Art Pope translates dollars into influence at UNC

In 2011, the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy -- a nonprofit named after the father of Republican benefactor Art Pope, and predominantly funded by Pope's family foundation -- issued a report saying that big donors to universities should have a bigger say in how their money is used.

The Pope Center's report argued that colleges "have a poor record of honoring donors' wishes ... it is usually the case that the universities wish to untie or eliminate the strings donors have carefully attached to their gifts."

Pope will now have a voice in shaping the future of the University of North Carolina system his foundation has generously funded. Last week, the UNC system reported the creation of a 27-member "blue ribbon" panel to craft a five-year plan to establish academic and spending priorities for the 16-campus UNC system.

The panel is dominated by leaders of the various campuses and conservative leaders in the North Carolina legislature and on the UNC Board of Governors, including another big GOP political donor, Fred Eshelman.

Of the six panel members without any formal ties to N.C. government or the UNC system, Pope looms the largest as a donor to N.C. higher education. Tax records for the John William Pope Foundation, which Art Pope leads, show more than two-dozen grants over the last 15 years to various schools and programs in the UNC system. Some of the more notable gifts:

* Since 2004, the Pope Foundation reportedly has given more than $900,000 to North Carolina State University for a pro-free market political science program aimed at illuminating the "economic, legal and political foundations of free societies.”

* In 2011, the Pope Foundation announced a $3 million grant to expand UNC's center to assist student athletes. In 2004, the Pope Foundation offered to give UNC $10 million to fund a "Western cultures" program, but after widspread controversy the foundation shifted in 2006 to providing a $2 million gift to boost the salaries of assistant football coaches. (The Pope Foundation's tax records show, however, grants worth $85,000 given in 2007 and 2010 earmarked for "UNC-CH Western Civilization.")

* Art Pope's website highlights the foundation's support of the N.C. Central University law school, including commissioning a mural of the U.S. Constitution. But the foundations' efforts to launch a $600,000 constitutional law center at Central -- led by the director of a Pope-funded law nonprofit -- was withdrawn after widespread opposition from students, alumni and faculty.

Leadership of higher education bodies are often political. For example, the University of North Carolina Tomorrow panel, launched in 2007, reflected the Democratic/left-leaning bias of the state's leadership at the time.

What makes Pope unique is the scale of his investments in the UNC system -- and the debate  they've generated. But now, controversy aside, Pope will have his say.