UNC needs to say ‘no' to funding offer

from: Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, December 04, 2004

For most of us, it would be hard to say no to $500,000 a year, especially if it promises to be followed by a gift of $12 million. But "no" is just what UNC should say to the Pope Foundation in response to its generous yet tainted offer to fund a Western civilization minor for undergraduates.

Much of the controversy surrounding the proposed donation is over the Pope family's association with the Pope Center for Higher Education, an aggressive critic of those areas of the UNC curriculum that suggest the scope of undergraduate education might be broader than the traditional Western canon.

The Pope Center's métier is lampooning courses it views as having "overt political content, rabid infatuation with pop culture or sexuality, and abject silliness." One economics course was recently described as entailing "academic navel-gazing, subject matter hardly tangential to the discipline the course is listed under, use of multicultural justification to ward off the previous two criticisms, plus professors tricking undergrads into doing their research for them."

Professors like the English department's Reid Barbour brace at the Pope Center's "tone of hostility ... the mocking, vicious hostility." This reaction is particularly telling given that this teacher of Elizabethan fiction has interests well aligned with the Popes' putative focus.

The most basic problem with the proposed minor is the simple fact that the program is not needed. The review committee that recently completed a thorough update of the undergraduate curriculum identified no need for such a minor. In fact, the committee was hesitant to require even a single course in Western civilization given the broad exposure students already receive on related topics.

The 2003 update to the curriculum requires coursework equivalent to what has been suggested for the Western civilization minor. Consider the requirement that "all students must successfully complete one course in philosophical analysis that contains significant content in ethics or moral reasoning."

If students complete this requirement in the most straightforward manner, by taking the philosophy department's Introduction to Ethics, they will study "a few of the best books ever written on moral theory: Plato's 'Republic,' Aristotle's 'Nicomachean Ethics,' Kant's 'Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals' and Mill's 'Utilitarianism.'"

It is noteworthy that these are exactly the kind of writers whose study the Pope Center for Higher Education would like to promote. There are none of those feminist or multicultural perspectives that stick in the craw of the Pope Center.

Students are also now required to complete one course in "the North Atlantic world," meaning an aspect of U.S. or Western European studies. Thus the current curriculum requires all students to take the two introductory courses in Western culture that the proposed minor would stipulate.

That said, the existence and nature of the Pope Center for Higher Education very much argues against the university accepting curricular support from the Popes. Their launching the center makes it clear that they wish to encourage a vicious attack on the university. Religious studies professor Carl Ernst characterized them as "people who actually want to undermine academic expertise."

The Pope Center has branded criticism of the Western civilization proposal from distinguished faculty members as a "smear campaign by fearful radicals." Neither Art Pope, the Pope Foundation's president (who also sits on the board of the Pope Center), nor anyone else at the foundation has stepped forward to disavow this characterization.

It can hardly be viewed as coincidental that the area the Pope Foundation is interested in funding is so much in line with the reactionary agenda of the Pope Center. The claim that the two groups are in any meaningful sense independent of one another seems to have little merit.

There is a great irony in the Pope Center's wanting to promote Western civilization while attacking a university that is the embodiment thereof. In shunning the traditions of inquiry, discourse, and argumentation that are the foundation of academia, the Pope Center aims its barbs at the Enlightenment itself.

Economics professor William Darity, whose course was among those savaged recently by the Pope Center, said, "I think the intent of the Popes is to alter the shape of the university's curriculum in a direction they prefer."

Today, the Pope Center has little credibility for its vituperative smears. It operates in the familiar attack-dog style of so much of the far right, the Limbaughs, O'Reillys and Coulters of the world.

By accepting the Pope donation, UNC would legitimize them with the stature of those qualified to advise the university on its curricular goals. The Popes have done nothing to merit such legitimacy. The university should send the Popes and their millions packing.



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