Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shut 'em down, Republicans suggest

Some Republican legislators are determined to take the University of North Carolina down a notch or two by eliminating a campus or two from the 16-campus UNC system. The proposal, which cropped up earlier this month, would have the state look at the feasibility of closing down some campuses to save the state money. 

North Carolina has a proud history of quality higher education. It is home to the first state university, and UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State rank high in surveys of quality and value. Under the heroic leadership of William Friday, the UNC system rose to national prominence, despite frequent tiffs between campuses and occasional fights with the legislature.

Not all UNC campuses offer the quality of the flagship universities. The majority of the 16 campuses wore the name "college" or something similar before being folded into the UNC system. First came a couple of "regional universities" in the east and west to augment the offerings at Chapel Hill and N.C. State. But before that, the state saw fit to establish a campus for the education of women, called the Women's College of the University of North Carolina, now the co-educational (an archaic term) UNC-Greensboro. Not only did North Carolina set aside a college for women, it set aside colleges for the education of Negroes (as African-Americans were called in those days). There was even a college for the education of indigenous Americans at Pembroke, although the Lumbee tribe there had never gained federal recognition.

And that is why the UNC system has so many campuses, many of them in close proximity, in a state that is not all that large, geographically. And that is also why it will be politically difficult to close any campuses, even those that may be under-attended or under-performing. Combining campuses or shifting academic departments from one campus to another was a goal of the 1970s federal civil rights case against UNC. Ten years earlier, North Carolina had merged a dual system of public education by merging white and black public schools, even if it meant closing some campuses. Friday and the state fought back against the feds, claiming that each campus had a special role, and UNC eventually won.

Now Republicans in the legislature want to do what the Democrats in the Carter administration failed to do — close some UNC campuses. The cause this time is efficiency, not civil rights. But civil rights, this time, will make closing more difficult. Imagine, for instance a proposal to merge UNC-G and N.C. A&T, both located in Greensboro, or to close Elizabeth City State, which has just 2,878 students — 31,000 fewer than N.C. State.

To close or merge campuses that taught black students in the days of segregation would be an affront to black history and black pride. Politically, it would be deadly. These campuses are HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges or Universities — giving them special status in higher education and in civil rights.

Closing UNC-Pembroke would likewise offend the Native American constituency, and closing the smallest of the campuses — UNC-Asheville (3,751 students) or Elizabeth City State (2,878 students) would take higher education out of an isolated region of the state. The N.C. School of the Arts (880 students) and School of Science and Math (680 students in their final two years of high school) have special missions and have gained national recognition for their innovations and success.

So where does that leave the Republican budget slashers? They will have to do what legislators and university administrators have always done — nibble away at the expenses and try not to hurt the quality of education. If they are smart, they won't risk the anger of HBCU alumni or art aficionados or the struggling residents of poor, rural regions whose solitary hope might be the small university that holds the area together. 

North Carolina would never plan a university system with so many campuses scattered, almost helter-skelter, around the state. But now that it has just such a system, altering it won't be easy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A friendship to admire and inspire

For about 85 years, my father-in-law maintained a close friendship James Zealy. Although they lived 250 miles apart for most of those years, Pat Witherington and Zealy remained close through telephone calls, occasional visits and a bond of friendship that could overcome distance and absence.

On Saturday, my wife and her sister and their husbands went to visit Dr. Zealy in Tarboro, where he is living in a senior living facility, three years after his best friend died. For a couple of hours, Zealy regaled the daughters of his closest friend with stories of his and Pat's adventures and antics when they were growing up. He filled in some gaps about the friendship that seems so incredibly durable and mutual. Both men were widowed and remarried. Their wives unavoidably became unlikely friends. Pat joined the Navy and served around the globe aboard LCTs and LSTs in World War II. Zealy was 4-F because he had no eardrum in one ear and went to work in war munitions for DuPont. They grew up in Goldsboro and graduated from UNC. Zealy went on to dental school in Kentucky, then returned to Goldsboro to open his dental practice. Pat opened his CPA practice in Statesville and raised four children.

Throughout 40 or 50 years, they would stop for visits with each other when they were traveling, and they would take vacations together. Letters and phone calls were common, the conversation never lagging between them. After I married Pat's eldest daughter, I became aware of the longevity and closeness of this friendship and marveled at it. My own connections to good friends from my childhood were far less frequent than the connection those two had. I had gone 10 or 20 years without speaking to my closest hometown friends and completely lost track of some of them. I clearly missed out on something special, something enduring and vital.

Now 93 and diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Zealy is still mentally sharp (just as his best friend was up to his death at 89) and still able to care for himself and drive. Thirty or more years younger than Zealy, we marveled at his keen memories and lively conversation in the couple of hours we spent with him. We departed for the drive back to Wilson happy and fulfilled that we had taken this time to be with a man who had been so close to the man we miss so much. Their friendship still amazes and inspires us.

We were left with one regret. We failed to take a picture of Dr. Zealy standing with two of his best friend's daughters. We'll have to do it again, and get a picture this time, one to add to the old black-and-white Kodak shots from 80 years ago at the beginning of a life-long friendship.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Publishing gun permits lacks benefits

North Carolina legislators are proposing that gun permits be removed from the state's public records laws, making gun permits, unlike business permits, driver's licenses, birth and death records, etc., exempt from public access. Their argument is that publishing gun permits might subject permit holders to crime or some other negative consequence. Newspaper folks are objecting without much success. Other states have already acted to close gun permit records.

Oddly enough, I fought this battle many years ago. It was before concealed-carry permits became part of North Carolina law, but purchase of a handgun (not a rifle or shotgun) required a permit from the county sheriff. I suggested that the newspaper I was editing run a monthly list of handgun permits, just as we ran lists of court cases and deed transfers. As I recall, it was a short and pretty innocuous list. I didn't know any of the folks who were buying handguns.

But the objections came quickly, along with some threats. I recall a particularly memorable visit from a letter carrier and his wife, also a Postal Service employee. Both had handgun permits, and both accused me of putting their lives in danger. "How so?" was my response. They said that if criminals knew they had handguns in their home, the criminals would break in and search for the guns. But if they know you have a gun, won't they be fearful that you might use the gun against them? Isn't that the purpose of a homeowner-owned gun? No, they said, criminals don't think logically. Besides, they didn't want to actually shoot anyone; they just wanted to be able to shoot someone if the need arose.

I took their objections under advisement, and I heard from a number of other permit holders, all saying publication of their names as handgun owners would put them in danger. At the same time, not a single reader expressed support for our efforts to inform them of who was buying handguns in their neighborhoods. Given that lack of support and growing tired of defending the public's right to know when the public didn't seem to care to know, I decided the paper would stop running handgun permits. The issue died quickly and was never heard from again. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Who could ask for more?

"When I get older losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine. ... Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"

I was 18 years old when I first heard those lyrics, and my 64th birthday seemed a time that would never come. Later, when I found my One True Love, we dreamed of a future and allowed ourselves to think of a time when we might be "Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?" with "grandchildren on your knee ...," but even then my 64th birthday seemed as far into the future as the Battle of Gettysburg was in the past.

Now I'm at that place that had seemed so far away that it would never come, and we are, as Paul McCartney, still in his 20s, dreamed of back in 1967. The lyrics remain fresh in my mind ... "you'll be older, too." The intervening years do not seem so long, not a full lifetime.

That future we imagined so long ago has not transpired quite as we dreamed it might, but it has transpired in ways more wonderful than we could have imagined, mixed with disappointments and sadness and grief over those who are not here to share these days of "who could ask for more?"