News: CJ Exclusives

Does Gov. School Have an Agenda?

Wildly divergent views of elite school depend on one's perspective

The Governor’s School of North Carolina fosters an atmosphere in which students have minimal supervision and are engaged in a learning environment that emphasizes a liberal world view, some students and parents allege. But many alumni of the program, and officials who work at Governor’s School, deny there is bias and vigorously defend it.

Governor’s School is a six-week summer program for exceptional students, funded by taxpayers and administered by the state Department of Public Instruction. Sessions are conducted each June and July at two locations: Salem College in Winston-Salem (West) and at Meredith College in Raleigh (East). This year Governor’s School had a budget of $1.3 million.

Defenders of Governor’s School say the program encourages teen-agers to challenge the thinking behind the issues they have been taught. Veterans of the school, even those who attend similar programs in other states, call themselves “Govies,” to recognize their fellowship in the special fraternity.

But some parents have complained that their children return from Governor’s School turned against them, and in rebellion against the values their parents have taught them.

The Burrows family was the subject of an article about a seminar conducted last year at Governor’s School West entitled “The New Gay Teenager,” after their son returned home and told his parents that he was confused in his beliefs about the homosexual lifestyle. Two other sets of parents interviewed by Carolina Journal said their sons returned from the program in recent years and announced their homosexuality and rejection of their parents’ beliefs about their new lifestyle, among other views.

“There seemed to be one particular buzz word,” said one mother, who was granted anonymity because of her sensitive relationship with her son, who attended in 2003. “Your truth is not my truth.”

Defense of seminars, balance

Governor’s School officials strongly deny any bias or “indoctrination” of students, which showed in correspondence among DPI staff after the original CJ stories about a controversial seminar on homosexuality conducted last year at Governor’s School West in Winston-Salem were published.

“There is a common (and unfortunately growing) misconception among those unfamiliar with advanced education that the mere presentation of an idea is tantamount to an institutional endorsement of it,” wrote Dr. James Grymes, a musicology professor at UNC-Charlotte and onsite director for Governor’s School East, in an e-mail defending the overall program. “The Governor’s School mission is not one that advocates specific positions, but one that advocates exposure to as many positions as possible…. Each individual student is then encouraged to come to his or her own conclusions about the merits of each position.”

Lucy Milner, onsite director at the West school, also defended the overall program’s offerings.

“We do try to have balanced points of view in our outside presenters and in our faculty,” she wrote in similar e-mail correspondence. “There is a great diversity in our faculty and staff.”

Advocacy of ideas, too

Complaints about Governor’s School haven’t been limited to discussions of sexual orientation. As with many public universities, some have observed a strong liberal political outlook from chosen speakers and instructors.

“I didn’t want to go at first, but my parents thought it would be a good learning experience,” said Ashley Mixon, a high school senior from Onslow County who attended Governor’s School West last year.

She said the first mandatory seminar for all students was led by Svi Shapiro, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro education professor whom she said “set the tone for what Governor’s School was going to be.”

Shapiro has written extensively on an initiative he calls “peace education,” and has also criticized traditional public schooling for overemphasis on “dull drills and standardized tests.” His publisher described one book he authored, Between Capitalism and Democracy: Educational Policy and the Crisis of the Welfare State, as a “proposed political agenda for education that is resonant with the cultural concerns and social needs of subordinate and intermediary groups — a left agenda….”

“He basically said the only people who are successful are rich white males who cheat their way through the school system,” Mixon recalled about his speech last year. She said he also spoke against the Iraq War in his remarks.

“In a seminar that’s supposed to be on public education, I think that’s kind of taking advantage of the situation,” Mixon said. “You can’t leave.”

Shapiro has spoken at Governor’s School, both at East and West locations, for about 10 years, according to Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter.

“He preached constantly about having a democratic [public school] system, but what he described was actually socialist,” said one 2006 West student from Cary on her Blogspot Web site. “Go figure.”

“That Svi guy was total crap,” said another 2006 student on LiveJournal.com. “He just attacked the school system and said that if you come from a poor family, you won’t make it in life and if you had money, you would get the fame, college, and success that poor people will never have. It was ridiculous to the extreme!”

Other speakers (besides Shapiro) promoted on the Governor’s School Web site included:

* A self-identified “Christian contrarian” professor who advocated pacifism

* A professor who highlighted issues concerning “environmental racism” and its impact in the United States.´

* A professor who laid out “a case for animal rights”

* A professor, in a seminar titled “The American Dream — The World’s Nightmare,” who “awed the student body with staggering statistics, figures, and questions about the future of our environment and the role humans (especially Americans) in contributing to its decline.”

One of the student comments posted on the Governor’s Schools’ own Web site, used for promotion, even acknowledges the liberal atmosphere of the overall program:

“Being in what some would see as a liberal group of individuals in a liberal setting has tested and strengthened my religious beliefs and my faith,” one former student wrote. “Being around other focused intelligent people, I feel like I have cheated myself and I have let others cheat me. I am ready for a change! I want to make a change, and now I feel like I have the strength to do it.”

Mixon said after the first week at Governor’s School, she attended fewer optional seminars because of “the types of people they were bringing in.”

“I like the way I feel about things,” she said, “and the morals my parents instilled in me.”

She said liberal ideals “seem to be everywhere,” including among students, who largely already had the mindset going in. She said if the instructors and the students are already likeminded, “that’s not teaching that person to question what they think.”

A female student who attended Governor’s School West in 1997 agreed with Mixon’s description.

“If you are a conservative Christian, you are an outcast in the group,” the woman said, adding that a liberal perspective was present that mostly failed to provide an opposing balance. “Not that they said it was better to be liberal, but that was the direction they went to get students to ‘think outside the box.'”

But a seminar led by Shannon Blosser of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, an organization that often criticizes excessive liberalism on college campuses, was conducted at Governor’s School East in July.

“It went very well,” Blosser said of his presentation. “The students were very attentive and asked a lot of questions, especially on the freedom of religion/freedom of association issues. It was a very engaging talk on both sides.”

But Mixon said she now tells friends to avoid Governor’s School.

“I came out not wanting to claim Governor’s School,” she said. “I didn’t want it on my resume.”

Many students loved it

Mixon may not want to “claim it,” but from testimony by this year’s “Govies” on the Internet, far many more embrace the school as their own and hold it in the highest regard:

* “I love it here at Governor’s School [East],” wrote a female student from Oxford. “The people are great, my classes are awesome and laid back…Everyone is smart and on the same level, and we all just want to have fun.”

* “It was hard to imagine a place where everyone is accepted, where being smart is cool, and where there are 399 other people who have the same general goals in life,” wrote another East student from Greensboro on MySpace. “It was hard to imagine a place like that until I came here.”

* “It’s basically the one constant thing that makes me happy and completes my life,” wrote a West student on LiveJournal.com. “I love it.”

* “I’ve lived and felt more in three weeks than in my whole life,” wrote another West teen-ager, from Concord, on LiveJournal. “I think [Governor’s School] was made for people like me, people who show promise, but not in their own eyes.

“I have never felt loved, needed, accepted as I do at [Governor’s School West],” she also wrote. “I have EVERY intention of coming back here to work when I am old enough.”

Another student from Davie County, Lauren Brown, attended Governor’s School this year and wrote to Carolina Journal to defend the program from what she perceived were attacks on it as a “negative” and “brainwashing institution.”

“I can ramble on about endless memories of talks that lasted all night with friends that I will have for the rest of my life; seminars that exposed me to struggles that those in other countries must endure; concerts that taught me a new appreciation for the arts; classes that allowed me to express my opinions and engage in conversation that is often suppressed in public schools,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “Why can’t there be an article telling of how 400 students came together, organized, and raised over $600 at a dance to help stop the genocide in Darfur? There are so many unique and interesting events that happened at Governor’s School that will leave an impact on each and every one in attendance.”

Party time?

Testimony of some students, though, confirmed the concerns of the mother whose son attended in 2003 — that is, that Governor’s School provides inadequate adult supervision. One current West student, writing on MySpace, said “I’ve never cursed so much in my life.”

Another 2006 student from East, a MySpace blogger from Burnsville, who said he mostly likes the school, also described some bawdy behavior and conflicting feelings about it:

* “I’m tired of guys screaming obscenities all the time.”

* Describing a dance: “Just the atmosphere, the music, the people doing very um…well, they were doing things that would be considered very inappropriate at a regular school function. Just the way I thought, for a few moments in time, it felt good to fit in, to feel like everyone else, but then again, it felt like…dirty or something.”

* Describing a weekly ice cream eating contest at Ben & Jerry’s, near Meredith College. “Last time, this really big kid took his shirt off and smeared ice cream all over his body. One of his teammates licked the ice cream off his nipples. Now that is testosterone at it’s finest, ladies and gentlemen.”

* “If there’s one thing I need right now, it’s going to church. I can talk to God here, but you know what I mean. They just make it so complicated to go to church here, you have to sign these forms and things, get your parents to sign them, then contact the leaders of the church and have them arrange transportation…and then you have to tell them approximately when you’ll be back, etc.”

The female student who attended the West school in 1997 confirmed the permissive atmosphere, saying that instructors and supervisors allowed profanity. She said leaders encouraged freedom for the students, with the caveat to not “do anything crazy or illegal.”

“It wasn’t unsupervised,” she said, “but maybe more lenient than what I was used to and what others were used to. No one was really reprimanded for anything.”

But according to DPI spokeswoman Lynda Fuller, student safety is taken “seriously” by Governor’s School staff. Students live in dormitories, with halls separated by gender and teacher assistant/counselors residing with them on the halls. Curfew and conduct room checks are enforced every night, she said.

“Males visiting females and females visiting males are not permitted past front parlors in all dormitories at any time,” Fuller explained. “Boundary maps are provided to students when they arrive outlining where they are allowed to travel while on campus and in the surrounding community.”

Fuller added that the Governor’s School “does not condone profanity,” and students (and parents) are required to sign copies of an honor code that addresses student behavior. She said students may attend activities outside the campus as long as they are within the “boundary area.” Staff members are present at school-sponsored events like dances, she said.

Fuller also said students are allowed to attend church, but must make arrangements through an activities director.

“This again, ensures the safety of the students as they venture off campus and eases any parental concern regarding which church their child may be attending,” she said.

Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.