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Gov. Pat McCrory’s comments on liberal arts elicit firestorm of debate

ROCKY MOUNT Gov. Pat McCrory appeared to temper his stance on the state’s higher education system Thursday, two days after his criticism of “educational elite” and gender studies touched off a national firestorm.

The Republican told Rocky Mount business leaders that he wants a combination approach to funding the state’s universities and colleges that considers student enrollment numbers and how many graduates get jobs.

“Instead of just having the legislative (funding) formula for schools be based upon the number of people that go to those schools, it should also include a formula that looks at the results of what the schools are doing,” he told a Rocky Mount Area Chamber event.

Earlier this week, McCrory used bolder language on a national radio talk show, saying that he is drafting legislation to give money to colleges “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.

“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told host Bill Bennett, a former U.S. Secretary of Education. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.

The sharp language elicited a fierce outcry from students and faculty at UNC and across the country. But McCrory stayed away from such comments Thursday. At an event earlier in the day, he bristled when asked about his gender studies remark.

“I never mentioned liberal arts in a negative way,” McCrory told reporters. “I believe education is for two purposes. One is to help exercise the brain and get good critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and understand our past and our future. And the second reason is to teach us skills that will also help us get jobs.

“That’s clearly what I said, and I stick with it.”

In the radio interview McCrory said: “I do believe in a liberal arts education. I got one. I think there are two reasons for education. One is, as my dad used to say, is to exercise the brain. But the second is to get a skill.”

But those comments came after he had questioned the value of a doctorate in philosophy and Swahili language courses and the role of women in community colleges.

McCrory’s remarks continue to draw cutting responses.

Joe DeSimone, a chemistry professor at UNC Chapel Hill and chemical engineering professor, started a chain of Tweets by saying he wanted to work with the governor to “realize the role that liberal arts (education) plays in society” and how it affected him as a person and entrepreneur.

DeSimone, director of UNC’s Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, said he felt compelled to write about the value of liberal arts education after McCrory’s mixed messages on the topic.

“When we talk about the liberal arts and the value it brings, I think it’s the essence of our success in job creation,” said DeSimone, who launched several spinoff businesses based on his chemistry research.

DeSimone said he spent an hour with McCrory when he was candidate for governor. He said the governor understands the role of the universities in North Carolina’s economic development. “I’m just going to look at this as a little hiccup.”

UNC system President Tom Ross issued a statement critical of McCrory’s initial comments, but a spokeswoman said they subsequently spoke by phone and the discussion was “cordial.”

McCrory’s latest remarks didn’t satisfy Jennifer Job, at UNC Chapel Hill for a doctorate in education.

“I don’t believe him until I see a whole legislative session go by without him trying to make any cuts to the liberal arts,” said Job, who started an online petition to protect liberal arts classes at UNC. “In a perfect world I would like him to not only apologize ... but also give some recognition for the good those programs are doing in North Carolina.”

Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis said Thursday that lawmakers continue to look at different ways to fund higher education. He referenced Virginia, where lawmakers linked state funding to research output and degree completion.

Tillis spoke to the governor after the radio show and contends McCrory is committed to “a well-balanced approach to education in our university systems” and just misspoke.

“What we are really just trying to do,” Tillis said, “is make sure in the areas where we can make some adjustments, we make people more likely to get a job. That’s really what he intended to say.”

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed.

Frank: 919-829-4698
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