John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Seeing With Different Eyes This Year

John N. Gardner

Every year for the past twelve years my wife and I have taken a vacation starting on Labor Day and spanning the next several weeks, focused on the New England region. Each year we note some obvious and not so obvious differences between these “blue” states and the “red” state we live in, North Carolina. But this is a different year.

A difference of less import to us is anticipating the change from one climate zone to another. Usually, it is a matter of going from a somewhat warmer and more humid climate to a cooler and dryer one. Not this summer. The climate in western North Carolina where we reside is quite moderate, and so it’s not like it used to be for us when we would leave the torrid climate of summer South Carolina and head north. But this summer has been the wettest and coolest on record. I feel like I have been in England all summer. I would have enjoyed that far more. This is not England. The elements have cheated me of my summer.

And my description above of the “climate” of North Carolina as being “quite moderate” would have been how I would have described the public policy climate of North Carolina from 1999 when I arrived until January of 2013 when for the first time in a hundred years the Republican party assumed control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship. As a headline in The New York Times, August 11, page 1, above the fold, recently put it, North Carolina has lost its “middle way.” And now I don’t know what to do.

In the first seven months of the year, the North Carolina legislature:

  • introduced, but withdrew, a bill to establish an official state religion
  • repealed the previous “racial justice act” which pertained to safeguards to protect against racial bias in sentencing for capital offenses
  • cut employment benefits by approximately a third, both maximum amounts and length of eligibility
  • reduced women’s access to abortions to one clinic in a state of 9.5 million residents that will meet the new regulations for being a licensed provider. That clinic is in nearby Asheville, and was recently raided and shut down by state authorities
  • expanded the locations where citizens may carry concealed weapons to include bars and college campuses
  • decided not to participate in the expansion of Medicaid, thus denying about 500,000 of our neediest citizens government provided health care
  • abolished all inheritance taxes
  • enacted major income tax reductions for the highest earners (like myself) and increased tax rates for the less advantaged
  • reduced corporate income taxes
  • relaxed a wide array of environmental regulations
  • moved to permit “fracking”
  • enacted legislature to punish one municipality for its reputation of being “the cesspool of sin”, Asheville, so named by a recently deceased former legislator. Many in the city now wear that label as a badge of honor on T-shirts sporting that descriptor. This punishment has taken the form of the state taking over the city’s water authority without providing any compensation, and also moving to wrest control of the local airport authority from local county control to state control (same action underway in Charlotte/Mecklenburg with a much, much larger airport)
  • moved to permit the expansion of charter schools and the award of “vouchers” which opponents fear is an effort to gut the public schools whose teachers are a member of a professional association whose members primarily vote Democratic
  • slashed funds for teacher aids in elementary schools
  • enacted further draconian cuts in state aid to public education leaving now local counties to fend for themselves in their responses
  • significantly cut both the University of North Carolina System budget and that of the North Carolina Community College System. In contrast, the New England state legislatures have increased public funding for higher education from moderate levels to a high of over 16% in Massachusetts. I probably won’t live to see that in NC.
  • and perhaps most controversially, enacted some fifty pages of new voting regulations the net effect which may result in the suppression of approximately 300,000 voters access to voting privileges with special attention to reducing voting by college students (who normally are more inclined to vote Democratic) in the locales where they are enrolled as students.

 And the above is only a partial listing. I am in shock.

So this year’s vacation will be different for us. We will be looking at these blue states through different eyes. Is it time for me to give up my 46 year effort to improve higher education in the south as symbolized by my commitment to that by living in the region?

We do enjoy western Massachusetts where we vacation every year in the Lenox, Stockbridge area. This year we will spend four days there, attending a jazz concert and four plays. The region is very similar in appearance to the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina where we now live. But the winters are much less severe in NC! And I have a brother in Massachusetts and a sister in Connecticut. And our publisher is based in Boston where we visit several times a year. And the politics of Massachusetts are much more compatible with ours in terms of the substance of public policy legislation.

And we love Vermont where we will spend a week in the Burlington area, which also has some similarities to Asheville, North Carolina—both liberal, popular tourist destinations, with a focus on artistic and outdoor pursuits combined with a zealous pursuit of environmental activism. And we love the fact that there are no billboards in Vermont. We plan to hike, dine well, and see four plays. But could we live there? Ah, yes, we need to think about what those winters would be like. We only vacation there in the summer and we are not skiers. But then I had a great life in South Carolina where the climate in the summer I found equally inhospitable.

And then we will go north in Quebec for a few days. We love Canada. We have a marital pact to vacation in that country every year. We feel so safe in that country which has strict gun controls, unlike our country. We find the Canadian people so friendly, civil, polite, willing to engage in rational discourse, and without the screaming political heads. We like visiting a country that has universal health care and many forms of public policy that insure lower levels of infant mortality, childhood poverty, and hunger, than our wealthy country.  But would we want to live there? I did live there for five years in the 50’s, obviously when I was a child. And I loved Canada, and am thankful to this day for the fine public and private education I received there.

And we love Maine although we are not visiting there this vacation. We so appreciate how the natives interact with those of us “from away.” We have found such beauty in its diverse geography. And we respect so many of our friends there making a difference in higher education.

So what’s an old liberal war horse like me to do? What have we done so far?

We have increased our political giving and we have to do much more of that. And we attended a protest rally in Asheville with 6000-10,000 of our closest friends—a rally dubbed “Moral Monday.” We were amazed at the coalition of activist groups. And the wide range of demographic groups present—lots of elderly, retired, younger adults with their children, traditional aged college  students, the straight, gay, undocumented and documented immigrants, clergy, and many more forms of professional classes. We were in very good company. But we have to do more.

Even though we will be looking at the New England blue states through a different lens, it will still be a vacation. Part of me wishes I could take a vacation and not think about what is most on my mind, most of the time outside my professional work and thinking, and that is the level of public and political discourse in our country and the resulting public policy. I can only hope that some of the students my work helps keep in college will help us achieve at least a return to the middle way.

One Comment

  1. Carrie BrandonAugust 26, 2013 at 3:20 pmReply

    How lucky we (Massachusetts) would be if you moved here!

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