Memo 01.30.2024 9 minutes

UNC Education Lobbyists Damage Higher Education

Aerial over the University of North Carolina in the Spring

Crony interests trample self-government.

What was once known only by isolated college students facing down liberal college administrators is now known nationally: many of our nation’s colleges are working to undermine America’s very foundations.

The University of North Carolina is a perfect example of this anti-American project. Whether it’s UNC’s intentional racial discrimination against Asian Americans or the 673 UNC professors who signed a petition against a required class on the U.S. Constitution, UNC opposes our nation’s interests.

While citizens are increasingly aware of this brazen attack on American ideals, many do not know that UNC, like many public colleges, spends millions annually on a small army of lobbyists—funded by taxpayers—who fight citizens and lawmakers seeking reform.

Recently uncovered emails of UNC staffers reveal the following:

1) The UNC lobby works along partisan lines.

2) UNC is reluctant to analyze data that is unhelpful to its agenda.

3) UNC hires more lobbyists than state law permits.

These practices threaten the UNC System’s ability to accomplish its mission as established by the legislature: “to apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society” and to “seek an efficient use of available resources to ensure the highest quality in its service to the citizens of the State.”

Last April, I filed a public records request with the University of North Carolina System that uncovered how its lobbyists worked against the REACH Act. This legislation mandates that all public college students complete a three credit hour class in American government. Students would be required to read the U.S. Constitution, the North Carolina Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and other foundational American documents.

Previously uncovered emails showed that UNC System President Peter Hans opposed the required class, saying “the legislature is off the mark.” Senior Vice President Bart Goodson called it “red meat theater.”

Since that time, I filed two more public records requests, which included a second request with the UNC System and an initial request with UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the UNC System’s 16 constituent public colleges.

The uncovered emails reveal how the UNC lobby diminishes the quality of the UNC System.

Working With Democrats Against Republicans

Emails uncovered in my most recent FOIA request show that UNC lobbyists take partisan sides to support UNC’s liberal agenda. For example, Amy McConkey, UNC-Chapel Hill’s lobbyist whose taxpayer funded annual salary is $161,460, emailed talking points to Democratic State Representative Ashton Clemmons to use against the REACH Act at a committee hearing. But McConkey admitted to Austen Nowell, a UNC System lobbyist, that she did not provide the talking points to any Republican legislator on the committee: “FYI…have only shared with [Rep.] Clemmons at this point.”

Before the House Education Community College Committee considered the REACH Act (H.B. 96) on March 16, 2023, McConkey emailed Rep. Clemmons, “If we were to go down a path where this [Constitution class] was required—setting aside the University should set its curriculum—it would take significantly more resources.” Rep. Clemmons then spoke out against the bill in committee; on the House floor, she voted against it.

After losing the vote in committee, McConkey emailed a UNC employee, “I’m exhausted by this session and the race to follow in Florida’s footsteps. It’s been a lot.”

As UNC-Chapel Hill labored against the REACH Act, it continued to tell Republican legislators it was not working against it. Republican legislators even called the Chapel Hill chancellor into a closed-door meeting in response to the college’s underhanded lobbying.

The emails show that the UNC lobby does not work with both sides—it manipulates one side of the aisle through obfuscation while colluding with the other to stop legislation.

Playing Partisan Games with Data

The UNC lobby is reluctant to analyze data and provides contradictory information depending on which legislators the lobbyists are speaking with, and from which political party. For example, on March 16, 2023 Chapel Hill lobbyist McConkey told a Democratic legislator a required American government class would take “significant recourses.”

But that same day, the UNC System provided inconsistent information and was loath to analyze data for a Republican legislator. This was after a Republican had asked UNC for data on how much it would cost to implement the REACH Act. UNC did not want to analyze this data because it thought implementation was “[not] a big cost to the state.” It is unclear if the motivation was that it undercut the narrative that teaching students American government would take “significant resources.”

On March 16, 2023, Nowell forwarded the Republican’s request to Daniel Sater, a UNC Higher Education Policy Analyst, and Jennifer Haygood, a Senior Vice President for Finance. Haygood responded, “Daniel, Don’t do anything on this question yet…. Since history isn’t a high cost discipline, it’s not clear to me that there would be a big cost to the State. I’ve asked Austen to run this by [the Republican legislator] before we do any work.”

The UNC System’s inconsistent information to legislators of different parties—and happening on the same day—is especially troubling since college legislative liaisons in other states have misled legislators about similar legislation.

For example, when the South Carolina General Assembly was considering the SC REACH Act, University of South Carolina staff initially told legislators a required American government class would cost the state $2.8 million. However, when legislators pressed USC’s lobbyist on this absurd number, USC later admitted it could teach all students the Constitution for only $320k (about 11 percent of what USC initially asserted).

The SC REACH Act ultimately passed the Senate 45-0 and the House 91-12.

Hiring More Lobbyists Than NC State Law Allows

North Carolina law prohibits UNC from hiring more than “two” legislative liaisons. Specifically, N.C. G.S. 120C-500(c) provides that “no more than two individuals may be designated as liaison personnel.”

But the UNC System seemingly ignores this law. On its own website, the System’s Office of State Relations admits it employs three state legislative liaisons (plus one “federal relations” lobbyist). And uncovered emails reveal that all three liaisons actively lobby. The cumulative salaries of the three System Office lobbyists cost taxpayers over half a million dollars annually. Perhaps these lobbyists should first focus on complying with existing laws before advising legislators on enacting new ones.

The UNC System must eliminate one of these positions to comply with the law—or use a loophole to skirt the law. 

The UNC System is creative in how it skirts other aspects of the same law.

As discussed, state law limits UNC from hiring no more than “two” legislative liaisons. But the statute applies to each constituent college individually within the UNC System. This means that the UNC System may legally hire “two” liaisons, and so can each of the 16 constituent colleges. UNC skirts this other portion of the law because the lobbyists for each constituent college do not act separately but rather collude through a single unit called the “State Relations Council” to work against conservative legislation.

The UNC System admits on its website that the SRC “is active in the development of the University’s non-budget legislative agenda.”

“SRC, Happy Friday. Here is your weekly update on advocacy day,” emailed Nowell on May 12, 2023 to lobbyists from all 16 public colleges. On April 26, 2023, Nowell emailed, “Hi SRC- we will have a zoom this Friday at 10am. Tagged on your calendars….”

UNC System’s Senior Vice President Bart Goodson coordinates the 19 lobbyists to work together as one. On April 26, 2023, Goodson asked the 16 colleges in the UNC System to kill H.B. 715, a bill that would modernize college governance and end faculty tenure. He smugly stated, “I have a high degree of confidence that this bill is not going to reach the House floor…[though the Chairman] does plan to hear the bill in his committee…. However, I am currently hopeful that that will be the end of it.”

The timing of Goodson’s email was not random. The day before, Chapel Hill lobbyist McConkey asked Goodson for help: “I know this ISN’T the time…715, I know we’ve been told it isn’t going anywhere, but it would be helpful to have some air cover here. My campus community is freaking out.”

Providing the requested “air cover,” Goodson charged the lobbyists that “all hands are on deck re: this bill, and all bills for that matter that potentially affect our campuses.” He then listed specific legislators to target to “get them…[to] not hearing the bill.”

The UNC System spends $3.4 million annually on lobbyists’ salaries at taxpayer expense.

Striking at Self-Government

Why does it matter if these government-funded lobbyists, well, lobby? Unlike the private sector, the outcome of government-funded lobbying directly affects the quality of services provided TO taxpayers, FOR taxpayers, and BY taxpayers. It must conform with state law, be consistent across party lines, and be forthcoming with important information.

This is because all final decisions regarding UNC governance belong to the people. North Carolina’s Constitution states in Article 1 that “all political power is vested in and derived from the people…. [They] have the inherent, sole, and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and…altering…[their] form of government.”

Through their elected leaders, the people have always had authority over UNC. In 1789, the legislature created the University of North Carolina, declaring in the enabling law that since “it is the indispensable duty of every legislature to consult the happiness of a rising generation and…the social duties of life, by paying the strictest attention to their education,” it does now “establish…the University of North Carolina.”

The stakeholder is the citizen, not the government institution itself.

If done correctly, government-funded liaisons can improve our public institutions by providing quick information to legislators. But the current UNC lobby politicizes and diminishes our public institutions.

In the case of the REACH Act—a citizen-led effort to improve and balance public college curricula—the UNC lobby works directly against taxpayer interests.

Before testifying as a private citizen before the House Education Committee in favor of the REACH Act, it was discouraging to arrive at the statehouse and be surrounded by government-funded lobbyists working together to undermine citizen efforts to pass the legislation.

Flawed government-funded lobbying in public higher education results in a lower-quality education for NC’s workforce. Often, this sort of lobbying can lead to slow-moving, watered-down, or even defeated legislation that is in the public interest.

The cost of every session where the UNC System prevents the REACH Act’s passing is thousands of graduates who receive an unbalanced education that focuses on globalism and cultural Marxism. These graduates go on to vote, start businesses, and populate government—and with a bias against American values.

The REACH Act advances UNC’s Mission Statement, which is “[to] apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and society.” By working against it, the lobbyists show that they do not care to meet the institution’s mission they represent.

In recent years, the legislature has shown great courage in ignoring the college lobby. They have done this by passing needed changes to community college governance and by forcing UNC to abandon its politically-motivated accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

If the REACH Act passes, an estimated 345,000 North Carolina college students will read America’s founding documents for themselves. In just three years, ten percent of our state’s citizens will have taken this class. The General Assembly must once again ignore the UNC lobby, balance the college curriculum, and preserve our God-given freedoms written down and protected by both the constitutions of North Carolina and the United States.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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