We’re about to find out the truth about Art Pope’s ambition and power. For months, rumors have circulated around Raleigh that Pope wants to be president of the University of North Carolina. Now, according to news sources, current UNC President Tom Ross is being forced out of office.

Ross has been a fierce advocate of the system and has occasionally bumped heads with a legislature determined cut the University’s budget. Ross comes with a solid resume and a long history of public service. He was president of Davidson College before taking the helm at UNC. He was head of the administrative office of the courts, a superior court judge and director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. He’s been part of the political establishment and, while a Democrat, is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He’s a public servant.

In contrast, Art Pope is an ideologue who wants to leave his mark on the state. Friends say he sees himself as a conservative Bill Friday. He’s not. Bill Friday was committed to helping people better themselves and saw the university as vehicle for building up the state. It’s part of why North Carolina developed a reputation as a beacon of light in an otherwise dark South. Our university system became an engine of economic progress that has made the Triangle a leader in the information age and one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country.

Pope doesn’t believe in any of that. He believes that the free market is the key to success. Higher education should be little more than job training and critical thinking skills learned in a liberal arts curriculum have little place in his world. Pope is neither a manager nor a deep thinker. He’s an ideologue born with a silver spoon in his mouth who has spent his life forcing square pegs into round holes. 

Pope and his ilk judge success in terms of economic growth with little concern for who benefits from that growth. They routinely ignore the health and welfare of the state’s poorest citizens because free market magical thinking will lift everyone. In their world view, we should be striving to be more like the Deep South. When they say, “Thank God for Mississippi” they are aspirational, not condescending.

This month, John Hood left the John Locke Foundation to replace Pope as head of the John William Pope Foundation. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe Art Pope just wants to spend more time with his family. But if it’s not and Art Pope becomes head of the University system, we’re in trouble. He’s a man determined to tear down what 50 years of moderate, progressive leadership built. 

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