On a Monday afternoon in April, a few dozen people gathered in a windowless room in Raleigh, North Carolina, to discuss the crisis in higher education. As they dug into plates of Tex-Mex, the featured speaker, Jay Schalin, ascended the podium and adjusted his notes. The crisis isn’t cost or access, he informed the room. “The main problem has to do with the ideas that are being discussed and promoted,” Schalin explained, those being “multiculturalism, collectivism, left-wing post-modernism.”
Schalin is the director of policy analysis at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education, a right-wing think tank funded by discount-store magnate Art Pope, the conservative kingmaker who helped flip the state legislature to the Republicans in 2010 and bankrolled the 2012 election of Republican Governor Pat McCrory. The organization that hosted Schalin’s lecture, the John Locke Foundation, is also funded by Pope’s family foundation. As I walked into the building, I passed the local office of Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group founded by Charles and David Koch; Pope once chaired its national board. Two blocks away is the John W. Pope Civitas Institute and Civitas Action, another Pope-funded think tank and dark-money group, respectively.
Though Pope’s tentacles reach into many state institutions now, his empire of conservative idea-factories was originally established to counter what he and his associates perceived as liberal bias in the North Carolina’s university system, as Jane Mayer reported in a 2011 profile in The New Yorker. Pope’s interest in UNC goes back to his father, a trustee at UNC–Chapel Hill, who believed that the university, as Mayer reported, had been “taken over by radical scholars.” Pope himself made a bid for a seat on UNC’s Board of Governors in 1995. He was rebuffed. So he turned his attention upstream, to the North Carolina state legislature, which appoints the 32-member board. When Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010—for the first time since 1870—Pope’s network looked less like a counterweight to campus liberalism than a conservative wrecking ball aimed at the entire state.
Up at the podium, Schalin laid out part of the Pope Center’s vision for “renewal at the university,” which, he argued, could be achieved through the propagation of privately funded academic centers. In a related report Schalin described how these centers would balance “academia’s gradual purging” of courses dedicated to “liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives,” more specifically by supplanting the “French communist[s]” Derrida, Bourdieu, and Foucault with Ayn Rand. Schalin assured his audience that these centers wouldn’t be political—though, he said, “when you study capitalism on an objective basis, you are going to notice this very strong correlation between prosperity and capitalism—and that’s okay to bring up.”