Was Art Pope, who is leaving his post as state budget director, giving the University of North Carolina Board of Governors an educated critique of university spending policies or was he on a job interview?
Pope, a conservative businessman whose millions support foundations and think tanks that share his philosophy, has been rumored to be under consideration for the presidency of the UNC system since Republicans took control of the Board of Governors.
Whether or not that’s the case, Pope certainly carries clout wherever he goes, having contributed heavily to GOP candidates at all levels in North Carolina and on the national scene as well.
Last week, however, his appearance before the board was to provide an overview of how the university system handles its money, and one issue that has long been on his mind is what’s called “overhead receipts,” money that the federal government provides when a university such as UNC-Chapel Hill gets a grant for research.
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The additional federal dollars are supposed to cover expenses for administering grants, including buildings and people.
But Pope has long questioned whether universities – and UNC-Chapel Hill is a big recipient – oversee the money properly. “This is real money,” Pope said.
Board Chairman John Fennebresque agreed with Pope in questioning oversight. “I think we do a mediocre job of that,” he said.
Pope said the university system’s tuition is low and that taxpayer support is high. He said the system needed to be more accountable.
He noted, perhaps with a questioning tone, that UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt “has more control over more money in the state of North Carolina than any other state official – $159 million.” Pope was talking about those overhead receipt dollars.
Pope’s a smart fellow, but he is a conservative ideologue, and his think tank and foundation have often been critical of the UNC way of doing things. (It should be noted that Pope and his family have given millions of dollars to the university over a number of years.)
In a Point of View piece on this page Sept. 1, representatives of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy suggested that the Board of Governors revise the way UNC system schools are awarded money based on enrollment and instead tie funding to performance. Each student, however, costs any public university money, and enrollment is the best way to determine the amount needed.
The Pope Center writers also wanted tighter control over students’ ability to choose their own courses, over admission standards (they wanted them raised) and on tuition and fee increases (they wanted a moratorium on them).
But the writers did mention cost controls and spending cuts and indicated they wanted the board to look at faculty teaching loads, presumably with an eye toward increasing them.
The UNC system has been a jewel in the state’s crown. Under the late William Friday, it became one of the great systems in the United States. But Friday, who had strong political instincts and friends on Jones Street, always had to protect the university system from critics eager to find weaknesses but really motivated by the perception that UNC-Chapel Hill in particular was a hotbed of liberals.
An enterprise the size of the university system – over 200,000 students – is going to have inefficiencies turn up. But that doesn’t mean the system is being reckless with money. And while Pope may believe the system is adequately funded, it has taken some serious hits in the state budgeting process under Republicans.
The system is not broken. Suggesting that it tighten management is fine, but implying that system leaders are not doing an adequate job is not.