Raleigh, N.C. — A group tasked with reviewing the University of North Carolina system's 240 research institutes has recommended review or termination for 16 of the centers, as well as a policy explicitly banning university-backed political advocacy.
In a draft report released Wednesday, the seven-member working group charged with the review "validated" 207 of the 240 centers. It also recommended the elimination of three: East Carolina University's North Carolina Center for Biodiversity, North Carolina Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The group said 13 other centers need closer review by campus officials.
Eight other centers opted to end operations on their own.
The report will go before the full Board of Governors next week.
In the last fiscal year, UNC centers and institutes received $69 million in state appropriations, down nearly 40 percent since 2008. State lawmakers last year tasked the Board of Governors to look at ways to divert funding for the centers to other UNC system programs, such as an endowment for distinguished professors.
Reached by phone Wednesday, working group chair and BOG member Jim Holmes said the board created additional criteria to evaluate centers and institutes on factors such as research output and how well they fit with the university's mission.
"We created a review process that didn't exist before," Holmes said.
Critics have pointed to the review process, which took place over about two months last fall, as an attempt by Republican lawmakers to crack down on criticism from some of the centers. For example, law professor Gene Nichol, director of the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity, has frequently condemned new General Assembly policies in guest columns for The News & Observer.
In an editorial posted on the paper's website and provided to WRAL News, Nichol decried the review process and said his center's closure was the direct result of unheeded threats to stop publishing.
"The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center," he wrote. "This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution."
He also noted that the grant-funded center received no state funding, and the return of money pledged through 2016 would leave UNC-Chapel Hill with fewer resources to address the issue of poverty.
Holmes said economics were only part of the BOG's review, and that given other efforts at UNC to address poverty, the center had issues with "academic fit."
"I struggle to see how the poverty center fits with the academic mission of the UNC law school to train the next generation of lawyers," Holmes said.
And he called accusations that closing the center was a retaliatory move "absolutely untrue."
"I didn't know who Gene Nichol was before we started this process and I was only a little familiar with the poverty center," Holmes said. "We evaluated it like any other center."
Among the group's other recommendations is a more direct prohibition against engaging in political activity while on duty, which is already banned by UNC system policy. The rewritten rules would specify that center employees are subject to this policy and, as such, would be prohibited from directing funds, equipment or "the authority of one's position" toward the success or failure of candidates, parties or political groups.
The review task force also recommended better coordination between coastal and marine centers at multiple campuses, more regular campus-level review of all research institutes and more training to ensure the nonprofit centers comply with tax rules on lobbying.