By Chad Nance
Art Pope’s Civitas has long wanted to close North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges… now they just may get their chance. In 2014 their hand-picked UNC Board of Governors targeted programs throughout North Carolina’s university system that are geared toward the studies of poverty, economy, climate and other sciences, and diversity studies. Any part of academia that might contradict these right-wing partisans’ anti-science and anti-working people agenda is on the chopping block. Reports out of Raleigh now indicate that the partisan political operatives installed on the UNC Board of Governors since the take-over of the North Carolina State Government by the Republicans have pushed out current President of the Board of Governors, Tom Ross, for opposing their partisan and ideological agenda. Apparently the ideologues and partisans in charge of what once was one of the best state college systems in America clearly have a problem with science, the study of our economy, and the humanities because, you know… higher learning has a well-known liberal bias.
Art Pope is publicly stating that he does not want Tom Ross’ position as President. Why would he need to take the political hits from being that obvious. The people whom he and his henchmen chose to sit on the BOG will gleefully do the dirty work for the Party and for Pope. Of course, Pope’s words ring hollow. Pope’s fellow right-wing ideologue, John Hood, of North Carolina’s corporately funded John Locke Foundation, has left that organization to take Pope’s former position at the John W. Pope Foundation. That frees Art up to take the BOG position or simply continue to influence the entire political policy direction of our state while those of us who don’t have our dad’s fortune to blow must struggle day to day in an increasingly hostile environment for working people and North Carolina’s middle class.
According to sources, the hacks on the BOG made pushing Ross out part of their broader initiative to purge the UNC system of programs and people who oppose or cause problems for the Republican political agenda. Education takes a back seat to making sure that those pesky egg-headed professors with their smart-ass ideas about reality and science won’t be coming to economic or scientific conclusions that do not mesh with the Republican Party and Civitas’ political agenda.
How did we get here? When the Republican controlled legislature began to put its people on the board the main qualification for an appointment was that you be a Republican. (Past boards were formed using members of both major parties and African Americans with experience and legacies connected to HBUs.) The 16 people appointed to the BOG in 2013 were majority white, majority male and largely long-time Republican partisans and party activists None of the eligible sitting board members were chosen to serve another four-year term. Two black board members, Walter Davenport and Franklin McCain, were among those who put their names in for consideration but were not chosen. Davenport is a CPA from Raleigh and McCain is a North Carolina civil rights icon who was one of the four NC A&T University students who organized the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter to protest segregation.
The BOG is supposed to work to make best decisions for students and North Carolina’s college communities. Their make-up, however, does not reflect North Carolina’s population from their race, economic status, and party affiliation. They are in the minority now… a minority that holds vast sums of corporate cash at its disposal. The oligarchy lives and they want to squash all dissent. Theynot only want to pull up the ladder behind them- they want to burn it to the ground.
“People of marginalized identities have had to fight to make a space at these universities. And we don’t want to see that repealed in some bureaucratic decision by people who were not even elected, and were appointed by a Republican majority legislature,” stated then UNC-CH sophomore Elizabeth Brown, an organizer with the North Carolina Student Power Union (a student advocacy and activism organization) in 2013.
The board has 32 voting members and three ex-officio members. Twenty-nine of those are registered Republicans (some with ties back to Civitas, Art Pope, and ALEC), four are registered Democrats, and two are registered unaffiliated. One of the board members doesn’t even live in North Carolina.
There are, no doubt, decent human beings on that board who truly have the best interest of North Carolina’s college students in mind. There are also people on the board who publicly and privately push anti-education agendas that were launched in the wake of desegregation. These are dull axe blades to grind on and counter to reality, but they exist. No grand conspiracy or conspiratorial meetings in the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms are necessary when you’ve set the agenda by appointing a board with an almost monolithic ideological bent.
Now the job that the legislature began in 2011 is completed. They have stacked the ideological deck in order to create the conclusion they want and to squash dissent. Tom Ross was no fire-brand, but he had been pushing back against these nakedly partisan efforts… until Friday when he was given a golden parachute then pushed off of the gang plank.
Who is Tom Ross? Originally from Greensboro, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Davidson College in 1972. Mr. Ross would go on to graduate honors from the UNC-CH School of Law in 1975. Following a job as an Assistant Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, Ross joined the Greensboro law firm of Smith Patterson Follin Curtis James & Harkavy. He left the firm in 1982 to serve as chief of staff in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Congressman Robin Britt. The following year, at the age of 33, Ross was appointed to fill a vacancy on the North Carolina Superior Court. He would hold his seat for the next 17 years.
In 1990 the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court asked Ross to head a new Sentencing and Policy Advisory Committee with an eye toward reform. In 1993 the NCGA adopted a new system based on the Committee’s recommendations.
In 1999, Ross was appointed director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. Over the next two years, he led efforts to improve the management of the court system and advocated for additional resources. In 2001, he left the bench to serve as executive director of Winston-Salem’s Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation – an organization that routinely draws the vitriol and derision of North Carolina‘s right-wing extremists. During his seven-year tenure at Z. Smith Reynolds the foundation awarded about $20 million annually to non-profit groups focused on community economic development, democracy and civic engagement, the environment, pre-college education, and social justice. Ross stepped down in 2007 to return to his alma mater Davidson College as President. He served there until he was made President of the BOG.
Ross currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Center for Creative Leadership, the Executive Committee of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Association of Governing Boards’ Council of Presidents and Intercollegiate Athletics Project Advisory Group, the Council on Competitiveness, advisory boards for the NC Humanities Council and the NC State University Institute for Emerging Issues, and the honorary Board of Directors of the Conservation Trust of North Carolina. He also serves on the boards of the National Humanities Center, the David H. Murdock Research Institute, the NC Biotechnology Center, and the UNC Health Care System. A former chairman of the UNC Greensboro Board of Trustees, he has previously served on the Boards of Visitors for UNCG, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University. In addition, he has served on the boards of Davidson College, the North Carolina New Schools Project, the Kenan Institute for the Arts, the Institute of Government Foundation, the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law Alumni Foundation, the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities… Tom Ross has an incredible legacy of achievement both personal and public.
“I’ve been enjoying my work with the Board of Governors and I think we’ve accomplished a lot during the last four years,” Ross told the Charlotte Observer after news broke of him being pushed out. “When I came here I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be ready to stop working at age 65, and I’m not ready to stop working at age 65. I don’t know how much longer, but I wasn’t planning on leaving in the near future.” Of course the Civitas/GOP message machine went immediately into gear with lame talking points about previous BOG Presidents leaving at 65. Reputable news outlets ran with that nonsense, but by the afternoon the Republicans on the BOG were backing off of that nonsense and just choosing the old stand-by of denying everything then clamming up.
Why was Ross pushed out? Because he stood in the way when Civitas floated balloons about wanting to close down Elizabeth City State. He was also in the way of the Civitas/GOP agenda when it came to cutting programs in order to stifle and remove dissenting opinions to Republican Party doctrine. UNC-CH professor Gene Nichol is Director at the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity and has been a vocal critic of extremist Civitas/GOP policies enacted by the NC Legislature in recent years. His program was one of the first on the hit list along with other programs that look at the environment, marine science off of the coast of North Carolina, social justice issues, poverty, energy sustainability and innovation, the economy, and diversity. Now Civitas will go after anyone they want with no one to stop them. What are some Civitas/GOP targets? Appalachian State’s Institute for Health & Human Services and their Center for Economic Research & Policy Analysis is on the list. Historically Black Colleges are targeted across the board like NC A&T’s Advanced Materials & Smart Structures and Interdisciplinary Center for Entrepreneurship & E-Business and WSSU’s Center for Community Safety. Winston-Salem State is also on the list for a program-wide review, along with Elizabeth City State. UNCSA and WSSU’s Centers for Design & Innovation (which also do much work with W-S/Forsyth County School students) are also in their cross-hairs along with UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute and UNC-Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science.
It is clear where their ideological head is. They’re already working to change the way we teach US History to kids in order to in order to fill their heads with a collection of lies and distortions that justify Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, and slavery- now they’ve got an open channel to use as a mechanism to do generational damage to our University system. Make no mistake, Tom Ross was not some kind of left-wing radical out to indoctrinate the precious, white youth of North Carolina about the demonic blasphemies that are 21st Century global realities. Ross was one of them. A highly educated, highly paid and accomplished citizen who gave much of his life back to North Carolina. The difference is that Ross was not ideological. He was a moderate Democrat who represented the status quo rather than anything radical. The Civitas/GOP BOG, however, is ideological and radical with an agenda and mission to leave a far-right boot-print on the face of education in North Carolina… and it looks like they will be getting their chance.