A staid panel discussion at Western Carolina University took a dramatic turn on Feb. 16 when a bellicose professor refused to relinquish the microphone during a question-and-answer session.
I went to the event out of a sense of journalistic duty. I left having supped, not on thin gruel as I had feared, but upon a sumptuous reporter’s feast indeed.
Ed Lopez, BB&T Distinguished Professor of Capitalism (no, I did not make that up) identified the enemy – his colleagues – drew a sword from the stone, tilted at a windmill or two, bravely strode into the lion’s den and attempted to slay the dragon.
The Distinguished Professor’s rant occurred after the screening of “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities.” The documentary is about how, in the absence of public funding, university leaders are seeking private support they once shunned.
In December 2015, the WCU Board of Trustees accepted $2 million from the Koch Foundation to help form the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. Lopez serves as the Center’s director. Billionaire businessman Charles Koch, brother of David Koch, established the Foundation; the funding appears to straddle a divide between libertarian and conservative causes.
Many WCU faculty members disapproved of their university taking Koch money, including English professor Laura Wright, who organized last week’s event.
David McCord, WCU’s former Faculty Senate leader; Ralph Wilson, a researcher for UnKoch My Campus; and Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; were the panel speakers.
In 2015, the Board of Governors abolished three centers across the state, including UNC’s privately funded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Nichol, the Poverty Center’s director, is an outspoken critic of North Carolina’s Republican leaders. He is something of a rock star in the resistance movement.
After the panel members spoke, Wright opened the event to questions.
She made the mistake of handing Lopez the microphone, from a sense of misguided diplomacy, I suppose, and because the university insists on collegiality. Faculty members must play nice in public, even when they despise one another; maybe, especially if they despise one another.
The Distinguished Professor had no questions; clearly, we saw at work a man who offers answers. He lashed out at the documentary, accusing those who were featured, which included Nichol, of talking and caring more about their tenure than students.
Lopez distinguished between the real world – his – and those who oppose the corruption of higher education via privatization. In a largely incoherent diatribe, the Distinguished Professor asked this rhetorical question (that’s the kind that excludes participation):
“Is higher education a commodity or is it a public good? If it’s a commodity, then we’re taking students as inputs into our production model and putting them out as outputs,” he said. “If it’s public good, and we want to teach them Shakespeare and the Renaissance, then we treat them as this sort of un-molded blob that needs to be sort of shaped. For what purpose?”
For what purpose? For the purpose, Mr. Distinguished Professor of Capitalism, of not finding oneself reduced to an input and output in your production model, thank you very much.
Studying the liberal arts teaches people to think for themselves. You learn this critical lesson: “I know that I do not know,” as Socrates said.
In a statement applicable to all great art, Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino wrote the classics “give form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty.”
After five minutes of listening to Lopez bloviate, the crowd of 60 or so onlookers shouted down the Distinguished Professor.
Wright finally was able to pry the microphone out of hand and ask, “Does anyone have a question and not want to give a speech?”
Prior to WCU leaders accepting $2 million in December 2015 from the Charles Koch Foundation, the Faculty Senate cautioned: “the legacy of such gifts carries a burden.”
Indeed, it does – including arrogance in some and bitterness in others.
Quintin Ellison is the editor of The Sylva Herald.