Conservative think tank claims credit for some new UNC policies

Students mingle on the quad in front of the Wilson Library on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill in August. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is taking some credit for recent university policies enacted by the legislature and the UNC Board of Governors.
Students mingle on the quad in front of the Wilson Library on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill in August. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is taking some credit for recent university policies enacted by the legislature and the UNC Board of Governors.

A conservative think tank in North Carolina is taking some credit for recent university policies enacted by the legislature and the UNC Board of Governors.

In its Thanksgiving-themed fundraising letter, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal thanked its supporters and referred to them as partners in higher education reform. “Thank you for helping us make great strides this year in advancing needed reforms in North Carolina,” said the email, signed by Jenna Robinson, president of the center.

The center, formerly named the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, does policy analysis and puts forth its ideas on everything from curriculum to free speech to political correctness.

“And with your help, that work has paid off,” the letter said. “Four problems that we have highlighted in our work have been addressed by North Carolina policymakers in the last six months.”

The letter cited:

▪ the board’s controversial action in September to bar the UNC Center for Civil Rights from filing lawsuits.

▪ a free speech law and soon-to-be policy for UNC campuses.

▪ the board’s consideration of hiring its own staff separate from the office of UNC President Margaret Spellings.

▪ a study of campus equal opportunity and diversity compliance offices, with an eye toward more consolidation.

Robinson said the center has focused on similar issues for a long time, and they are now coming to fruition. She cited a paper she wrote on campus free speech policies seven years ago, exposing problems with various speech restrictions.

“Finally we’ve seen action from the people who are in the position to make decisions,” she said. “Seeing that means that we are pointing out problems that people think are important. We will continue to point out those problems, and obviously not every problem that we point out will lead anyone to take any particular action.”

She acknowledged that there is a receptive audience now, with the Republican-led legislature and the Republican-dominated Board of Governors.

How it started

The think tank was established 13 years ago, having started out as a project of the right-leaning John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. It has five people who write and do research and two administrative employees. Its annual budget is $600,000 to $700,000, Robinson said.

Previously called the Pope Center, its name was changed earlier this year to honor former Republican Gov. Jim Martin and to avoid confusion with other Pope entities. It still gets much of its funding from the Pope Foundation, led by Art Pope, a Raleigh businessman, former lawmaker and state budget director who has championed conservative causes. The Pope Foundation is named for Pope’s father, John William Pope, and supports a range of philanthropic endeavors.

The center sends its articles and research to all members of the Board of Governors. “We want the members of the board to be interested in the issues we’re interested in,” Robinson said.

UNC System President Margaret Spellings, left, and UNC Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette listen to board member Tom Fetzer propose a resolution to reduce tuition and fees during a September meeting in Chapel Hill. Julia Wall

Steve Leonard, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and former leader of the systemwide Faculty Assembly, said he can see the influence of the center.

“So much of the legislation and policy that the board and legislature have been promulgating have been informed by and looked an awful lot like the kinds of things that the Martin Center, and before that, the Pope Center have been urging or recommending or advising for a long time,” Leonard said. “They also serve to channel ideas from other right-wing think tanks on a whole variety of issues and ideas.”

He cited the free speech law, which was modeled on a proposal from the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute.

But Leonard said the center’s shaping of policy has not been a good thing for higher education in North Carolina.

“While they certainly can argue that they have influenced policymakers and decision makers and lawmakers on these matters, the problem is the arguments they’ve produced,” Leonard said.

He called resulting policy “slipshod and sloppy.” Leonard said the center’s sway suggest the board and legislature “have been not been independent in their assessments and thinking about the issues facing public higher education in this state.”

One of many

Board member Marty Kotis, a Greensboro businessman, said the center has been “absolutely instrumental” in the free speech bill and the question of hiring staff for the board.

Kotis said he attended a couple of speaker events on the free speech issue hosted by the center. “They definitely were one of the primary advocates for that,” Kotis said.

He said he’s found the Martin Center “good to work with.” But he said the center’s voice is one of many.

“There are so many different constituencies out that are always bending our ear about different thoughts,” he said. “That’s good. That’s a good thing. You can get different perspectives.”

Lou Bissette, chairman of the UNC board, said he reads the Martin Center’s work, just as he reads about many issues on higher education. “I don’t hear members talking about the Martin Center,” he said, adding, “I don’t feel like they’re manipulating the board in any way that I can discern.”

He said the civil rights center debate was brought forward by board member Steve Long, and the free speech policy was mandated by the legislature. Bissette said he does not agree with the center’s stance on the board hiring an independent staff. “I think it’s a terrible idea,” he said.

Robinson said the center will continue its work to shine a light on higher education. “We will educate about the pros and cons of various policies,” she said. “We’ll expose problems and draw attention to problems.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill