center’s benefactor, the John William Pope Foundation–are “fearful radicals.” But faculty who wrote the proposal are among those asking university administrators to take a stronger stand against the Pope Center’s attacks on UNC curriculum. Reid Barbour, chair of the committee that developed the “Studies in Western Cultures” proposal, says he is proud of his team’s work, but is uncomfortable with the donors’ ties to the Pope Center.
“I think the proposal is really good,” Barbour says, “but I object to the harmful, vitriolic attacks on individual faculty members coming out of the Pope Center. I’m not saying the university shouldn’t be criticized. As long as it’s incisive criticism, bring it on. But not hateful, mocking, vicious attacks.”
The Pope Foundation funds both the Pope Center and The John Locke Foundation, conservative organizations that have been instrumental in singling out UNC professors and graduate students for accusations of leftist bias. UNC alumni Arthur Pope and John Pope Sr. head the philanthropic foundation. In addition, Arthur Pope sits on the board of directors for both groups.
The Pope Center has also been outspoken about what it says is a lack of attention to the teaching of Western Civilization at UNC as compared to multiculturalism. Since word of the proposed Pope-funded curriculum in Western Cultures broke last month, faculty and students have voiced concerns that allowing a political critic of the university to pay for changes in the curriculum will harm the school’s academic integrity.
Barbour, the committee chair, says he shares those concerns. He wants the administration to take a stronger stand against the Pope Center’s activities on campus.
“The Pope Center is attacking members of our faculty with hostility, and I want it to stop,” he says. “I would like to see the administration go to the Popes and ask for the attacks to stop or for the Popes to distance themselves” from those attacks.
Barbour adds that if administrators “took action against these attacks and sincerely made it clear that they did not support them, then that would go a long way toward removing my objection to them as donors” for the new curriculum.
Chancellor James Moeser and Bernadette Gray-Little, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, where the new program would be housed, did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment on the issue. Dee Reid, director of communication for the college, says the proposal is now in the Popes’ hands. “They receive it, they look at it and decide if they will fund it,” she says.
For its part, the Pope Center has responded to the controversy with articles on its Web site under headlines such as “Western Civ proposal at UNC sparks smear campaign by fearful radicals,” and “Liberals lose it again: Radicals protest Western Civ.” The center’s “Course of the Month” feature is also dedicated to ridiculing opponents of the Western Cultures minor. Previous picks have been courses about women and African Americans. According to the site, a Course of the Month must meet the requirements of “overt political content, rabid infatuation with pop culture or sexuality, and abject silliness. As a general rule of thumb, anything with ‘studies’ or ‘awareness’ in the course title is fair game.”
In addition to concerns about the funding source for the new Western Cultures program, many members of the university community have also expressed dissatisfaction with the process of developing the curriculum. A faculty meeting in September where the proposal was unveiled was closed to students and the media. Last week, 75 protestors lined the steps of Wilson Library before another meeting on the program–this one open to the media–was held. Criticism has also been voiced about a $25,000 planning grant the Pope Center gave to the curriculum committee, and the fact that the foundation got to see a final draft of the proposal before faculty or students. In the face of such concerns, UNC officials have emphasized that the idea for the new curriculum came from the university, not the Popes. At last week’s College of Arts and Sciences meeting, Dean Gray-Little made the point again. “Let me repeat,” she said, “the idea for the topic came from us and our own faculty.”
But when pressed by faculty at the meeting, Gray-Little was less clear. In this case, she said, “faculty” means administrators, not professors.
Richard Soloway, a history professor who was interim dean of the college when the university decided to seek Pope funding, says the new minor could fill some important needs. If the Popes accept the proposal, the foundation will give between $500,000 and $600,000 over the next five years, and potentially another $12-13 million as an endowment at the end of the contingency period. This large sum of money would help pay for additional courses, study abroad scholarships and positions for a program director and one full-time staff member.
In her communications with faculty, Gray-Little has stressed that the university needs additional private dollars to cover costs of faculty salaries and research initiatives in the face of shrinking state funding.
“We need significant private funding to fulfill our mission and to keep Carolina competitive with other universities who are all too happy to raid our outstanding faculty,” she said at last week’s faculty meeting. “Since 2001, about 80 College faculty have received very attractive outside offers, and 41 of them have left Carolina or are in the process of leaving as a result.”
The academic content of the proposed new curriculum has received far less attention than the funding. According to the proposal, the new minor aims to explore the meaning and legacy of the “West.” Participating students would be required to take two introductory courses, two thematic courses and either study abroad in approved locations or take an advanced foreign language course pertinent to the West. The proposal recognizes that “the ‘West’ is a subject of debate, controversy, and changing definitions.” Proposed texts include African writers, such as Saint Augustine, authors from Muslim societies, such as Ibn Sina Avicenna, and Russian authors, such as Leo Tolstoy.
Barbara Harris, chair of UNC’s Women’s Studies Department who teaches and publishes articles about Western Civilization, says news reports and Pope Center postings that paint faculty as being opposed to the curriculum’s focus are off the point.
“To read the objections of faculty as opposition to Western Civ is absolutely wrong,” she says. “My reading is the Pope Foundation is hostile to a more global and diverse curriculum. In order to push that agenda, they try to create a fiction that UNC is trying to slight Western Civilization courses.”
Western Civilization is currently part of UNC’s general education requirements. This semester, more than 1,000 UNC students are enrolled in introductory-level Western Civilization courses, and almost 900 are already registered for similar courses in the spring.
Standing in the Pit on campus last week, we asked 50 students what they thought of the Studies in Western Cultures minor. Of those in our straw poll, nine said they would consider enrolling in the new program.
In other forums, students have raised concerns that echo those of the faculty.
“Common sense says that the administration isn’t treating this in a transparent fashion,” Sarah Carucci, a junior sociology and public policy major, said at last week’s protest. “I just would like any representative from UNC to spell out the purpose of the curriculum, student input in the curriculum, and the control of the Popes over the curriculum.” Carucci is spearheading a petition to Gray-Little requesting a more open process and an appointment of a student representative to the curriculum committee.
Some faculty are worried that, given that the administration is waiting on the Popes for approval, such representation might be too late. If the curriculum is approved, some say they will not teach it.
Judith Bennett, a tenured history professor who has taught an introductory Western Civilization course for more than 25 years at UNC, is one of them.
“The Western Civilization I have loved and taught for years is being taken away from me,” she says. “I would be afraid to teach Western Civ if it’s a Pope-funded Western Civ. By accepting Pope money, the university would be giving them ammunition to attack professors.”