The proposed closing of UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity by the UNC System Board of Governors — which drew one of the broadest and loudest protests from the Chapel Hill campus of any issue in years — became reality on Feb. 27 as the board voted unanimously to require the University to shut the center down by Sept. 1.
The chants of protesters at the BOG meeting in Charlotte were such that the board relocated to another room to conduct the business and barred protesters from entering.
As in the forced ouster of system President Thomas Ross ’75 (JD) in January, charges of political maneuvering flew over the poverty center issue. Some called it an affront to academic freedom, even invoking the speaker ban fight of the 1960s.
The center’s director, law Professor Gene Nichol, has been a regular and vehement critic of the policies of the relatively new Republican leadership in the state, and most of the organized protest against the center’s closing have asserted that Nichol’s outspokenness is one reason for the Republican-dominated BOG’s decision.
Law school Dean Jack Boger ’74 (JD) posted a statement on the school’s website in the days before the final decision that read in part, “The recommendation rests on no clearly discernible reason beyond a desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor.”
Boger cited the work of former UNC presidents and faculty who saw the interests of the University and the state as one and the same and stuck their necks out on controversial issues.
“Now the special committee proposes to the full BOG that it constrict this breath of freedom and turn aside from the pursuit of truth. It would order the poverty center to cease its labors — labors that have marked it as a clear successor to so many bold forebears.”
The BOG was vague about its reasons for cutting off Ross’s presidency, and little is known about its reasons for wanting the poverty center closed.
James L. Holmes, chairman of the working group that recommended the closing, had told The News & Observer: “We were looking for how the poverty center fits in the academic mission of educating the next generation of lawyers in the law school, how it fits into the UNC law school mission. That’s a struggle.”
Holmes told news media that academic freedom and the need to study poverty were not factors in the decision. “There’s not one person on this board that doesn’t believe poverty doesn’t need to be addressed in the state,” Holmes said. “The University should be focused on that. We’re absolutely committed to it. This is not a commentary on poverty proper.”
Chancellor Carol L. Folt defended the work of the center before the BOG on Friday and made it clear she was against the closing, and she returned to Chapel Hill in time to tell a meeting of the Faculty Council on Friday that research and teaching about poverty on the campus would not be slowed. Folt could offer little on the board’s rationale for closing the center.
“The primary reason that was given was that they are looking at and have tasked us to find ways that things that do not need to be in centers are not in centers,” she said.
“The faculty and students, not just here at Chapel Hill but in many places, we’ve all been hearing from people across the system … [who] really are concerned that this closing has a serious chilling effect on work in the area of poverty” and also on the willingness to speak out on critical issues.
“We need to continue to affirm not only that we’re going to work on issues like poverty — great issues of our time — but that we’re also going to affirm with real actions that we support that work and the diverse opinions that come with doing such work,” she said.
Folt told the Faculty Council that law professors and others on the campus who were involved in explaining the work of the poverty center to the BOG working group discovered that many in the group didn’t understand what UNC’s centers and institutes do.
On March 4, Folt spoke more about the issue in a message in the University Gazette and addressed to “the Carolina Community”:
“The decision to close the Poverty Center also opened a broader debate on freedom of speech,” Folt said.” I have heard from many who view the closure of this center as striking at who we are as a University. They say they fear this decision will have a chilling effect, not only on their efforts to address poverty, but also on their ability to instruct, advocate and conduct scholarly activities without infringement. These comments are deeply concerning, and we must do everything in our power to assuage these fears.
“I share our community’s fundamental belief in academic freedom and freedom of speech and will always defend these essential rights of our faculty, staff and students. That is central to Carolina’s mission, and indeed all great universities are built around these core values. I believe the Board of Governors agrees with this vision; this fundamental principle must continue to be a hallmark at America’s first and one of her greatest public universities.
“At the Board of Governors meeting last week and at previous meetings, in letters to local media and on social media, students, faculty and staff from Carolina and other UNC campuses have been voicing their concerns and showing their commitment to participating in the governance of our universities. They have demonstrated that our campus is a living laboratory for democracy. As it is often said, democracy can be messy and loud, and, above all, it is something we should cherish. This part of higher education too must be protected: our right to debate, advocate, agree and disagree. What should not be lost in the emotion of debate is our mutual goal – of our campus and of our boards – of advancing Carolina’s critical mission. Our aspiration is to be a University of the people – all of the people – and what we can achieve when we work together has no bounds.”
The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was created 10 years ago by the Office of the Provost, the law school and the center’s founding director, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards ’77 (JD), who led it for one year. According to its mission statement, it is “a non-partisan, interdisciplinary institute designed to study, examine, document and advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty in North Carolina and the nation.”
The center does not receive any state money. Its funding comes from corporate and foundation grants and from private gifts to the UNC Law Foundation. The lion’s share of its $107,208 budget in the 2014 fiscal year came from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. It lists a current staff of three, including Nichol — who is paid a $7,500 stipend — and two “temporary staff” who are paid $12,000 each.
In mid-February, a panel of BOG members recommended to the full board that the center be eliminated. It also recommended closing East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change following a review of 240 centers and institutes across the 16-campus system whose work generally involves research and policy analysis. The other two also were ordered on Friday to be closed.
Campuses have voluntarily closed eight centers, and 13 other centers were recommended by the panel for further study.
Some on the Chapel Hill campus have questioned whether the BOG had the authority to close centers and institutes on individual campuses. Carolina’s policy manual on the subject says that full authority “rests at the campus level” and that the provost and ultimately the chancellor have the authority to close them.
But the system staff issued a memo to chancellors Wednesday that said the BOG “has clear authority to require chancellors to take specific actions” on centers and institutes. The memo cited North Carolina general statutes and The Code of the University of North Carolina.
In an open letter published in The Daily Tar Heel before Friday’s final vote, 139 members of the faculty called on Folt to refuse to close the center, saying: “Our mission at UNC is to promote truths, however unpleasant they may be to some constituents. We call upon you to stand up for our colleague Gene Nichol’s right to speak his mind and for the basic principle of academic freedom.” The faculty said Nichol was “fulfilling the noble Socratic role of gadfly.”
The letter appealed to Folt “to shield the University and its faculty against the Board of Governors’ ideas of what we can or cannot teach, what we can and cannot take as the subjects of our research. We urge you not to follow the recommendation made by the working group of the Board of Governors.”
Among those decrying the decision were UNC’s Faculty Executive Committee, a group of law faculty and the American Association of University Professors.
Folt wrote to the campus community that her administration recommended against the closing and was disappointed in the recommendation. “Since its inception in 2005,” Folt wrote, “the center has focused dialogue, research and public attention on the many dimensions of poverty and economic hardship for people in North Carolina and beyond.”
The Faculty Executive Committee adopted a resolution that reads: “The important work of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is consistent with UNC-Chapel Hill’s long and proud tradition of service to the state’s citizens and is entirely funded by non-state sources. In light of current policy, we respectfully ask the full Board of Governors to set aside the Working Group’s recommendation that this center be closed, and to leave that decision to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees.”
Sixty-four members of the law school faculty signed a statement protesting the recommendation that led to the BOG’s decision.
“The recommendation to close the Poverty Center … will deprive North Carolinians of critical research and education on poverty; chill academic freedom and inquiry; and hurt our law students who desperately need and greatly benefit from the real-world experience that interning there provides.
“To the extent that the working group’s recommendation regarding the Poverty Center is based on animus for our colleague and former dean, Gene Nichol, the Poverty Center’s director, we decry it. Professor Nichol has been a prominent and thoughtful critic of proposals that exacerbate inequality and drive low-income people into ever deeper destitution. Punishing a professor for expressing his views — views always carefully supported by facts and rigorous analysis — chills the free speech that is central to the University’s mission.”
The national office of the AAUP issued a statement on behalf of its chapters at UNC System campuses that read in part: “American universities have long been engaged with the institutions of the wider society, to their mutual benefit. To be true to their mission public universities must serve all members of our society, the poor as well as the privileged. Externally funded centers must be free to sponsor curricular and extracurricular programs and provide services to the public across the broadest range of perspectives and approaches.”
And Nichol, the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor and former dean of the law school, shared his opinion with the recommendation to close the center in an editorial in The N&O that also evoked the speaker ban issue. He called poverty the state’s “greatest challenge,” adding that “18 percent of us live in wrenching poverty. … We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates.
“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.”