Pope Foundation gives UNC $10 million for cancer research and philosophy and politics program

Former member of the N.C. General Assembly and former state budget director Art Pope, who is chairman of Variety Wholesalers and the John William Pope Foundation.
Former member of the N.C. General Assembly and former state budget director Art Pope, who is chairman of Variety Wholesalers and the John William Pope Foundation. File photo

UNC-Chapel Hill announced Monday a $10 million gift from the John William Pope Foundation of Raleigh.

The donation will be distributed among four areas at the university:

$5 million for a fellowship fund at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, to recruit cancer researchers.

$3.75 million for the Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, to fund two new faculty positions and two visiting assistant professorships, as well as a speaker series. The program is currently a minor area of study but UNC has plans to make it an academic major. Started in 2005, it is a joint program with Duke University and now has about 350 students.

$1 million for track-and-field scholarships. The money will pay for two in-state scholarships — one for a male student and one for a female student.

$250,000 to the UNC Horizons Program, which provides help to pregnant women and mothers who are undergoing treatment for substance abuse. The money will be used to conduct a follow-up study on 125 women and their children who have been enrolled in the program. In 2016-17, the program reached 266 women, and three-quarters were employed at the completion of the treatment.

The gift was announced at a ceremony at UNC's cancer center attended by leaders of the programs that will be benefit. It is part of the university's ongoing fundraising campaign, an effort to raise $4.25 billion by the end of 2022.

The John William Pope Foundation is named for the founder of Variety Wholesalers, a business that includes chains of discount stores such as Roses and Maxway. Its chairman is John William Pope's son, Art Pope, who runs the family business and is a well-known supporter of conservative candidates. Pope is a former Republican House member and served as state budget director under former Gov. Pat McCrory.

The foundation was formed in 1986 and has since given grants of more than $100 million to think tanks, universities, charities and the arts. It funds public policy groups dedicated to free-market and conservative values, including the John Locke Foundation, Civitas Institute, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, N.C. Family Policy Council, Jesse Helms Center Foundation and N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation.

The Martin Center, previously known as the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, has been a frequent critic of UNC and other universities. Last year in a fundraising letter, the group took credit for influencing policies enacted by the legislator and UNC Board of Governors, including a free speech law, a study of diversity and inclusion across the UNC system, and a controversial action to ban the UNC Center for Civil Rights from filing lawsuits.

The gift doubles the lifetime support from the Pope Foundation and family members. Previously, they gave $1.3 million for cancer research in 2014 and $2 million in 2006 for UNC's football program and other areas.

Art Pope said his father was treated for cancer at UNC. He also pointed out that track and field was his sport in high school, and he said he wished the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program had been around when was a student at UNC. He said he created his own version by studying, history, political science and economics.

"I think you need all of the above to truly understand the society we live in," Pope said of the combined program.

The course of study began at Oxford University in 1920. The program at UNC and Duke is the largest in the United States, said Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of UNC's College of Arts and Sciences.

"This program, PPE, does something really special, and that is that it binds these three areas," Guskiewicz said.

He gave some examples of work that students do — using economic models to study voter behavior, applying philosophical concepts to the study of morality and modern business or exploring how political practices can constrain economic growth. "In other words, you see subjects through a different lens from which they are traditionally viewed," Guskiewicz added.

Pope gifts to UNC haven't been always been warmly greeted by faculty at UNC. In 2003-05, controversy erupted over a proposed Western culture program that would have been funded by the Pope Foundation to the tune of nearly $5 million. Faculty resistance led Pope to scale back to gift dramatically to $300,000 for study abroad, summer research fellowships and a visiting scholar program.

"The big difference here is that the PPE program was already established — a large student participation, demand for more classes," Pope said in an interview. "It's much easier to expand a program than start a new program."

Pope thanked those gathered at the cancer center for the work of the university that has helped the state, he said, but also his family. His father was the first in his family attend UNC, who enrolled in 1940 as a 16-year-old.

University leaders were effusive in their thanks to the family and their foundation.

"I am so grateful for this wonderful gift from the Pope Foundation," UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said in the announcement. "They are providing much needed support in critical areas from growing educational programs to fighting disease to supporting our student-athletes. Taken together, this gift will touch our students and faculty, promoting their success, leadership and impact in North Carolina and beyond."

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