Who Is Being Political?

Professor who leads center on poverty repeatedly criticizes conservative leaders -- and board panel of allies of those he criticized moves to eliminate his research center.

February 19, 2015
 
Gene Nichol

There is wide agreement in North Carolina that Gene Nichol is an articulate and forceful advocate for the impoverished of his state, unafraid to criticize political leaders who in his opinion aren't doing enough about poverty. Nichol does so from an academic perch. He is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and leads the university's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

On Wednesday, a committee of the board of the University of North Carolina System voted to shutter the center, along with a biodiversity center at East Carolina University and a civic engagement and social change center at North Carolina Central University. Conservatives in the state have long complained that some UNC centers (and especially the poverty center) were being used for political attacks on Republican politicians and so had no place in the university.

But supporters of the centers contend that it's the board that is playing politics. Of the 240 centers reviewed by the board panel, it wants to kill 3 that reflect scholarly interests in poverty, the environment and social justice. And 13 other research centers at which the panel wants to seek changes (but not eliminate) include programs that focus on diversity, the environment, women's issues, aging and teaching and learning.

The move against selected centers comes as many faculty members in the UNC system are frustrated by the board's recent decision to oust Tom Ross as system president. Ross is seen as a respected leader for the system, whose board members aren't trusted by many faculty leaders.

The UNC system -- like many universities -- has numerous centers, which typically are designed for interdisciplinary or outreach work. The university system has numerous research centers (biomedicine and applied plant genomics, for example), as well as centers that promote certain kinds of activities. For example, there are several that focus on entrepreneurship.

But the poverty center has been the subject of the most debate. It was founded by John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate, in 2005. Nichol became director in 2008, after he was ousted as president of the College of William and Mary. There, he had angered many conservative alumni over what his supporters saw as efforts to make the college more inclusive, but that critics saw as insulting traditions they valued.

Nichol has regularly been criticized by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank with strong ties to North Carolina's Republican governor and legislative leaders. A recent analysis by the Pope Center cited an op-ed by Nichol in The News & Observer that criticized Gov. Pat McCrory's plans to change voter identification rules in ways that have been criticized (by the U.S. Justice Department, among others) as discriminating against low-income, black voters. In the column, Nichol called the governor a "a 21st-century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus."

The Pope Center called that op-ed one of a number that show Nichol going "over the top in his invective."

Nichol published an op-ed Wednesday, after the board committee voted to kill his center, in which he charged that he was being punished for speaking out.

"I have been repeatedly informed, even officially, that my opinion pieces have 'caused great ire and dismay' among state officials and that, unless I stopped publishing in The News & Observer, 'external forces might combine in the months ahead' to force my dismissal. Today those threats are brought to fruition. The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along -- closing the poverty center. This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution," Nichol wrote.

He added that no money would be saved by closing the center, since it is privately supported and his job at the law school would continue even if the center is shut down.

And Nichol stressed that the board was acting to remove a research center that focuses attention on poverty issues because politicians are offended by the findings. "North Carolina’s understanding of the challenges of poverty will be weakened. These are significant costs to pay for politicians’ thin skin," Nichol wrote. "Personally, I’m honored to be singled out for retribution by these agents of wealth, privilege and exclusion."

Jim Carmichael, a professor of library and information studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and president of the state conference of the American Association of University Professors, said Wednesday's vote was an attack on academic freedom. "This is completely ideological," he said. "It sends a clear message to faculty members that our freedom of speech is endangered."

Jim Holmes, the head of the board panel that recommended the closure of the poverty center, denied to North Carolina reporters Wednesday that politics had anything to do with the recommendations. He and other board members have said repeatedly that they are trying to be sure centers advance the university's mission in a cost-effective way. Board members have not said much about their elimination targets, but the Pope Center has published a series of statements saying that the center is political, not academic.

John Charles Boger, dean of the law school at Chapel Hill, released a statement late Wednesday in which he mocked the idea that politics had nothing to do with the decision to target the poverty center.

"In prior decades, the University of North Carolina won the hearts and the gratitude of the state’s people by combating the scourges of peonage and child labor, of woefully inadequate medical care and appallingly bad public education. These earlier faculty-led initiatives drew fierce opposition from those who managed to benefit from others’ poverty and oppression. Yet the university pressed ahead, fulfilling what Dr. Frank Graham once celebrated as 'a tradition of our people': that in Chapel Hill they would find 'a place where there is always a breath of freedom in the air... and where finally truth shining like a star bids us advance and we will not turn aside,'" Boger wrote.

He added that the board panel's action "would constrict that breath of freedom. It would order the poverty center to turn aside from investigating conditions of human misery in our state that cry out for greater attention, not less."

The dean closed this way: "Bob Dylan famously asked, 'How many times must a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?' For a great university, one time is one too many....  Gene Nichol himself remains a respected colleague and tenured member of the UNC School of Law. We will support his efforts in every way possible going forward. Yet those who love UNC-Chapel Hill, who believe that free speech and open inquiry are indispensable tools in addressing society’s greatest problems, cannot fail to see in today’s recommendations made to the full [board], a betrayal of the university’s finest historical traditions and its future promise."

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