A University of North Carolina Board of Governors panel has recommended the elimination of three university centers, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, whose director has been an outspoken critic of the Republican political leadership.
At a meeting Wednesday in Chapel Hill, a board group that has worked for months discussed its recommendations. Student protesters sat by with signs painted with slogans such as, “These centers are worth more than money.”
At times, the debate became intense. Students and others spoke out at the meeting to challenge members of the board, prompting police officers to threaten the speakers’ removal.
Late last year, the panel started by reviewing all 240 centers and institutes that conduct research, service or policy analysis across the UNC system. The legislature had directed the university to consider redirecting $15 million from centers to core university activities.
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Most centers emerged from the panel’s review unscathed. Eight were discontinued by their campuses voluntarily. Another 13 will undergo further study by their individual campuses in the next six months to a year, according to the recommendation.
But three were targeted for elimination. Besides the poverty center, the panel wants to end East Carolina’s Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.
The panel’s chairman, Jim Holmes, called the review a thorough and legitimate exercise that resulted in less than 1 percent of centers being recommended for closure.
The poverty center’s director, Gene Nichol, a law professor and outspoken liberal, has written opinion pieces in The News & Observer that have been critical of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislative leadership. Chapel Hill campus leaders required Nichol to include a disclaimer in his writings, indicating he doesn’t speak for the university.
On Wednesday, Nichol said in a statement that the issue is North Carolina’s greatest challenge, with 18 percent of the state’s population living in poverty.
“The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center,” Nichol wrote. “This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution.”
Holmes said the recommendation to eliminate the center had nothing to do with academic freedom or the importance of studying poverty. He pointed out that the Chapel Hill campus has many projects aimed at poverty and has launched a multidisciplinary effort on the issue.
“There’s not one person on this board that doesn’t believe poverty doesn’t need to be addressed in the state,” Holmes said. “The university should be focused on that. We’re absolutely committed to it. This is not a commentary on poverty proper.”
At times, Wednesday’s debate turned ideological. Board member Steve Long, who has served on the board of the conservative Civitas Institute, took aim at the Center for Civil Rights at Chapel Hill’s campus. The center was recommended for a 12-month review by the campus.
“We have 240 centers at the university, with only one that engages in litigation, and that’s this one,” he said, adding: “It engages in political activity and political bias.”
He said only Democrats were invited to a center conference on redistricting. “It’s really not an academic center at all,” Long said. “It’s an advocacy organization.”
Others chimed in and said it was inappropriate for the center to engage in lawsuits against other academic entities. The center has filed a brief in North Carolina’s school voucher lawsuit and other education lawsuits.
Not about money
The poverty center, originally linked to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, does not received state funding. Nichol receives a state salary as a faculty member in the law school.
Holmes reiterated that the overall review was not about money. He said he did not have a firm dollar amount of what could be saved by closing three centers.
The panel suggested that all centers with the ability to raise private money be urged to do so. In one case, the Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University, is recommended for a review and an intensive effort to secure private funding for its operations.
In at least one case, a review may actually result in additional funding. Panel members said they wanted a quick review of the Carolina Women’s Center at Chapel Hill, which provides counseling to sexual assault victims, to determine what level of revenue is necessary to meet the need.