New UNC 'Collaboratory' Draws Skepticism

Aug 23, 2016

Water rules for Jordan Lake have prompted the General Assembly to fund a new Collaboratory at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Credit Dave DeWitt / WUNC

Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and environmental groups are raising concerns over a new effort on campus created by the General Assembly.

Republican lawmakers created the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory to do research related to "environmental and economic components" of natural resources management.

The Collaboratory was conceived after the failure of SolarBees – solar-powered, in-lake devices that were touted as having the potential to mitigate algae-causing pollution.

Environmental groups and faculty are concerned the new initiative will lack academic independence or be influenced by political bias.

University officials, meanwhile, say the Collaboratory will not be influenced by politics.

"I can tell you that I've received no discussion, no guidance from the legislature that they are looking for any specific answers," said Brad Ives, Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Enterprises at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Ives compared the General Assembly creating the Collarboratory to its funding of cancer research at UNC- Chapel Hill.

"We've worked with things like this in the past and are capable of doing that and not having undue political influence here," Ives said.

The creation of the initiative, which is different from an institute or an academic center, is still in its early stages, according to university officials.

Among those rumored to be in the running to lead the Collaboratory is Jeff Warren, the current science advisor to Senate Leader Phil Berger. Warren has been a central figure in writing several pieces of legislation that dealt with the Sea Level Rise report from the Coastal Resource Commission's Science Panel, among others.

Berger told the News and Observer of Raleigh that any member of his staff "would have his strong support and recommendation."

"I have received numerous complaints about the existing philosophical and partisan homogeneity at UNC, where professors registered as Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of roughly 12 to one," Berger said in an email to the News & Observer. "On several occasions I have recommended highly-qualified conservative candidates for positions at UNC and within the university system, and, to my knowledge, none have been hired to date."

The North Carolina Policy Collaboratory will be funded with $1 million annually from the Legislature, and another $3.5 million if the University can raise matching dollars.