The Center on Poverty at UNC School of Law may have been shuttered this week, but its work will continue. That was the message Friday from former Center director Gene Nichol, announcing the opening of a new venture in the same arena.
Nichol will lead the new North Carolina Poverty Research Fund, according to a post he wrote on the Fund's website.
"The purpose of the Fund is to carry forward earlier efforts by the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity to explore, document, research, and publish about the immense challenges of economic hardship in North Carolina," Nichol wrote on the Fund's site. "Thanks to the generosity of various North Carolina foundations, and engaged and committed citizens from across the state and nation, the Fund allows us to hire student, faculty and post-doctorate scholars to assist in probing the causes of, and solutions to, economic injustice in the Tar Heel state – and to publish, extensively, the fruits of our research."
In a post on Facing South, the website of the Institute for Southern Studies, Nichol wrote, "Donors have indicated repeatedly that they are unwilling to see the crucial work of the Poverty Center driven from the halls of the university. The Fund will assure that it continues, and that it continues in Chapel Hill. Censorship has [a] poor track record. It won't prevail here either."
Nichol told WRAL News the new venture was launched July 1st. He said both individuals and foundations have contributed. He declined to say how much, since donations are still coming in, but said "The new fund will clearly have more funding than the Poverty Center did."
The shuttered Poverty Center was also wholly privately funded. Nonetheless, the Board of Governors voted in February to force the Center to close, saying it did not serve the academic mission of the university and should not be housed there.
The Center on Poverty, founded in 2005 by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards between his two presidential bids, was one of three university-based centers the Board voted to close. The others were East Carolina University's North Carolina Center for Biodiversity, and North Carolina Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. More than 200 others passed the Board's review process.
The chairman of the working group that recommended the closures denied at the time that the recommendations were politically motivated, noting that the mission of the UNC system is education and research, and the targeted centers didn't serve that mission effectively.
However, Nichol, a distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law, and a frequent and outspoken critic of the state's current Republican leaders, said at the time that the decision reeked of politics, an assessment with which former UNC law school Dean Jack Boger agreed.
Nichol said he was warned his op-ed columns criticizing Republicans for cutting unemployment benefits and changing elections laws were making lawmakers angry, and that he would be targeted if he didn't pipe down.
"[W]e have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice," Nichol wrote Friday on the Facing South blog. Those efforts, as you know, have led the UNC Board of Governors to close the Poverty Center. But poverty is the enemy in North Carolina. Not a tiny, privately-funded Poverty Center."
Asked to comment, UNC Board of Governors spokeswoman Joni Worthington responded, "The Center has been closed and Chairman Fennebresque understands that Professor Nichol is back in the classroom teaching a full load. His research interests and the private funds that support them are not within the purview of the Board of Governors."
Nichol critic Francis DeLuca, director of the conservative Civitas Foundation, responded that it "must be nice to get paid over $210,000 a year by the taxpayers of North Carolina to supposedly teach Law, yet have enough time to fund raise and run a nonprofit?
I know how much time it takes to administer a nonprofit and to fund raise and I can tell you I don't have time to do another job," DeLuca said via email. "We will never know how much state tax payers support they get to help with this nonprofit because of the lack of transparency of the law school and UNC."
Just two weeks ago, during the Senate's floor debate on its budget, Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, moved unexpectedly to strip UNC Law of $3 million of its funding in the Senate budget, giving the money to a health clinic in western NC instead.
Sen Mike Woodard, D-Durham, called it the "Gene Nichol transfer amendment," but Apodaca later denied it was politically motivated.