Published: Jan 28, 2013 09:24 AM
Modified: Jan 28, 2013 09:25 AM
It’s an odd-numbered year, a time in our community when worrying about how the university will fare under the new legislature is a popular and sometimes fretful past-time.
And rightly so. The majority of the local payroll is funded through the state and, although most of the hiring and firing is under local control, salaries and raises and the pace of job growth or layoffs is in the hands of the honorables on Jones Street.
Throughout our history the state government and university leadership have locked horns many times. The place is after all a creature of the state, albeit a very old one, and policy makers have had a long-running tendency to want leave their mark.
This year there are even more reasons to feel a sense of trepidation over what might happen when the legislature returns. In part that’s because of the recent series of self-inflicted wounds.
A lot of us are still having a hard time hearing “UNC,” “scandal” and “investigation” in the same sentence over and over again. Each incident is bad enough on its own. Taken together, the scandals have done far more damage than meets the eye because they’ve given a legislature itching for change an opening to mess with the university in ways we haven’t seen in a long while.
You have to go back about a half a century, to get a glimpse of what an extra-contentious era looks like.
Leaf through the pages of this newspaper circa 1960s and ’70s and you quickly realize that most of the front page and much of the inside is dominated by stories, essays and editorials on the stormy relationship between the university and the General Assembly.
Those turbulent years were marked by a rapid expansion of the system, including the inclusion of historically black institutions. It was also a time of cultural earthquakes, like the defiance shown state leaders on a Franklin Street sidewalk during the Speaker Ban protest.
Throughout that era of change the university and the legislature sparred. Occasionally, the governor would even stop by for a round or two. Meanwhile, each night at the end of the news on WRAL, a blusterous editorialist named Helms pursued a campaign of ridicule against the university, its leaders and students and the town of Hippy Hill in general.
Many of the battles fought then were over what was being taught and why or who was teaching, visiting or speaking on campus. Since then, with the exception of a short period of suspicion and inquisition following the September 11 attacks, legislators have mostly kept out of the teaching and research part of higher education.
But it is hard to see how the new legislature, more ideologically driven and less experienced than any in recent memory, will be able to resist a test or two of the boundaries of intellectual freedom in state-funded academia.
You may recall last year’s notorious sea-level rise bill, which essentially put a moratorium on the use of climate-change science in public policy. An early version of the bill imposed restrictions on the use of scientific research that would have applied to all state agencies and institutions including its universities.
While ultimately UNC’s lobbyists were able to get that language stripped from the bill, it likely won’t be the last time the university will see rules on research rewritten, budgets shifted or programs zeroed out for ideological reasons.
The question is whether the school, weakened by scandals and faced with a leadership vacuum, has both the clout and the volition to resist.Kirk Ross, a former Chapel Hill News reporter, is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public policy enthusiast. Readers can contact him at email@example.com
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