North Carolina’s New Tea Party Majority Puts Higher Education in the Crosshairs

With the election of Pat McCory as governor last November, Republicans have taken complete control of North Carolina’s government — they won majorities the legislature in the 2010 nationwide tea party landslide — for the first time since the GOP was the liberal party, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

Predictably, however, the newly empowered Republicans in North Carolina have begun to do what their GOP colleagues in other states have done when voters put them in charge — they are overreaching.

McCrory caused a firestorm among Democrats and other fans of higher learning last week in an interview on a right-wing radio show hosted by George Bush Sr.’s drug czar, Bill Bennett, by attacking one of North Carolina’s most historic success stories — its public universities and community college system:

“I’m looking at legislation right now – in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation – which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges,” McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

The Republican governor also called into question the value of publicly supporting liberal arts majors after the host made a joke about gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told the radio host. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

The two criticized philosophy Ph.D.s in a similar manner later in the program. “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” Bennett asked, to which McCrory replied, “You and I agree.” (Bennett earned a Ph.D., from a public flagship university, the University of Texas at Austin, in philosophy.)

McCrory’s comments on higher education echo statements made by a number of Republican governors – including those in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin – who have questioned the value of liberal arts instruction and humanities degrees at public colleges and universities. Those criticisms have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in “high demand” fields and taking on flagship institutions.

In an editorial, the Daily Tar Heel, the campus paper at the university’s main branch in Chapel Hill, criticized the new governor for his “flippant” remarks. The paper also appears to have come to regret its astoundingly bad judgment in endorsing McCory’s candidacy last year:

There are two possible explanations for his takedown of liberal arts education in public institutions.

The first is that his imploring gender studies majors to “go to a private school” was just run-of-the mill political pandering to the anti-intellectual crowd.

The second is that McCrory sincerely believes that there’s little connection between a liberal arts education and meaningful employment.

The former is off-putting, but the latter is truly pernicious and promises a bleak future for the UNC system.

The Daily Tar Heel editorial board chose to endorse then-candidate McCrory for governor in November because of his “demonstrated ability to work well with Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.”

His successful record as the moderate mayor of Charlotte seemed to show that he could find reasonable solutions in the state’s polarized political climate.

But these flippant comments disparaging North Carolina’s flagship public university seem to indicate otherwise.

What they do indicate is a worrisome lack of respect for the importance of education in the bettering of society, the long-term improvement of the economy and as a means of social mobility.

If Gov. McCrory wants to talk about improving education policy, there’s a serious debate to be had.

However, simply discounting all areas of study that aren’t directly professional — and then suggesting they should be limited to the wealthy elite who can afford a private education — cheapens and oversimplifies the discussion.

The chief executive of our state needs to resist the temptation to publicly mischaracterize and denigrate one of the state’s most important institutions.

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