Before we get into the topic of this week’s newsletter, we would like to send our thoughts and prayers to those in Florida, and elsewhere, who are dealing with the devastation left by Hurricane Ian.
In last week’s newsletter we celebrated Carolina remaining in the #5 spot of US News and World Report rankings for public universities. We also noted that this year Carolina is tied with the University of Florida. Several of you contacted us and asked for information on how Florida was able to move so far up the ranking so quickly. (Between 2015 and 2022 the University of Florida has climbed 20 spots and leapfrogged its way into the top 10.) We looked into this further and found a post that details what happened.
To summarize the post, the University of Florida trustees were tired of people dissing their alma matter and decided to do something about it. They laser focused on the US News and World Report metrics and worked to get Florida in the top 10 public university in the country. Achieving this goal was the critical criteria used to recruit a new university president in 2003. They also engaged then Governor Rick Scott and the state legislature to get the funding to make the goal a reality. Below is an excerpt from the detailed post. You can follow this link to read the full analysis.
“In his efforts to cement his university’s place in the rankings, Machen reached far beyond Gainesville. He worked with then-Governor Rick Scott to get the state to pass a funding scheme called Preeminence, which rewarded public colleges that did best on some of the metrics deemed important by U.S. News. For the University of Florida, Preeminence created the kind of virtuous circle that such money often begets. It helped the university ascend the rankings, which in turn brought in more applicants, more approval from lawmakers, and more money, which administrators could use to keep climbing.
In return, Machen supported Scott’s launch of performance-based funding for Florida universities — a system that also advantaged the flagship. But the partial alignment of state purse strings with U.S. News metrics has come at a cost. Critics say these developments have driven an even bigger wedge between the state’s four-year colleges, making richer institutions richer, and depriving less-resourced institutions of much-needed funds. …. UF’s funds went to hiring not only more faculty members, but stars in their fields, people who would sharpen the research attributable to the University of Florida, bolster the university’s national reputation, and bring in big, prestigious federal research grants. …”
Florida trustees successfully used their legislative connections to fund the university’s move up the US News and World Report rankings. With the legislature’s involvement, other state universities received support and also rose. Did their successes come with a price? The state funding was tied to the recipient universities being required to implement a new metrics program tied to the rankings. The program was called Preeminence. This program place strict limitations on how the state funds could be used. Given the headlines about governance overreach in Florida today, could this have been also another big opening for legislators to become more involved in Florida university day-to-day operations?
Our very own Dr. Holden Thorp published a piece entitled The Charade of Political Neutralityin the Chronicle of Higher Education. He encourages college leaders to speak out on the issues of the day and warns that “colleges are in the middle of the culture wars whether they like it or not”. H goes on to say “…It’s ironic that the same folks advocating for ‘viewpoint diversity’ are simultaneously muzzling their presidents.” A great read.
Colleges Must Stop Trying to Appease the Right is a thought-provoking piece by Silke-Maria Weineck that was also published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, the author warns that appeasement…” indulges as legitimate the sort of orchestrated, bad-faith fury conservatives are currently weaponizing against public schools and public libraries, which are,…, an intrinsic and ideally constitutive part of pluralist liberal democracy,” Check it out.
UNC Board of Governors skips national search, names David Crabtree permanent CEO of PBS NC “David Crabtree, former long-time reporter and anchor at WRAL, was made CEO of PBS NC Thursday after a unanimous vote by the UNC Board of Governors. Crabtree has served as interim leader of the organization for the past five months. The board broke precedent in hiring Crabtree, who will make $275,000 per year in his new role, by not conducting a national candidate search.”
The Coalition for Carolina noted that there have been several incidents around the country where politics are being injected into public university governance. We asked Dr. Holden Thorp for his opinion on what’s behind such incidents and here is his response:
“Well, we have a whole lot of incidents around the country of boards becoming more intrusive into higher education. Mostly it relates to how conservative politics would prefer to see higher education carry out their work. This really comes down to the fact that there has been–over the last 50 years or so–an effort by the political right to change facts when they need to change them to suit their political goals.”
We followed up and asked Dr. Thorp if such a high level of politicization concerns him and, if so, what potential impact does he see it having on the country. His response:
“I’m very worried about this level of political interference–certainly at the red state public universities, but also for higher education as a whole. And, it [political interference] tends to spread into other areas….
For example; there’s a lot of focus right now on the interference into the honest teaching and studying of American history. The conservatives don’t want to be reminded that America–the America that we have today–started off with huge genocide of Native Americans. And then, it was animated by slavery–both in the colonial times and through reconstruction, and all through the civil war…all the way to today.
Now these things are easy to document. We know that there were millions of Native Americans here when the white folks arrived. We know that slavery was here long before the American Revolution and that it was a factor, in multiple ways, in the Revolution itself. But yet folks don’t want to be reminded of this, or, they don’t want more people to understand it and so they’re trying to suppress it. Well, it’s a straight line from there to suppressing evolution, and stem cell research, and all kinds of things in medicine, and changing the way we measure things about the world.
And so, universities are here for one purpose and one purpose only. That’s to seek the truth about history. The truth about identity. The truth about social science. And also, the truth about the natural world and the universe and how everything functions and fits together. And if we don’t have that honest description, we’re in big trouble because we got pandemics and climate change and all kinds of racism, sexism and homophobia. All kinds of things that can really damage humanity if we don’t have the truth to fall back on when we need to solve problems.”
The Coalition was founded last summer to support and defend the University and its independence from partisan interference. We rededicated ourselves to the University’s promise of Lux Libertas—light and liberty—and the principles of open inquiry, free speech, academic freedom, equity and inclusion because we saw these principles at risk.
Over the past months we’ve stayed on mission and pointed out specific examples of how our concerns were playing out in hopes of slowing or stopping the damage. We’re making an impact and recently, thankfully, things seem to have quieted down.
While “quiet” is good, it may mean “not making headlines.” Whatever is happening, we are hopeful and will remain vigilant–not just to what’s happening in NC, but also to what’s going on in other states. To that end, a news report’s description of Governor Ron DeSantis’ Planned Sweeping Assault on Autonomy of Public Colleges in Floridacaught our attentionas it paints an alarming picture:
A sweeping action to consolidate and centralize governance.
“Records obtained through a series of public-records requests show that DeSantis’ office recently developed a sweeping plan to overhaul higher-education oversight in Florida. The governor’s proposal would have centralized more power in boards run by the governor’s political appointees, made colleges and universities more dependent on money controlled by politicians in Tallahassee, and imposed more restrictions on what schools can teach….”The DeSantis plan would have even stripped university presidents of the ability to hire professors.”
Attacks on tenure, free speech, accreditation, the curriculum.
As we consider what’s going on in Florida as well as other states such as South Dakota, the Coalition’s mission to preserve and protect UNC Chapel Hill from political interference becomes more vital than ever.