Effort to close UNC poverty center prompts free-speech concerns

Posted February 20, 2015 7:20 p.m. EST
Updated February 20, 2015 7:32 p.m. EST

— The UNC Board of Governors is expected to vote next week on a recommendation to close three academic research centers in the University of North Carolina system.

A seven-member work group the Board of Governors tasked with reviewing the 17-campus system's 240 centers called last week for closing 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.

The poverty center in Chapel Hill was founded in 2005 by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards and is headed by Gene Nichol, an outspoken critic of state leaders.

The chairman of the working group said the panel's recommendation isn't politically motivated, noting the mission of the UNC system is education and research and the targeted centers don't serve that mission effectively.

Nichol, who also is a professor at the UNC School of Law, said the decision reeks of politics. He said he has been warned that his op-ed columns in newspapers that criticized Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders for policies such as cutting unemployment benefits and changing elections laws were making lawmakers angry and that he would be targeted if he didn't pipe down.

UNC law school Dean Jack Boger also has said the closure recommendation is clearly political retribution for Nichol's outspoken criticism of Republican leaders.

"I think politics may have spurred them on to look at these centers because, when you bring attention to yourselves, you invite people to go, 'What exactly is going on there?'" said Francis DeLuca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, which also was a target of Nichol.

DeLuca said the poverty center serves no purpose at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"It was made as a platform for John Edwards in between his run for vice president and his run for president. So, it was set up basically as a political organization within the university umbrella," he said. "It really does not have a research or an educational mission inherent in what they do. It’s an advocacy organization."

Eliminating the poverty center doesn't infringe on Nichol's right to speak out on issues, he said, dismissing comparisons to the 1963 Speakers Ban, when lawmakers barred the UNC system from inviting left-wing speakers to its campuses. The law was eventually thrown out by a federal court after students sued.

"They’re not saying that Gene Nichol or any other professor can’t continue to say anything he wants. What it’s saying is that these centers do not contribute to the education and research mission of the university," DeLuca said. "It’s as simple as that: Do they or don’t they contribute to more research, to more education, to the mission of the university?"

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said he's hard-pressed to find parallels between Nichols' center being eliminated and the Speaker Ban.

"There may be some intent behind it to restrict or stifle the debate, but no one is saying Gene Nichol can’t speak or anyone who speaks against the General Assembly or anyone else," McLennan said.

The recommendation to eliminate the three centers also includes a suggestion to explicitly prohibit staffers in any UNC academic research center from engaging in political activity while on duty, which is already banned by UNC system policy.

"The question is, are they doing political advocacy when they’re speaking out on those issues, or are they doing their own scholarly work?" McLennan said, adding that has some in academic circles concerned.

"There were legitimate purposes behind (the centers) to study issues in the state that needed studying," he said. "A lot of academics think that this is a restriction in terms of universities taking on a broader community mission, not just to teach students but to look at issues out in the community. ... The assumption is on the part of faculty there will be further restrictions coming later in terms of carving into academic freedom."

UNC-Chapel Hill students plan to rally at the state legislature on Tuesday to voice their opposition to the closure plan.