Phil Berger rode into power ten years ago with a vision of reshaping every institution in North Carolina. A decade hence, he has largely succeeded. Across almost every front, but particularly in the area of education, the Tar Heel state is unrecognizable from the moderate, troubled, but steadily progressing Southern beacon it had been struggling to become for a half-century before Berger’s men seized the reins of N.C. government. Nowhere has his success been more notable than in the University of North Carolina.
Deeply influenced by Art Pope’s “think tank” empire, Berger regarded UNC as a cesspool of waste and liberal ideology. Looking to balance the budget in a recession and unwilling to countenance tax increases of any kind, Berger let loose his wrath on the University budget with a 15%-18% cut in 2011. Five Democrats helped him override then-Governor Bev Perdue’s veto, to their eternal shame, and UNC has become permanently starved of resources. Once again channeling Pope’s intellectual minions, Berger envisioned “efficiencies” to be found as compensation for the bite of austerity. Instead tuition at Chapel Hill rose 50%.
In the wake of the Charleston race massacre, North Carolina legislators with the firm support of Berger’s Senate caucus decided that their top priority was to protect Silent Sam, a Confederate monument looming large on UNC’s upper quad. After a debate in which Republicans made no pretense other than to protect Confederate paraphernalia, a bill with the moniker Silent Sam Protection Act made its way to Pat McCrory’s desk, and the feckless governor signed it out of duty to his legislative masters. It would take years–and an act of civil disobedience–to extirpate the racist symbol from UNC’s campus.
Some of the most vocal supporters of Silent Sam came directly from the legislature. Thom Goolsby, an Alabama native and graduate of the The Citadel, a hyper-militaristic South Carolina military school founded to put down slave revolts, intoned gravely, “Silent Sam will be restored within 90 days.” Board of Governors member and former Senate tax-policy honcho “Massachusetts Bob” Rucho was equally noisy in his support for Sam and hostility to the fine traditions of the Chapel Hill campus. Both were appointed by Berger and confirmed by unanimous vote of the Eden Republican’s caucus.
Now we come to the most damaging event in UNC’s modern history, perhaps ever. The University’s politically appointed Board of Trustees refused to grant tenure to star journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones despite strong support from the faculty and even UNC’s squirrely chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. The move has aroused national outrage, the higher-education equivalent of the damning publicity and sanctions North Carolina received in response to the legislature’s HB2. It is widely believed on campus that Senator Phil Berger was the force behind Hannah-Jones’s tenure denial, and given Berger’s autocratic will and rigid conservative convictions, that means his lackeys on the Board of Trustees are unlikely to budge. UNC’s reputation will continue spiraling into ignominy.
The University of North Carolina may outlast this assault on its fundamental underpinnings. Or maybe not: the University ascended to greatness only after state government made a 90-year commitment to it beginning in the 1920’s, and a long inverse trend could doom it to implosion. Regardless, the clear blame resides with our gerrymandered legislature, which set its sights on the University with an intention of dismantling it, and has made significant progress down that road.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.