Poverty Center one of three groups on UNC Board of Governors’ chopping block (Updated with Gene Nichol’s response)

Scroll down to read UNC law professor Gene Nichol’s response to the expected closure of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. For a fuller account of Wednesday’s meeting, click here.

A committee for the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors issued a much-anticipated draft report on centers and institutes Wednesday, recommending that three centers on university campuses be shut down in the near future.

The report also recommends tightening existing university system policies banning political participation and limiting advocacy work.

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

Among the three recommended for closure was the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. The others included the N.C. Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University, which may be merged into a department, and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University. Winston-Salem State University’s Center for Community Safety could also face closure if it doesn’t find new funding within the next six months.

The poverty center, which was started by former Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards, receives no direct state funding.

Its director, tenured law professor Gene Nichol, has rankled some Republican state leaders and conservative groups in recent years by penning editorials decrying how state policies are failing impoverished North Carolina. (Note: Nichol is a past board member of the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is part of. He had no role in the reporting or writing of this piece.)

“The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center,” Nichol wrote in an editorial published on the News & Observer’s website after Wednesday’s committee meeting. “This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution.

“It’s also mildly ironic that the university now abolishes the center for the same work that led it to give me the Thomas Jefferson Award a year ago,” he wrote.

As a tenured law professor, Nichol will continue to be employed by the university. He was not at Wednesday’s meeting.

Wednesday’s draft report can be read here.

The review of centers and institutes across the UNC system was triggered by the Republican-led state legislature, which included an item in last summer’s budget requiring the UNC system to examine the centers, and make up to $15 million in cuts. The months-long review began with 237 centers, and the draft report made public Wednesday recommends action at 16 groups, while campuses moved to shut down eight others. A group of nine centers related to the marine sciences are expected to be examined at a later date.

The total dollars expected to be saved with the recommended closure was not available, but are likely to be a fraction of the up to $15 million in cuts authorized by the legislature.

The full UNC Board of Governors will vote at their meeting next week on the UNC-Charlotte campuses whether to adopt today’s recommendations. The current board of governors have all been appointed by a Republican-led state legislature, and attracted attention for its sudden decision last month to fire UNC President Tom Ross and look for a new leader of the 17-campus higher education system.

Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s nearly two hour meeting focused on the UNC Center for Civil Rights, a group within the law school on Chapel Hill’s campus that works with students and engages in litigation around the state. The draft report recommended that UNC-Chapel Hill review the civil rights center in the next year, and “define center policies around advocacy and conform with applicable university regulations.”

UNC Board of Governor member Jim Holmes speaks Weds. with UNC Center for Civil Rights' director Ted Shaw and other staff

UNC Board of Governor member Jim Holmes speaks Weds. with UNC Center for Civil Rights’ director Ted Shaw and other staff

Steven Long, a conservative member of the board of governors, spoke out Wednesday against the civil rights center, saying he thought it engaged in partisan politics, advocated for a narrow point of view and routinely sued the state.

“It’s really not an academic center at all; it’s an advocacy organization,” Long said, during lengthy remarks he gave Wednesday.

Long, a Raleigh attorney who was a board member for the conservative Civitas Institute until 2013, made reference to a federal desegregation lawsuit the center’s lawyers, who represented a group of African-American parents, filed against Pitt County.

“Why is UNC-Chapel Hill suing Pitt County, when we’re here to serve the state and not sue the state?,” Long said.

Mark Dorosin, an attorney at the civil rights center, spoke up during the committee hearing, and told members much of Long’s information was incorrect. A police officer approached Dorosin to escort him out of the public meeting, but he was permitted to stay.

Two other UNC Board of Governors members who participated in the meeting over the phone echoed some of Long’s concerns about centers engaged in litigation against government agencies, while committee chairman Jim Holmes said he respected and admired the work being done at the civil rights center.

Holmes said he hopes members from the UNC Board of Governors and the civil rights center are able to meet in the future to discuss issues brought up by Long.

Check back with N.C. Policy Watch tomorrow, for a lengthier report about the UNC Board of Governors’ recommendations.

This post has been updated from the original to reflect a correction. Gene Nichol served on the N.C. Justice Center board through 2014, the original post indicated he was still a board member.

Here’s the full text of Nichol’s response to today’s recommendations:

Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, eighteen percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re 9th, speeding past the competition. Greensboro is America’s second hungriest city. Asheville’s ninth. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. Over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country’s steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this commonwealth. Even if our leaders never discuss it.

And, astonishing as they are, these bloodless statistics don’t fully reveal the crush of economic hardship. That resides more brutally in the terror and despondency of the 150 or more homeless Tar Heels living in the woods and under the bridges of Hickory; or in the 1100 wounded souls waiting in line, most all night long, outside the Fayetteville civic center, desperate for free dental care; or in the quivering voice of the Winston-Salem father who describes deciding which of his children will eat today, and which, only, tomorrow; or in the daughter from Wilson fretting for her 62 year old father with heart disease who can’t see a doctor unless he scrapes together the $400 he owes and has no prospects for.

Some believe such urgencies are beyond the focus of a great public university. Bill Friday wasn’t among them. An active and engaged Poverty Center board member, from its founding until the last days of his life, President Friday felt it crucial “to turn UNC’s mighty engine loose on the lacerating issue of poverty.” He constantly challenged our students: “A million poor North Carolinians pay taxes to subsidize your education. What are you going to do to pay them back?”

I’ve been blessed with a long and varied academic career. But none of my efforts has approached the extraordinary honor of working, side by side, with North Carolina low-income communities and the dedicated advocates and providers who serve them. Together, we have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice. No doubt those messages are uncongenial to the Governor and General Assembly. But poverty is the enemy, not the Poverty Center.

I have been repeatedly informed, even officially, that my articles 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. It’s also mildly ironic that the University now abolishes the Center for the same work that led it to give me the Thomas Jefferson Award a year ago.

The Poverty Center runs on an annual budget of about $120,000. None comes from the state. Grant funding has been secured through 2016. These private dollars will now be returned. UNC will have fewer resources, not more. Two terrific young lawyers will lose their jobs. Student education, employment and publication opportunities will be constricted. Most importantly, North Carolina’s understanding of the challenges of poverty will be weakened. These are significant costs to pay for politicians’ thin skin.

Personally, I’m honored to be singled out for retribution by these agents of wealth, privilege and exclusion.  I remain a tenured law professor. When the Poverty Center is abolished, I’ll have more time to write, to speak, and to protest North Carolina’s burgeoning war on poor people. I’ll use it.

Fifty years ago, Chancellor William Aycock testified against the Speaker Ban Law, saying if UNC bowed to such “external pressures,” as it does today, it would “forfeit its claim to be a university.” He noted: “our legislators do not look with favor on persons, especially teachers, who express views different than their own.” But no public official can be “afforded such immunity”. Leaders “freely extol the supposed benefits of their programs, but object to their harmful effects being called to the attention of the citizenry…. The right to think as one wills and to speak as one thinks are requisite to a free society. They are indispensable to education.”

 

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