In a searing tweet, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth said, “This is a pathetic attempt to silence one of the most important voices about US history. We’d welcome her @wesley_u.” For anyone who believes in public higher education, Roth’s statement cut to the quick. As UNC has become increasingly politicized and targeted by its legislatively appointed right-wing trustees, private universities have gotten a leg up on North Carolina’s flagship university. It’s losing its competitive viability to schools that unapologetically serve the elite.
Wesleyan University is a gem of a liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut. It has 3,000 students and an endowment of over $1.1 billion. Tuition costs over $75,000 per year, and only 16% of applicants gain acceptance. The sad fact, however, is that Wesleyan can uphold academic freedom without difficulty, while UNC–supposedly the University of the People–is more and more subject to domination by a highly political right-wing junta.
This isn’t the first time UNC’s politicization has cost the university, to the benefit of elite privates. A few years ago, UNC’s distinguished Chemistry department chair bolted Chapel Hill for Duke. Her departure took place in a year when Republican legislators had proposed another $50 million cut to the UNC system. In 2019, complaints from then-Congressman George Holding led to an “investigation” of supposed bias at the joint UNC-Duke Middle East Studies Center. If it hadn’t been for Duke’s political autonomy, UNC might well have felt it had no choice but to cave in, devastating its reputation.
“Public Ivies” like UNC and the University of Michigan have been losing ground to their private competitors for decades. In past years, that trend mostly emanated from the decline in university resources effected by state budget cuts. But now, at UNC, the X-factor dictating private schools’ competitive advantage is based on politics. If your school is private, it’s mostly immune to pressure from politicians with an agenda. If you’re UNC, state political boss Phil Berger holds the Trump card.
What is to become of the University of the People? The university’s Board of Trustees, with the backing and enforcement of a reactionary legislature, has placed Chapel Hill in a state of extreme precariousness. Even more devastating than budget cuts is the insidious impact of political coercion on what is supposed to be a center of learning and free thought. Should the dynamic continue to strengthen, UNC’s fate as a university in decline will be sealed by an assault on the institution prosecuted by the political right, and resisted ineffectively by people who care about our flagship school and our formerly proud state.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.