Controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill surrounding a proposed undergraduate program in “Western Cultures,” as the latest version is now called, ramped up again last week with an open letter from faculty decrying “secret negotiations” between university administrators and the potential donor, the Raleigh-based Pope Foundation. More than 70 faculty from disciplines including anthropology, history, romance languages, economics and political science signed a March 1 letter to The Daily Tar Heel calling on UNC administrators to suspend talks with the foundation until clearer guidelines are set for evaluating academic proposals from private donors. (For the full text of the letter, go to vnews/display.v/ART/42246b71ee7b1 ).

The letter raises concerns about the specific donor in this case–the Pope Foundation also funds the Pope Center for Higher Education, which has launched attacks on “left wing bias” in UNC classrooms and campus groups. But the letter’s main focus is the contention that faculty have been bypassed in the process of developing the new curriculum.

Administrators are now negotiating with the Popes “without notifying the faculty at large,” the letter says, or consulting the faculty committee that received a $25,000 planning grant from the foundation to design the new program. “The lack of transparency and the administration’s withholding of information throughout this process are disturbing.”

Administrators quickly responded with their own dispatch stating that the Pope-funded proposal has “received more public discussion than is typical for a funding application to a private foundation.” (College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bernadette Gray-Little’s contention that a meeting on the program in the fall was “open to all faculty, students and the news media” does not square with this reporter’s memory of being asked to leave that gathering.)

Recommendations of the faculty committee “remain in the proposal now under review by the Pope Foundation,” Gray-Little’s response letter states. That draft has now expanded to include items suggested by the foundation, such as first-year seminars, undergraduate research projects and honors classes. But as Sharon James, a classics professor and member of the faculty committee, points out, those items had earlier been rejected by the planning committee in favor of its own proposal for a minor in Western studies.

“Once I realized that the administration was reviving a rejected proposal [without notice to the faculty at large] and apparently revising the committee’s proposal [without consultation of the committee, until we queried the administration], I felt it necessary to sign the letter that called for transparency from the administration,” James wrote in an e-mail exchange with the Independent. She is the only member of the planning committee to sign the protest letter.

There are “significant differences” between the committee’s proposal and the current “Western Cultures” draft, James said, including “chiefly the removal of a crucial requirement for foreign language study or overseas study.”

When asked who is calling the shots on the Pope-funded proposal, James replied, “I have no idea. It is certainly not the committee. Our work has been done for months.”

Ironically, the proposal now being reviewed by the Pope Foundation is probably “more innocuous” than the more ambitious minor drawn up by the faculty committee, says Reid Barbour, an English professor who chaired the planning group. “Had first-year seminars and professorships been all that people wanted all along, I don’t think faculty would have been as worried,” he says.

When asked whether he thinks the process has been marred by secrecy, Barbour–who did not sign the faculty letter–says, “I don’t know if it’s secrecy but I certainly can’t call it clarity. We’ve been confused a few times about what the administration wanted from us, and that’s been compounded when it turns out the Popes are not interested in the Western Civilization program we’d been designing.”

So what happens now?

“We’re trying to figure that out,” Barbour says, adding that in all the fuss about procedure, “at some level, the educational value of what we proposed has gotten lost.”

UNC administrators did not respond directly to the faculty letter’s call for creating two new committees, one to set guidelines for dealing with private donors and the other to explore the definitions of “western civilizations” and “western cultures.” The protest letter also urged UNC to create “a clear policy regarding contingent funding for curricular donations.” The Popes have said they would fund a Western Cultures program for an initial five-year period and then reevaluate it before committing additional money.

In any case, it appears unlikely that the administration will shelve the proposal. “If the Popes accept the proposal, it will go forward,” says Dee Reid, a spokeswoman for the College of Arts and Sciences, adding that a response from the foundation to the latest draft is expected sometime this month.