As nearby protesters chanted slogans about freedom and democracy, the UNC Board of Governors voted Friday to close three university-based centers as part of a sweeping review of institutes across public campuses in North Carolina.
The decision was condemned by faculty members, who called it an attack on academic freedom and a blow to the university system’s national reputation. The three centers focus on poverty, the environment and voter engagement; the leader of one of the centers, a well-known liberal, has been a vocal critic of the state’s Republican leadership. The UNC board members are almost all Republicans.
Jim Holmes, the board member who led the review, repeatedly said the process was about making the system work better. Centers singled out for closing didn’t require that structure to do their work, he said.
“We would not be doing our job if we didn’t run a fair, objective, honest process,” he said. “I can assure every person on this board that’s exactly what we did without any prejudice toward any center or institute.”
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After the unanimous vote, taken at UNC Charlotte, three campus-based centers must shut down by Sept. 1: The Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill; East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity; and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.
The board also directed further study of 13 other centers, after a five-month review of 240 centers and institutes across the UNC system.
The outcry among the state’s academics has focused on the Poverty Center in Chapel Hill. Gene Nichol, its director, writes frequent opinion columns in The News & Observer, rebuking policies of the Republican majority in Raleigh. The center was created in 2005, spearheaded by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, after his failed run as the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate.
Even though it’s closing, Nichol said he would continue to work on poverty issues as part of the UNC law school, thanks to a new fund that will be created with donations from private donors and foundations. He called the vote “a dark day for the University of North Carolina” but said the board’s “censorship efforts” had led to an outpouring of support for his work on poverty.
“We will carry forward the work of the Center within the halls of the university, but with greater flexibility and increased resources,” he said in a statement. “North Carolinians are not easily cowered. They react poorly to petty tyrants. They always have. If the Board of Governors moves to block the creation of such a research fund – a turn that is not unlikely – I will be anxious to join them in federal court.”
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, who attended Friday’s meeting, said she disagreed with the decision to close the Poverty Center. She said it’s critical to be clear that the university protects academic freedom.
“What the faculty and students, I believe, are saying is that they are very fearful that this decision is having a chilling effect on their work and diverse perspectives on the area of poverty,” she said.
Board of Governors member Hannah Gage said she felt the vote moved too far into management of individual campuses.
“We clearly have the powers to intervene at any point. The question is knowing when to use them,” she said. “Historically, we have been very judicious about when we use them.”
Later in the day at Chapel Hill, the UNC Faculty Council passed resolutions supporting the Poverty Center and the current policy stating that the management of centers is a campus decision. The council also backed a systemwide faculty group’s resolution calling on the Board of Governors to explain its rationale for forcing the early retirement of UNC President Tom Ross.
Hassan Melehy, a French professor at UNC, said the board appears to want to prohibit advocacy and political expression by faculty.
“The thing that’s most disturbing about this is how clearly it seems – circumstantial evidence suggests very, very strongly – that it’s directed against certain types of speech,” he said of the decision to abolish the Poverty Center. “There may have been some vindictiveness here.”
Friday’s vote came weeks after a Board of Governors working group released a report detailing a review of all UNC-system centers. Holmes said the panel quickly validated the vast majority of campus-based institutes.
Eight centers decided to close on their own. One center in particular – the Carolina Women’s Center at UNC-Chapel Hill – was cited as needing additional investment.
Holmes said the review gave the Board of Governors a new understanding of the work being done in centers and institutes and a greater appreciation of how important they are.
“There was nothing but following a process,” he said. “I know most people aren’t going to believe that.”
Board Chairman John Fennebresque wrote in an opinion piece that the board concluded the Poverty Center had not made “any appreciable impact on the issue.”
“We also felt the center did not enhance the educational mission of the university, did not work across disciplines to effect change, and did not have the financial support to sustain it – the same criteria used to evaluate all 240 centers,” Fennebresque wrote.
The Poverty Center receives no direct state funding and is supported by foundation grants.
Some applauded the board’s move to abolish centers. Anne Neal, president of the conservative-leaning American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said the UNC review was in keeping with a report last year by 22 civic and educational leaders who concluded that there were limits to what institutions can and should do.
“The board’s oversight should offer a model for boards across the country,” Neal said in a statement.
Loud student protests
The vote came over a chorus of boos from outside the meeting room.
As discussion began, protesters interrupted the meeting with chants. Several stood up and read statements against the board’s pending action. Fennebresque repeatedly told the protesters to sit down; a few were escorted out by police.
The meeting was then moved into a separate, smaller room, with protesters barred from entering. An audio/video feed was set up for them in another room. Board leaders said they were following state law on public meetings, but others questioned the maneuver.
Amanda Martin, general counsel to the N.C. Press Association, said the board’s move from a large room to one that didn’t accommodate the public violated the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“What’s at play here is a public body going to great lengths to exclude members of the public, and that is not permitted under the law,” she said.
Providing a video feed at another location does not live up the legal standard for a public meeting – especially in a situation in which a meeting is held in a small room for the purposes of quelling dissent, she said.
“Attendance and observation are two different things,” Martin said. “The Open Meetings Law says any person is allowed to attend.”
UNC system President Tom Ross said the decision was made because the protesters intended to put a stop to the meeting.
“The board needs to be able to conduct its business,” he said. “It was a public meeting, and it stayed a public meeting.”
Ted Shaw, director of UNC law school’s Center for Civil Rights, applauded the student protesters for their activism. The Center for Civil Rights has been slated for further review, and some board members have questioned whether it should be allowed to sue other branches of government.
“These students were magnificent,” Shaw said, “and acting within a great tradition that makes us proud.
“This is one of these defining moments about our values, and who and what we are,” Shaw told the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council. “But it’s also an opportunity. The rest of the state is watching. Higher education is watching, public and private. And we know, because we’ve seen the articles, that the nation is watching.”