The University of North Carolina Board of Governors voted Friday -- against strong protests from faculty members -- to kill three research centers at the university system.
Tensions between faculty and the system's board have escalated in the wake of the vote, especially at the flagship at Chapel Hill. Protesters spoke out during the board meeting and the actual vote took place in a small room where board members went after the protests continued.
Critics said the action was a political attack on scholarly work that conservatives don't like -- and on a scholar whom they don't like. The three centers are: a poverty center at the Chapel Hill campus, a biodiversity center at East Carolina University and a civic engagement and social change center at North Carolina Central University. The poverty center is led by Gene Nichol, a law professor who has repeatedly accused state leaders of failing to deal with poverty and of taking steps that discourage voting by black and low-income North Carolinians.
Nichol vowed, after Friday's vote, to continue his work with private support and without an official center behind it. If the board tries to block him, he said, he will sue. While board members haven't commented on that development, they defended their vote to kill the centers.
In a column in The News & Observer, John Fennebresque, the board chair, wrote that the decisions were justified and not political. Of the poverty center, which has attracted the most attention, Fennebresque wrote that the board "concluded the center was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty. We also felt the center did not enhance the educational mission of the university, did not work across disciplines to effect change and did not have the financial support to sustain it."
Supporters of the center cited books published under its auspices, lectures, speeches, columns and more -- and noted that Republican politicians have regularly criticized it for in fact having an influence on public policy.
Jack Boger, dean of the law school at Chapel Hill, issued a statement in which he cited the scholarly and teaching record of the center and went on to say that he did not believe the board members who claimed to be making an apolitical decision. He and others have noted that the center has operated in recent years without state funds, so there is no evidence that this move will save money.
"It is evident, then, that the [board] closed this center, neither because it has failed to serve an educational purpose nor for any failure to carry out a serious scholarly agenda nor because the center is redundant," the dean wrote. "Instead, the [board] has surely closed this center because it does not approve the writings and speeches of Professor Gene Nichol, who speaks and writes on poverty in North Carolina with unsparing candor. That motive contravenes core principles of academic free speech and inquiry. It threatens First Amendment values. It is a sad day for the great University of North Carolina, witnessing as its current Board of Governors yield to pressures that besmirch the University of North Carolina’s wonderful reputation, justly earned over the past century, for forthrightly exploring societal issues of greatest importance to the state, the region and the nation."
The Faculty Council at Chapel Hill on Friday adopted a resolution stating that oversight of centers (and decisions about their continuation) should rest with campuses, not the system board.
Nichol released a statement Friday afternoon about grant support he obtained to carry on the center's work. "The fund will allow us to hire student, faculty and postdoctorate scholars to assist me in probing the causes of, and solutions to, economic injustice. We will carry forward the work of the center within the halls of the university, but with greater flexibility and increased resources," he said. "North Carolinians are not easily cowered. They react poorly to petty tyrants. They always have. If the Board of Governors moves to block the creation of such a research fund -- a turn that is not unlikely -- I will be anxious to join them in federal court."
He added that the board had made it clear that those who criticize Republican politicians face punishments. "These acts of state-imposed censorship, of course, constitute a core violation of the First Amendment," Nichol said. "Lying about the motive for closure does nothing to assuage the transgression. The board’s laughable charade of independent, merit-based 'centers review' has fooled no one. Dishonest censorship is no improvement over straightforward suppression."
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