by Billy Ball
A plus-sized UNC advisory board—beset with controversy before the first gavel—convened for the first time Wednesday, mulling over the state universities' curriculum and changing demographics.
The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, which includes 31 leaders in education, business and politics, is expected to consider the future of the state's 17 public universities, but its makeup garnered more headlines than its actual charge before Wednesday's session.
Critics are fired up over a handful of appointments, including the selection of publicly right-tilting businessmen like Art Pope and Fred Eshelman. UNC Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans and UNC President Tom Ross made the appointments.
Pope, CEO of Variety Wholesalers Inc., has spent millions on conservative think tanks, advocacy groups and political campaigns backing right-wing causes. Ditto for Eshelman, a pharmaceutical bigwig who spent $3 million launching the conservative Rightchange.com. UNC-Chapel Hill's pharmacy school is named for Eshelman.
In Pope's case, he's also been a vocal advocate for charter schools and his groups have lobbied for budget cuts for public schools.
Neither played much part in the early proceedings Wednesday, with Pope arriving just before noon for a meeting that began at 9:30 a.m.
The commitee also includes the appointment of legislative leaders like powerful Republicans Thom Tillis and Phil Berger. Berger is president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate. Tillis is speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat, is also a member of the committee.
Committee leaders are facing pressure to include more student and faculty representation on the panel. Wednesday's roll call included one UNC student and one faculty member, although officials have indicated more members may be appointed.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, who announced last week that he would end his scandal-plagued tenure next spring, said little Wednesday, although at one point prior to the committee session, a faculty member could be heard pleading with Thorp to change his mind about his resignation.
Committee members heard a presentation Wednesday morning from UNC-Chapel Hill business professor James Johnson Jr., whose overview of prevailing demographic trends in North Carolina showed the state's universities can expect radical change in student population in the coming years.
According to Johnson, North Carolina's Hispanic population grew by 829 percent from 1990 to 2007. In that time frame, the Asian population grew by 332 percent. Compare that to growth among white and black residents—127 percent and 133 percent, respectively.
"They're going to be far more diverse," Johnson said.
Johnson also urged leaders to focus efforts on narrowing the gender gap in academic achievement, pointing out boys and men are struggling mightily in the job market and academics compared to their female counterparts.
"This is imminently fixable," Johnson said. "And if we don't fix it, we're going to be in trouble."
The advisory committee is expected to present its recommendations to the UNC Board of Governors in January.