One can say this about UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gene Nichol without fear of contradiction: He doesn’t seem to know when to keep his mouth shut or his keyboard quiet.
Good for him!
Throughout his years in North Carolina, Nichol from his law professor’s perch has been a pugnacious crusader on behalf of the state’s social and economic underdogs.
And when it comes to criticizing the governmental chiefs whose conservative policies have hurt those underdogs’ interests, Nichol hasn’t been shy about calling them out – even when it became obvious that the chiefs wouldn’t let such truth-telling go unpunished.
That was the plain-as-day motive for the Republican-led General Assembly’s directive to the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors that now has brought Nichol even more prominence on the public stage.
Legislators told the board to examine scholarly centers and institutes throughout the university system, with an eye toward determining which ones should be shut down. (The legislature holds a powerful sway over the board, enforced via both budgets and appointments – a formula that can readily be abused.)
A group of board members scrutinized 240 of those centers and institutes housed on the 16 UNC campuses. Lo and behold, the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity headed by Nichol was recommended for closure. That fate befell only two other organizations – the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central. Call it collateral damage.
The poverty center has been in bad odor among Republicans since its founding in 2005, while Nichol was serving as UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school dean. The center’s first director was former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, at that point fresh off his 2004 defeat as the Democratic candidate for vice president.
It was a decent fit for UNC law alumnus Edwards, but conservatives were rankled by what looked to be the university’s collaboration during what became the run-up to his populist 2008 presidential campaign. Edwards left the center in late 2006 as the campaign gathered steam. Of his subsequent downfall . . . that’s another story.
Nichol, meanwhile, was named president of the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where he’d previously been on the law faculty. But after riling conservatives amid campus disputes over speech and religion, he quit and returned to Chapel Hill. In the fall of 2008, he took the reins at the poverty center. He also resumed a stream of op-ed submissions to The News & Observer in Raleigh, where as editorial page editor I was in charge of the opinion section.
Justice and rights
Nichol was writing and speaking on a broad front about North Carolina’s various social justice challenges and other matters touching on his specialty of constitutional law. His work with the poverty center was recognized as representing stellar public service. The Council of Churches showed its appreciation by presenting him, in the spring of 2013, with its Faith Active in Public Life award.
In hindsight, we can see that 2013 was when Nichol, the irresistible force, met an immovable object, the legislature. A grand collision was bound to occur.
That was the year after my retirement from The N&O. So I can’t claim any credit for the paper’s decision to feature a series of monthly op-ed articles from Nichol that illuminated the scourge of poverty in our state.
It also happened to be the year when the Republican Party, coming off election victories in 2012, claimed the governorship while also increasing its margins of control in the House and Senate. Across a wide spectrum of issues, policies tilted hard toward the right.
Progressives noticed – and the state chapter of the NAACP began the demonstrations at the Legislative Building that would become known as Moral Mondays.
The legislature, with Gov. Pat McCrory along for the ride, slashed unemployment benefits even while the state and its thousands of jobless workers were struggling with the Great Recession’s lingering damage.
Expansion of the Medicaid program to cover upwards of 300,000 low-income adults was rejected out of Republican hostility to President Obama’s health care reforms.
The state’s personal income tax was flattened, so that the poor must pay at the same rate as the rich, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, that had cut people at the bottom of the income ladder some slack, was scrapped. There was an unmistakable sense among the legislature’s conservative leaders that the poor were poor mainly because of their own irresponsibility and lack of effort.
Against that backdrop, Nichol via his pieces let N&O readers accompany him and other anti-poverty advocates on a statewide tour to examine the scope and scale of poverty at the grass roots.
What they found was sobering, if not shocking, and their observations were backed up by the cold data of joblessness, homelessness and hunger. In his capstone piece for The N&O series, published on Dec. 28, 2013, Nichol reflected on their findings:
“Over 1 in 4 of our children is poor – 41 percent of our children of color. Think on that. Over 4 in 10 of our babies, our middle-schoolers, our teenagers of color are constrained by the intense challenges of poverty. …
“Two million of us are classified by the federal government as hungry – over 20 percent, the nation’s fifth-highest rate. Nearly 622,000 of our kids don’t get enough to eat. Greensboro is the country’s second-hungriest city; Asheville is ninth. …
“A national report last month named Roanoke Rapids and Lumberton two of the three poorest cities in the nation. Robeson County has America’s third-highest food stamp participation rate. …
“As economic engines rev across parts of Charlotte and Durham, isolated neighborhoods experience mushrooming, and terrifying, child poverty rates – sometimes exceeding 80 percent. And families scramble to exist, almost unseen even to their neighbors, without access to electricity, sewer and clean water.”
Assigning fault isn’t a question of who created these appalling conditions. It’s a question of who hasn’t done enough to overcome them. Pointing at top legislators, Nichol named names. And he asked, “How can one be governor of the state with the second-highest percentage of hungry babies and never mention it?”
The Board of Governors committee that now calls for abolishing the poverty center may have done its perceived bidding. The full board, however, would do well to acknowledge the reality that Gene Nichol as a tenured law professor won’t easily be silenced. The board’s wise play would be to show some healthy independence from legislative pressure and to extend the center’s lease on life, in full recognition of how it helps the university system carry out its public service mission.