The Work of the Pope Center

Two weeks ago, I did a post on Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of Art Pope.  In the article, Mayer mentions the Pope-supported organization that has the closest bearing on higher education, the  John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.  The following is a guest post by George Leef, the director of research at the Center.  Next week, a guest post by a professor in the State of North Carolina will appear.


On The Pope Center, by George Leef

The John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy appears in a few paragraphs of Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article on Art Pope, and her representation of and others’ statements about the Pope Center deserve some clarification.  In particular, I wish to comment here on the assertions that Mr. Pope’s philanthropy has been harmful to the University of North Carolina.

Here are the relevant sentences from the article:

“Pope’s network has campaigned to slash education budgets, which is a controversial move. George Leef, the director of research at the Center for Higher Education Policy, has described the funding of higher education as ‘a boondoggle’ that robs taxpayers, and Shaw has demanded that the legislature ‘starve the beast.’”


“At the same time that Pope’s network has been fighting to get university budgets cut, Pope has offered to fund academic programs in subjects that he deems worthwhile, like Western civilization and free-market economics. Some faculty members have seen Pope’s offers as attempts to buy academic control.”


“The issue of academic control surfaced again in September, when the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy offered to help fund a Western-philosophy course that the university had included in budget cuts. At the same time, the center publicly ridiculed other courses, such as one on the culture of the Beat Generation. Some faculty members objected to an outside political organization trying to hold sway over which courses survived. ‘It’s sad and blatant,’ Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, who has been critical of Pope, says. ‘This is an organization that succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase its leverage and influence over course content.’”

I have been with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy since 1999 and am currently the Director of Research.  The “boondoggle” comment reduces my views on government funding of higher education to one word, so let me expand them to say that I believe

  • There is abundant evidence that state higher education systems around the nation spend lavishly and yet accomplish little toward the education of many students.
  • Far from constituting an “investment” in America’s population and workforce, much that we spend on higher education simply underwrites the prolonging of adolescence among young people and reinforces their entitlement mentality.
  • High and increasing government support for higher education does almost nothing to improve our national productivity or competitiveness internationally.

These views are, in fact, common among higher-education observers, and they aren’t easily aligned with political outlook.  It isn’t just “right wingers” who make them; many others inside and outside of American higher education have come to the same conclusion.  Last May, the Pope Center held a conference entitled “Higher Education Reform: Where the Right and Left Meet” that brought together equal numbers of liberal and conservative critics who agreed that colleges and universities spend lavishly but to a great extent neglect undergraduate education.

I wrote about that conference here and interested readers will find links to video excerpts. The purpose of the event was to emphasize that there is much convergence between the criticism of higher education coming from “liberal” quarters and from “conservative” ones.

Here is an article written by one of the liberals who participated. Author Murray Sperber laments that the close editing of student writing, one of the most valuable of all the work that ought to be done by professors, has mostly been abandoned, which has nothing whatever to do with their politics.

The Pope Center is not against college education.  It wants only to trim and redirect funding for it, reform policies of it, and improve its ideological climate.  Most importantly, we object to the bad use of limited resources.  Like most government-funded ventures, state colleges and universities have become rife with spending that is tangential to the mission of the institution.  We want to see students and taxpayers get more value for the time and money devoted to higher education.

Most states have been cutting back on higher education spending for years, largely in recognition of the fact that they have gone past the point of diminishing returns. In 2009, the state legislature, under Democratic control, made modest reductions in UNC appropriations; in 2010, spending was actually increased slightly, while other parts of the budget were cut. The reduction in higher education appropriations this year, with the General Assembly under Republican control, does not signify some animosity Art Pope supposedly holds against college education.  Rather, it is simply a bow to the reality that spending had to be cut and that the UNC system was one of the places where unnecessary spending was to be found.

In any case, the Pope Center does not lobby for or against any public-policy measures.  All we do is highlight where our higher-education system fails to live up to expectations and how it might do better.  A few years ago, for example, we published a paper by a retired education-school professor in which the author pointed out that the UNC system education schools are dominated by so-called “progressive” theories.  The trouble is that those theories do not help train teachers to instruct their students as best as possible. Former UNC President Erskine Bowles mentioned to us that the paper had opened his eyes to a significant problem.

Anyone who looks objectively at the work of the Pope Center will find that we are only interested in constructive criticism of higher education in America. We highlight good developments where we see them and bad ones that we think should be changed or abandoned.



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