UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members expressed concerns about a legislative mandate for the university to create an environmental think tank, newly released records show.
As administrators held meetings last year about the new entity, known as the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, faculty wanted to know more about its mission and asked to be in on the talks, according to more than 350 pages of documents released under a public records request by The News & Observer.
The collaboratory was established last year with $1 million in annual state funds, plus $3.5 million in public funding if the university can raise matching dollars. Legislation also required a study on shellfish aquaculture and pollution controls for Jordan and Falls lakes. The idea was that scientists would collaborate on research and policy for state and local governments, but environmental advocates raised concerns that the science could be compromised by political influence.
Drafts were circulated last May describing the entity, initially called “The NC General Assembly Energy Policy Collaboratory,” which would “focus on public policy, environmental and job-creation aspects of production of energy from resources available within the State of North Carolina and its offshore waters.” One project mentioned was the university’s switch from coal to natural gas for the campus energy plant, as well as alternative fuels for the university’s transportation fleet.
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The collaboratory was one topic on the agenda for a meeting scheduled for the end of May among Chancellor Carol Folt, Trustee Chairman Dwight Stone and Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden.
Stephen Leonard, former head of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, raised strong questions that the formation of the collaboratory appeared to violate statutes, the UNC system code and UNC-Chapel Hill policy. He said it set a bad precedent for the university.
A statement was developed by UNC’s public relations staff to describe the collaboratory as “a win” for the state, taxpayers, communities, businesses and the university, but that it was “premature” to go into specifics. The university’s communications staff members, according to emails, were preparing language to explain it to reporters, with “no specifics and no celebration.”
By June, questions were being asked of Brad Ives, UNC’s chief sustainability officer and associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises. He was recently named director of the collaboratory after having served as interim director.
Don Hobart, associate vice chancellor for research, emailed Ives on June 6 to ask about a Senate budget provision dealing with a shellfish study and Ives’ office. Ives responded that “it was unexpected and unwanted.”
Later, in his take on the budget language related to the collaboratory’s creation, Ives wrote that it would be a clearinghouse and coordinating entity that would link the university’s expertise to the legislature and the state more broadly, while disseminating “best practices” and making recommendations to the General Assembly. “We likely have good latitude to determine the scope and activities of the Collaboratory,” he wrote.
But Stephen Leonard, a faculty member in political science and former head of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, raised strong questions that the formation of the collaboratory appeared to violate statutes, the UNC system code and UNC-Chapel Hill policy. He said it set a bad precedent for the university.
“These are all matters of public interest and should be subject to processes of public accountability,” Leonard wrote to faculty leaders on Aug. 16. “This raises very serious questions about the prerogative authority of the UNCCH faculty, UNCCH administrative officers, UNC General Administration, and the UNC Board of Governors.”
Provost Jim Dean began to meet with faculty who wanted clarity on the issue, but wanted to “keep this low-level as we get it sorted out,” he wrote to Ives July 7. One idea broached was whether the collaboratory could be legally set up outside the university. In the end, it would stay within the university but report to the business, not academic, side of the university.
Pete Andrews, a former faculty chair and professor emeritus of environmental policy, wrote to Dean, urging that faculty be involved “as soon as possible as you pursue these deliberations, and not merely for us to wait patiently until after you have reached definitive conclusions.”
Don Hornstein, a law professor with expertise in environmental law, wrote to a group of administrators, saying they must be ready “to engage intelligently, honestly, and critically with both the academic-freedom issues that could be raised as well as the potential opportunities that the legislation presents.”
Subsequent meetings with faculty leaders did occur, and Dean relayed that message to Folt in an email, writing, “My thoughts about this are that it should help (or at a minimum not hurt) our relationships with the legislature, and that any research that comes from this entity should be appropriately conducted or overseen by our researchers in the relevant fields, as it will be perceived to have come from UNC.”
Ives also began to hear from environmental groups that wanted to weigh in on the proposal and collaborate with the university.
The legislature directed the collaboratory to do a six-year study of nutrient management strategies for North Carolina’s Jordan Lake and Falls Lake and a two-year review of aquaculture and the economics and ecology of increasing oyster harvests. An interim report on the nutrient management study was sent to the legislature in December.
An advisory board was named for the new entity, as well as a community outreach liaison. The board has approved two projects related to Hurricane Matthew, and a third to study wild fires in Western North Carolina.
The board has approved two projects related to Hurricane Matthew, and a third to study wild fires in Western North Carolina.
Still unclear is who will be the think tank’s research director. Rumors have circulated that Jeffrey Warren, science adviser to Berger, would be hired at the collaboratory. A UNC spokeswoman said a national search is being conducted for the position.
A job posting for research director lists qualifications, including a doctorate and five years of experience in public policy development related to environmental issues and experience managing complex policy projects. An added benefit, the posting said, would be prior employment in the executive or legislative branches of government in North Carolina. “The Research Director must be able to build relationships with the members and staff of the North Carolina General Assembly in order to receive requests for research and to communicate research findings and policy recommendations,” the posting said, in addition to forming relationships with scientists inside and outside the university.
The position’s listed salary range is $86,100 to $180,800.
Berger has said that any of his staff who applied for a UNC job would have his strong support. “On several occasions I have recommended highly-qualified conservative candidates for positions at UNC and within the university system, and, to my knowledge, none have been hired to date,” he said last year.