A new environmental policy initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill, created by the legislature, is prompting concern among environmentalists and faculty who fear political pressure will get in the way of sound science.
The N.C. Policy Collaboratory, where scientists will collaborate on research and policy, was established in this summer’s budget law, with $1 million in annual state funding plus $3.5 million in public startup funds if the university can raise matching money. Specifically, the law directs UNC to do research related to “environmental and economic components” of natural resources management and “new technologies for habitat, environmental, and water quality improvement.”
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said the concept originated with citizens who wanted to leverage university expertise to address state and local policy challenges. The collaboratory “was fleshed out and refined” through conversations with the UNC chancellor’s office, he said in an email. The goal is to have a direct contact at UNC to answer questions and make policy recommendations, he said.
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.
Sen. Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore, N.C. General Assembly
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His science adviser, Jeff Warren, is rumored to be in line to lead the UNC entity, which has prompted scorn from opponents. Without mentioning Warren by name, Berger said any member of his staff who applied for a university job would have his “strong support and recommendation.”
“I have received numerous complaints about the existing philosophical and partisan homogeneity at UNC, where professors registered as Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of roughly 12 to one,” Berger’s email said. “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.”
University officials have said no job openings have been posted and the collaboratory is in the early planning stages.
Berger blasted the Warren critics. “It is extremely disturbing to see faculty leaders and special interest groups protect blatantly discriminatory hiring practices by publicly attacking and disparaging a rumored candidate through the press in what appears to be a clear warning that if you want a taxpayer-funded job in academia, you will only receive a fair shake if you toe the line from the left,” Berger’s email said.
Warren has been a key player in rewriting environmental legislation, loosening some regulations and limiting local authority to enact controls. New laws in the last five years have opened the door to fracking, defined how sea level rise can be measured and allowed the construction of “terminal groins,” or hard structures that protect coastal property. Warren, who received a doctorate in geological sciences from UNC, is a former adjunct assistant professor at Duke University and worked at Phillips Petroleum early in his career, according to his LinkedIn page.
Warren is not authorized to comment, a Berger spokeswoman said.
UNC policy not followed
Faculty have raised alarms about the center’s creation and the fact that it’s being set up on the business side of the university, rather than under the academic arm. UNC already has a longstanding Institute for the Environment, which conducts research and collaborative studies across academic disciplines.
Stephen Leonard, a political science professor and former chair of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, pointed out that the collaboratory bypassed the normal processes of faculty governance and UNC policy.
“It does not appear that any of that was followed in this case,” Leonard said. “They can’t even name the faculty who would be participating in this.”
Now, Leonard said, campus leaders are “trying to figure out how to give it some academic respectability.”
Chancellor Carol Folt, who has a Ph.D. in ecology, was not available for an interview, according to a spokesman. UNC Trustee Chair Dwight Stone did not return a phone call. The News & Observer requested documents related to the creation of the collaboratory, but the university has so far not provided any records.
Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises, is heading up the effort to plan and staff the new policy entity. Ives, who is also UNC’s chief sustainability officer, is a former assistant secretary with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources from 2013 to 2015 during Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.
He said there is precedent for university work tied to legislative demands. He cited UNC’s cancer research fund, launched by Democrats in 2007, and the School of Government, which offers policy assistance and training to government officials.
“I see this as a great opportunity for us to be able work with the legislature to take the scientific knowledge at the university and apply it to the issues they face,” Ives said. “We’ve got a great body of knowledge here that really could help them out.”
He added that “whatever we do here we will have a mechanism for proper academic oversight.”
The new entity comes as the state wrestles with serious issues related to coal ash dumps, development buffers, coastal management and water quality in lakes that are the Triangle’s sources of drinking water.
Given the legislature’s dismal track record on the environment, it’s appropriate for people to be suspicious about what this center is all about.
Derb Carter, Jr., director of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill
Environmental advocates say they’re concerned about a legislatively mandated research agenda at the university.
“For five years we’ve seen nothing positive related to the environment coming out of the legislature,” said Derb Carter, Jr., director of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill. “Given the legislature’s dismal track record on the environment, it’s appropriate for people to be suspicious about what this center is all about.”
Carter said outsiders may try to influence the research with donations. “It’s going to be important that this center be transparent in where this funding may come from because there’s a fairly active effort under way by interests that are opposed to environmental regulation,” he said.
University officials are being careful not to call the new entity a center or institute. Two years ago, the UNC Board of Governors, which is appointed by the legislature, reviewed all centers and institutes across the UNC system in a process that some labeled a partisan exercise. In the end, the board shut down three that were generally linked to liberal causes or professors – the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.
Gene Nichol, who led the poverty center, said the collaboratory was troubling on a number of fronts. Tying a research program to the business side of UNC is “using the trappings of [the] university without the rigor of its academic governance processes,” he said in an email.
Nichol, who has penned outspoken criticism of Republican politicians for The News & Observer’s opinion pages, added: “We already have seen what can happen to professors whose publications the legislators detest. Now we might have a new way for the legislature to respond to professors who write things the General Assembly supports. That’s a tough scheme to square with academic freedom and independence.”
Must follow rules
Lawrence Band, director of UNC’s Institute for the Environment, said any new projects will have to function by the same rules and regulations of any other research at the university. The Board of Governors’ review of centers made clear that politics is off limits in academia, he said.
“It was reiterated that we do not engage in political activity. No lobbying,” Band said. “We use evidence-based reasoning. This would have to be subject to the same restrictions.”
He said the new entity should provide an opportunity for collaboration across the university because major environmental problems require expertise from areas such as science, social science, policy and other disciplines.
The Institute for the Environment, initially formed in 1998 as the Carolina Environmental Program, has 45 to 50 faculty and staff members, and works with graduate students and undergraduates. Since 2007, it has boosted its research profile in areas of watershed science and management, air quality, sustainable community design and energy. UNC has funding from the National Science Foundation for a large project on water scarcity with Cornell University, for example.
The collaboratory could have similar potential, depending on how it’s implemented, Band said, but the jury is still out. “This came as a surprise,” he said. “I don’t think our administration was anticipating this, because let’s face it, it is unusual.”
He said UNC’s environmental researchers have been discussing building better ties to the university’s operations side. The campus facilities group is a leader in implementing novel stormwater controls, Band said.
Among the projects was the recent Battle Grove stream restoration on campus, which is in the Jordan Lake watershed. Such undertakings can be used as living and learning environments where students can conduct experiments, Ives said.
Watershed work is likely to be a focus of the new policy push. A separate but apparently related line item in the state budget provides $500,000 to UNC-Chapel Hill to designate “an entity” to study nutrient management strategies for Jordan Lake.
In the past few years, the legislature has delayed implementation of more stringent regulations to protect Jordan Lake, instead deploying SolarBees to churn up the water in an attempt to reduce algae. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality recently removed the machines after they failed to improve water quality after nearly two years of use.
Ives said he has received no pressure from anyone for specific research results from the university.
“We’re just going to do our jobs,” he said. “We’re going to do our science over here. ... What the politicians do with the information is up to them.”