Q&A with NC Gov. Roy Cooper: Upcoming issues in the 2024 election, state of higher education

The Chronicle sat down with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to talk about the issues at stake in the upcoming 2024 elections, the state of higher education, the Israel-Hamas war and his thoughts on the upcoming Duke-University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill men’s basketball rivalry matchup. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity:

The Chronicle: What are some of the issues that you think might matter most to Duke students in this upcoming election?

Gov. Roy Cooper: Well first, I'm glad to talk with you and the folks at the Duke Chronicle. You guys make a real difference, and I'm grateful for that and, I’ll tell you, I got to know a lot of Duke students and a lot of the Duke faculty during my two campaigns for governor, and I remain forever grateful to Duke University and the students and faculty there for helping me get elected, particularly the first time in a close election. It mattered a lot, so thanks for that. I very much enjoyed being with President Price at the kickoff of the Duke 100 year Centennial Celebration, so look forward to all of those things that are happening that year. 

Look, young people now have the leverage to make a real difference [on] issues that matter to them. And the way they do that is to make sure they participate in the process and actually transfer that passion and knowledge about all of these issues to casting a ballot, because there is a fairly low percentage of young people who vote versus a fairly high percentage of older people. 

The young people that I talked to have a real passion about fighting gun violence, and making sure that we have an assault weapons ban, and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and young children and people who shouldn't be having them, fighting climate change, making sure we fight discrimination at every level, whether it's racial or discrimination against LGBTQ+ children, public education — those are the issues that I hear time and again from young people who could make a real difference by actually voting and participating in this election. 

One of the challenges I know for students is, “Do I register where I go to school? Do I register at home? How do I do that?” Sometimes people think about it and then don't actually go through the process, and we need young people to go through the process because this is one of the biggest elections of our lifetime coming up in 2024 for sure.

TC: You talked about some of the issues that young people care about — so what exactly is at stake here? 

RC: First, the survival of our planet. The climate crisis is real, and we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We're doing that in North Carolina, we pushed through bipartisan legislation to get us to carbon zero by 2050 and our power sector. We know that women's reproductive freedom is at stake with the abolition of Roe v. Wade and Donald Trump being able to appoint three members to the Supreme Court. Now, women's reproductive freedom is on the ballot in 2024, and that needs to be protected. Clearly, the issues of gun violence and making sure we get more guns off the street are on the ballot. Public schools and public education are on the ballot. 

In my opinion, many Republicans are turning away from public education and our legislature has plans to waste $4 billion on vouchers, which will hurt our public schools. So those are issues that I hear from younger people that — in this election, a few percentage points higher of young people who actually go to the polls and vote, then this could swing the tide of the election. 

And I know it can be hard, particularly on the presidential level, for young people to look and say, “I'm really going to vote in an election where two 80-year-old men are running.” But the fact of the matter is that there are stark differences and a clear choice because one thing I left to the end is that our very democracy is at stake. There are a lot of elected officials now that have indicated that they are satisfied with an autocracy over a democracy as long as their guy’s in charge. This is a dangerous time in our country and this precious democracy is at stake, so that's also on the ballot in 2024.

TC: Other issues that have come up that are especially pertinent to Duke students and other college students in the state are some of the recent things that have been developing across higher education. 

One of the big topics was the elimination of affirmative action over the summer by the Supreme Court, and that was followed up by Duke with a new financial aid program for students in the Carolinas, and I believe UNC had a very similar program as well. 

What effect do you think those programs might have on keeping students in the state, or keeping a diverse student body, and how might that affect the election or vice versa?

RC: We must find ways to continue to tackle systemic racism. Because even though there's been a lot of progress made, systemic racism still exists, and you can see it in the statistics. So we must take steps to make sure that we tackle it, and make sure that everybody has an opportunity. 

One of the things critically important is affordable higher education. We worked in the UNC system on the Carolina Promise, which provides for $500 tuition in several of our public universities throughout the state. I know Duke just took some action to provide more affordable education for people at certain income levels. 

Our community colleges are becoming a linchpin in the strong workforce that we have in North Carolina, and the agreements that they have had to let people take some of the courses at community colleges before transferring to four year schools has made four year schools much more affordable for many students. 

And of course, the President is working to try to provide some student loan forgiveness, which I think can be a very positive thing. So there's a lot of work that needs to be done to make higher education more affordable and accessible, but I think there are a lot of people committed to trying to make sure that that gets done.

TC: Another topic of higher education that has come up more recently was the departure of UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and his issues with the political environment that he believes the UNC system has come under. Do you have any thoughts on that and how this election might affect public higher education? 

RC: I think North Carolina's system of higher education, our public university system, has been the best in the country. But it is at risk, and it's one of the reasons that I appointed a task force, headed by former UNC president Tom Ross, a Democrat, and former UNC President Margaret Spellings, a Republican, because I'm concerned that all of the governance of the UNC system is now concentrated in the Republican legislature. And consequently, you are not getting university leadership that reflects North Carolina. It doesn't reflect the diversity of North Carolina demographically or diversity of thought. And you have a lot of right wing politicians who have appointed people who now control the university. 

And when you think about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it is a plum position. I am hoping that this next chancellor search that we can attract the best of the best. 

But what I'm hoping to assure that into the future is that, we get buy in to this report that makes sure that the university system has a broad range of people and thought in its leadership positions, whether there's a blue wave or a red wave going on in the political world. Our universities deserve that, and if you read this report, it gives you the plan on how to make sure that both political parties and all kinds of people with different experiences can be in these leadership positions like Boards of Trustees of our universities, and the Board of Governors, which controls the entire UNC system. 

I'm concerned about it, but I have a lot of confidence and faith that the people of North Carolina at the end of the day will make sure that we protect our precious university system.

TC: I wanted to touch on one last issue that’s really been unraveling across college campuses, and that’s the war that’s been going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. How should college students translate their views on this specific issue into how they might want to vote?

RC: Well, in the Middle East, for decades and even centuries, there have been wars and conflict, and I'm a person of faith and I pray constantly for a peaceful solution. There's got to be a peaceful two-state solution to what's happening with the Palestinians and the Israelis. Obviously, you had a brutal attack by Hamas terrorists and an invasion of the Israeli people that has now caused a war that's causing the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians. And I know one thing, that we must eliminate the terrorist threat, but at the same time, we must do everything that we can to protect civilian life. 

I met with some Muslim leaders and students the other day, and they were telling me of family members who were injured and killed, and I mourn for all of them, and hope that there can be a peaceful solution to this soon. I also met with family members of hostages that were brutally taken and are still being held. 

So, I think a two-state solution, that the United States should continue pressing Israel to limit the loss of civilian life as much as possible, to get this conflict over as soon as possible, and to work toward a two-state solution. 

And I believe that the best hope for that lies with President Biden. I think there's no telling where Trump will take us. He's an isolationist, he believes in saddling up to dictators. That's not a solution to this.

TC: Thank you for touching on that. I do want to end the interview on a lighter note. This might be the most important question of the day.

Almost two years ago, you declared that North Carolina was the “Center of the College Basketball Universe” when Duke and UNC were playing in the Final Four. We have another big Duke UNC game coming up in a couple of weeks — who do you have taking the game? And I will remind you that there is a correct answer here.

RC: This year, the Carolina team seems to really be gelling. I think this is one of the best Carolina defensive teams that I've seen in a long time, so I'm bullish on their chances. I think Duke has hit a little bit of a bump in the road lately. They are still a great basketball team and are going to be a great basketball team. I think Carolina will probably hit bumps in the road — I hope it's not next week, but it could very well be, because you throw the records and everything else out the window when Duke and Carolina play. 

It is the greatest rivalry in sports, and the way that it stays the greatest rivalry in sports, is that both teams continue to be the best, and it continues to be a pretty even series. And that's what we have when Duke and Carolina get together. 

I will tell you this — when I won the race in 2016, I went to the Carolina-Duke game in Cameron as governor, hadn't been governor for a month and a half. And I went early and got a tour of Cameron from some of my Duke friends, and we went into the Cameron Indoor Stadium and of course the Cameron Crazies were already there, and many of them started recognizing me and chanting my name and saying, “Hey, we work for you, we work for you!” And they knew where I went to school, but still, they were like, “We want selfies.” 

So I went into the crowd and took selfies with Cameron Crazies and got Duke blue paint all over my suit and was appearing all over the social media of me hanging out with the Cameron Crazies. It was great because they helped me get elected. I caught a little grief from some of my Tar Heel friends and family, but it was worth it. I was grateful for that. And it should be another great game.

TC: Not going to pick a side? Duke versus UNC, who you got?

RC: Oh you’re going to make me do it? It's in the Dean Dome, so I'm gonna pick a Tar Heel victory, 81-80. How about that?

Full interview video

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Jazper Lu | Managing Editor

Jazper Lu is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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