We fear so many things, North Carolina, but nothing so much as different ideas that might let others get ahead. Which is why, last week, the leaders of our greatest institutions, the universities for which our state is known around the world, could so brazenly shirk their duty to help open our minds and our hearts to different ideas, confident they'd get away with it. Be applauded for it, even. Regardless of what the rest of the world might think.
At Duke University, the issue was the place of Muslims on campus. Three gunmen, Islamist radicals, had killed 17 people in France, fanning fears about "sleeper cells" in our midst. Against this background, the staff at Duke Chapel, the university's iconic structure, extended a wonderful hand to the 700 students at Duke who are Muslim. They were invited to issue their call to prayer each Friday—their three-minute adhan—from the chapel's bell tower.
Two days later, Duke officialdom rescinded the invitation following objections from Christian fundamentalists like the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, who insisted that his god—which should be Duke's god—isn't the Muslims' god. Duke couched its reversal in terms of unspecified "security" concerns.
As this episode unfolded, we learned that Muslim students meet each Friday for prayers in the basement of Duke Chapel. They'll remain in the basement.
Meanwhile, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system met and, without explanation, gave UNC President Tom Ross his notice. Ross will leave in a year.
On the surface, this was a simple case of the conservative Republicans who control North Carolina wanting someone from their own team in charge. Ross, the president of Davidson College before coming to UNC in 2010, once directed the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem. How many times have we heard Art Pope, the Republican moneybags whose family riches finance conservative causes in Raleigh, whine about ZSR's support for liberal causes?
Look deeper though, and you'll see the same impulse at work in the Duke reversal and at UNC. It's the impulse to ignore social problems and put "tradition" ahead of intellectual exploration and outreach—especially when tradition means the people in power can stay in power while others know their place.
First, Duke. When Franklin Graham lashed out on Facebook, he garnered 80,000 "likes" and a lot of national and international press. "Followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews and anyone who doesn't submit to their Sharia Islamic law," Graham wrote. "(And) Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism."
Graham called on donors and alumni to withhold their cash unless Duke backed down.
With President Richard Brodhead nowhere to be seen, it fell to the dean of the Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays, to explain why Graham was right and Duke's gesture to Muslims was "ill-advised."
Hays' statement was instructive and illogical. Don't blame him for the controversy, it began, because the divinity school and the chapel have different functions, and are under different management. The divinity school is explicitly Christian, Hays wrote, and has its own chapel. On the other hand, Duke Chapel "offers opportunities for worship and spiritual resources for the University at large."
But, Hays continued, not really the university at large because of Duke's "clear historic Christian commitments." He continued with several muddled paragraphs about a Duke where "various historic religious traditions can thrive and learn from one another" though its signature public space must forever be "unmistakably a Christian place of worship." Then he got to the point: What would the persecuted Christians who live in Islamic countries think were Duke to let Muslims use its bell tower?
"It should be understood that Christians in the U.S. will want to show solidarity with fellow Christians in very difficult circumstances," Hays added.
So forget making Muslim students welcome. Forget teaching the larger community that Islam is an exploration of the purpose of life the same as Christianity—with the same pitfalls of absolutism and certainty that cause a few to be haters and terrorists.
As for UNC, its board of governors is out to defend economic rather than religious orthodoxy on the system's 17 campuses. That's not what Board Chairman John Fennebresque said when Ross was sacked, of course, because Fennebresque was almost as evasive as Brodhead. "Tom Ross," Fennebresque insisted, "was a wonderful president."
So goes the search for truth at UNC.
But it doesn't take much sleuthing to uncover the Republicans' distaste for the centers and institutes dotting the UNC landscape that were created to explore issues of poverty, civil rights, the environment and energy policy. Places like the Center for Work, Poverty and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. The board of governors has 34 such centers under scrutiny.
Why? The explanation is found in a paper published two weeks ago by conservatives at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy—a nonprofit named for Art Pope's father. The paper is entitled "Renewal in the University," and it sings the praises of academic centers which "restore the spirit of inquiry."
But not centers that look into poverty. No, they are the problem, writes author Jay Schalin, because they threaten "thousands of years of Western thought."
What we need instead, Schalin argues, is to replace such disruptive centers with new centers paid for by rich people like Pope—"privately funded academic centers" that reinforce for students the traditional values of "liberty" and "free-market economics."
The values that allowed some to be rich while many are destitute.
Universities can serve two basic functions, I'd argue. One is to explain how the world works and to explore how it might work differently—better—to help more people satisfy their search for economic security and spiritual meaning.
Or, it can punch tickets for a few to join the ranks of the successful—the rich, the good Christians—who run our country. While others are kept in their place, in the dark, in the basement.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Running scared."