It’s easy to imagine what the conservative Republicans who rule North Carolina’s legislative roost were thinking: “Here we’ve gone to all the trouble to take control of the General Assembly. We appoint the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors. We set the system’s budget.
“So why should we have to put up with the jibes of an impudent Democrat law professor who uses his university job to accuse us of ignoring poverty? What do he and his liberal pals know about putting more money in poor people’s pockets? They don’t even understand that tax cuts are the way to boost the economy.
“We may not be able to shut this guy up completely, but we’re counting on our minions on the Board of Governors to knock him down to size. After all, we didn’t put those folks on the board just because we liked their looks!”
There’s no telling what sort of signals Republican legislators may actually have sent to board members regarding the fate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gene Nichol and the anti-poverty center he has headed since 2008.
But after a months-long evaluation of 240 scholarly centers and institutes across the UNC system – an evaluation ordered up by those same legislators – a grand total of three flunked the test. Nobody could have been the least bit surprised that among the trio hit with an administrative death sentence was Nichol’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
That organization must close by Sept. 1, as must NC Central University’s Center for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity. Of course, if there hadn’t been such an obvious desire to whack the poverty center, the other two might have avoided being dragged down with it. But with their emphasis on social justice issues and environmental protection, they proved to be expedient targets as well.
To those of us who think that promoting civic engagement in pursuit of social justice and encouraging the study of the effects of climate change and other environmental threats are good things, zapping those two centers rubs salt in an already painful wound.
Certainly, it reflects conservative animosity toward agendas that are commonly assigned a liberal label – even if encouraging people to vote and following the paths of science where they lead are activities that should appeal across ideological lines.
The common denominator here is a stifling of academic efforts that run afoul of conservative orthodoxy and Republican political convenience. That’s a blow to academic freedom, almost by definition. It risks tarnishing one of North Carolina’s most precious assets, its nationally renowned system of public higher education. No wonder there’s been an outcry up and down that system’s ranks – from faculty, students, administrators.
There’s no getting around the fact that the poverty center, for all of Nichol’s important efforts to rouse North Carolinians to the scale and consequences of poverty in their midst, has operated with a certain Democratic flavor.
Nichol himself, during an earlier phase of his career in Colorado, ran in Democratic primaries for the US Senate and House, losing both times. Fast-forward to 2005, when as UNC’s law school dean he helped recruit former US Sen. John Edwards as the center’s first, part-time director. The center thus gave Edwards, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2004, a temporary base of operations as he geared up for what became his failed populist bid for the party’s presidential nomination in 2008. Republicans were not amused.
After Nichol was named to the director’s job, he became a thorn in the side of state leaders who he insisted were not doing enough to fight the poverty that plagued North Carolina’s inner cities, struggling small towns and rural outback. Democrats weren’t spared from his barbs, but the Republicans who took over the legislature in 2010 really felt the heat.
Their patience might well have snapped during 2013, when the Moral Monday protests led by the NAACP focused national attention on the state’s rightward lurch. Nichol and the NC NAACP chapter under the Rev. William Barber had teamed to explore and expose the poverty problem, with Nichol contributing a series of op-ed articles that ran in The News & Observer.
Although Nichol was justifiably proud of those articles – listing them as among the poverty center’s accomplishments in his attempt to convince the Board of Governors to keep the center alive – his message was clear: Republican leaders, including Gov. Pat McCrory, were doing nothing of substance to alleviate the poverty in which many thousands of North Carolinians were ensnared, and indeed were making matters worse.
In a separate piece, Nichol went so far as to compare McCrory to old-line segregationist figures such as George Wallace and Lester Maddox after the governor signed a bill making it harder for some people, especially the poor, to vote. Perhaps that was the last straw.
Still, Nichol’s outspokenness was not among the reasons cited by the Board of Governors committee in recommending that the poverty center be closed.
Free market solutions?
The committee noted that UNC-Chapel Hill “is working on other, multi-disciplinary poverty efforts” – as if that would eliminate the value of a center focused solely on examining poverty’s reach, causes and remedies.
Perhaps it was fair for the panel to question the poverty center’s tie to the law school as opposed to, say, the university’s School of Social Work or Department of Public Policy – although a fair response would be that it was a law professor who figured out how to make the concept work and secured outside funding to run it.
But the most telling critique was that the center “did not provide a wide-range (sic) of alternatives for addressing poverty.”
In other words, the center didn’t favor tax cuts to help the “job creators” of whom Republicans are so solicitous.
It didn’t favor cutting back on unemployment benefits so that people would be even more desperate to find work that often simply isn’t there.
It didn’t favor blaming poor people for their own predicament.
Among the steps the poverty center has conspicuously, and properly, favored is a robust investment in public education – the kind of investment that’s made even more difficult by the legislature’s fixation on lower taxes. Nichol – recipient of the Council of Churches’ Faith Active in Public Life award – has written forcefully for the Council about education’s power as an anti-poverty antidote.
Now the Board of Governors, in cracking down on three university centers whose agendas challenge Republican dogma, moves to enforce a needlessly constricted view of how public universities can serve the people in whose name they operate.
Even when the affected personnel such as Nichol hold tenured posts and thus have a degree of job protection if they continue to speak out – as Nichol says he intends to do – the board’s action hampers work that’s entirely consistent with the mission of a public university system.
That’s especially so in the case of the UNC system, which over the decades has spearheaded so much of North Carolina’s social and economic progress. All those who want that progress to continue – and to be shared by our neighbors who still find themselves on the outside of the prosperity window, looking in – should be sad to see the universities’ legacy of activism in behalf of positive social change now being eroded.