The average student loan debt for American undergraduates last year stood at a staggering $26,600, a five percent increase from the year before.1 Connecting with anti-austerity activists as far as Quebec and Chile, North Carolina students have now made their response clear: education should be a right, not a privilege for those that can afford it. But today even this modest proposition faces challenge. The recent economic crisis caused by a reckless financial sector has subjected the nation’s public education system to intense budget cuts by businessmen who paradoxically occupy roles as public servants. With their primary professional qualifications stemming from business management, many of these profiteers have a systematic tendency to treat the shortcomings in public education as they would in an underperforming company — and we’re their unwilling customers.
Home to many of the nation’s best-ranked schools, North Carolina has long had a strong tradition in higher education.2 The recent passage of an 8.8% tuition hike, however, brought cuts that have devastated many critical aspects of college education, leaving many students and faculty in the University of North Carolina system struggling to cope. Whole departments have been reduced to only programs, while professors’ salaries have shrunk amid ballooning classroom sizes, and, of course, more promised tuition hikes.3
Corporatized administration of the UNC system
Since the birth of the Occupy Movement, much of the nation’s working class has begun to organize, taking action against the austerity measures degrading public resources. These efforts have sprouted with the recognition that confronting politicians and the one percent to whom they are beholden is crucial to bringing about positive social change. North Carolinian students’ struggle against these austerity measures, as across the rest of the nation, illustrates the 99%’s impassioned resistance against the corporatization of the public sphere.
A broad set of practices, corporatization refers to the transfer of state-owned resources to the control of private interests, meaning business management techniques dominate the way decisions are made in order to make the institution run more “efficiently” from a money-making perspective. Corporatization is the precursor to full-on privatization, in which public institutions are not owned by the state — and thus no longer accountable to the general public – and their shares can be traded in the stock exchange, where the more money you have, the more say you get in a company. In North Carolina and elsewhere, corporate executives running the show with their budget cuts are making public higher education less and less obtainable for the young people they are tasked with serving.4
The University of North Carolina system in particular is comprised of seventeen campuses. On each, a board of trustees appoints members to be part of the Board of Governors, the main governing body tasked with making UNC system-wide decisions. Even a casual glance at the profiles of the members on the BoG makes it noticeable that most of its members are businessmen and lawyers.5 Very few of the board members have educational backgrounds or currently play any role in the day-to-day functioning of education itself. So why is it that these businessmen get to dictate how we learn and teach?
Part of the answer lies in the broader conservative agenda to defund public education. This is perhaps nowhere more succinctly expressed than in a memo from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to a Supreme Court Justice as early as 1971, explaining how corporate America must take a leading role in shaping the politics, education, and law of this country.6 And since the 1970s, sweeping privatization has indeed taken root in public services like hospitals, public transportation, and other previously state-owned resources. Increasingly, the business world has set its sights on public schools. Here, students get a more multicultural and democratic learning experience than they would in a private school, where typically only wealthy, white families can afford to send their kids. The trends of corporatization and privatization thus appear as clear tools for the 1% to both extract as much profit out of an institution as possible with budget cuts and, more insidiously, to instill their ideological leanings in the general population.
CEOs and politicians professing a blatantly conservative agenda have done much damage to the progress that public education has made in North Carolina. Art Pope is now a member of the UNC Advisory Committee of Strategic Directions and has previously served on UNC’s Board of Governors. He is famous for amassing his fortune as the CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a company that owns dollar stores in poor, working-class neighborhoods. Pope’s ownership of Variety Wholesalers already indicates his appetite for profiting at the expense of disadvantaged communities. Outside of his business endeavors, however, Art Pope also has close ties to the Koch brothers, known for bankrolling the Tea Party.7 Among many of his forays into direct curricular manipulation — at times strongly rebuked — he is well-known for pulling the strings behind the downgrading of the Women and Gender Studies Department at North Carolina State University.8
Troublingly, Art Pope is not the only one with a radical rightwing agenda on the UNC Advisory Committee of Strategic Directions. Fred Eshelman, an executive for a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical company, led the effort to remove the minimum 25% fees cap, a required fund set aside by all UNC campuses used to help students with financial difficulties in the university system.9 The current NC Speaker of the House, Tom Tillis, is also on the committee. Tillis alone is responsible for a slew of infamous conservative policies including an attempt at overturning of the Racial Justice Act (a law ensuring that a court’s decision to impose the death penalty was not influenced by an individual’s race), the introduction of Amendment One (a controversial anti-gay amendment to the state’s constitution), and many more anti-civil rights policies.10
The Strategic Advisory Committee versus anti-austerity students
Recently, the UNC Board of Governors tasked a Strategic Advisory Committee to plan out the next five years of the UNC system. The committee is comprised of ten university administrators, eight business leaders, seven members of the BoG, four state representatives — and only a single student and faculty member each.11 This committee is meant to replace the old UNC Tomorrow model of strategic planning used in the past.
The UNC Tomorrow model was undoubtedly more democratic. Its meetings were held around North Carolina at different times, encouraging input from all parts of the state.12 Contrastingly, the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions only holds public meetings in Chapel Hill, restricting access to the rest of the UNC campuses. The UNC Tomorrow model took a year to complete and had a two-hour time frame for discussion in each meeting. The current Committee only lasts a few months and time for discussion is far more restricted.
Once Erskine Bowles — the creator of the UNC Tomorrow model — finished his term as president of the UNC system and the conservative Tom Ross came into power, the rightwing businessmen on the BoG capitalized upon the opportunity to end the town hall style of planning in the UNC Tomorrow model. They hastened to introduce a quick and easy route toward the corporate world’s agenda for public education: to make it as exclusive of working class people as possible. Part of the corporate world’s effort to reform education has been the dismantlement of liberal arts departments in favor of building bigger business departments and economy-based career paths. This formula is especially disastrous for schools with a strong tradition in the arts, like UNC Greensboro and the North Carolina School of the Arts.
But corporate influence in the UNC system will not go unchallenged. Students from across the state of North Carolina are organizing a student union to illuminate the shadowy corporate hijacking of public education and to speak out against it.
The North Carolina Student Power Union (NCSPU) began as a coalition called NC Defend Education last winter. The union’s concerns made headlines this year when students and faculty across the state disrupted the Board of Governors’ meeting in February to raise their silenced concerns, and again after an 8.8% tuition hike was passed.
Building upon these direct actions, NCSPU has since formulated a clear list of immediate demands which include: (1) that the UNC Tomorrow model be reintroduced; (2) that Art Pope be removed from the Strategic Advisory Committee; (3) that the Committee be more representative of the socioeconomic backgrounds of North Carolinians; (4) that this new committee be free of corporate and private interests; (5) that the state of North Carolina lives up to its constitutional promise of keeping education “as free as practicable,” and (6) that the BoG reinstate the 25% minimum cap of tuition revenues for need-based financial aid.13 These demands were made clear to the Advisory Committee as well as UNC system chancellors in a letter mailed this October. The Committee and the BoG have added two new members to the Advisory Committee since the letter was delivered: one student and one faculty member. Their response shows their willingness to respond to the union’s concerns, but the new members are still immensely outweighed, leaving NCSPU’s demand for adequate student and faculty representation still largely unfulfilled.
As any organizer understands, building social movements takes time. And time is limited for students attending a four-year university. But the student power movement — led by NCSPU at home in North Carolina and innumerable groups across the world — cannot dwindle when affordable public education is so thoroughly under attack. The corporate executives serving on education boards across the nation are doing everything they can to restrict access to public education, but students in North Carolina are refusing to allow the corporate world to infect public universities with its ideology. The destructive relationship between moneyed executives and corrupt politicians is especially apparent within the UNC system administration, where corporate executives like Art Pope contributed to the current disaster, and corrupt politicians like Tom Tillis push to further empower them.
The student union movement has only just begun in North Carolina, but the small, symbolic victories that it has already had showcases its continued commitment to stand in solidarity with students, faculty, and workers around the world battling hardships caused by the 1%.
Jonathan Lyle is a junior at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is studying Urban Planning and Sociology and is an organizer for the North Carolina Student Power Union in Greensboro.