To be fair, the UNC Board of Governors’ decision to close three research centers with fiercely progressive mandates was a political hit job.
What else could one conclude after a review of all 240 of the university system’s boards and institutes targeted only those groups that have been a burr in the GOP saddle? How convenient that the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, which is run by sulfurous GOP critic Gene Nichol, was one of the few that didn’t pass muster.
Board Chairman John Fennebresque claimed in a recent N&O op-ed that the poverty center was closed because it “was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty.” Appreciable is in the eye of the beholder, but no one should expect a think tank to solve a problem. Its mission is to provide information and recommendations that might influence how the public and elected officials think about an issue. Through his columns for this newspaper alone, Nichol has certainly brought attention to North Carolina’s relatively high poverty rate.
In politics, perception is 9/10ths of reality and, even if we assume the BOG was moved by high-minded motives, the picture is clouded by acrid political smoke.
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Ironically, the board’s decision confirms a central conservative concern about political power: that it is easily abused and too often used to reward friends and punish enemies. This is why government’s reach should be limited.
To be fair, claims that the closings are a brazen attack by right-wing censors is hyperbolic grandstanding. Board members knew their actions were toothless. They knew Nichol would continue to be a tenured professor at the UNC law school, ensuring his academic freedom. They knew he would continue to write for The N&O, which provides a platform for his unfettered free speech. And they probably anticipated Nichol’s announcement that “an impressive array of foundations and private donors has stepped forward to assure that the work of the center, if not the center itself, will continue and markedly expand.”
That last point also demonstrates the beauty of the free market. If you offer something people want, they will support it. It is especially sweet when those backers have it by the bagful. It also reminds us that the UNC system is a state-run institution that, for good and ill, is largely insulated from the democratic process.
To be fair, critics of the board’s decision ought to get off their high horse
about the mighty principles at play. The poverty center has always been a political animal, with tiger claws and donkey brains. It was created in 2005 to bolster the candidacy of former Democratic Sen. John Edwards, who made poverty a centerpiece of his failed White House bid in 2008. Imagine the uproar from the left if a GOP-dominated board helped Sen. Thom Tillis or, better yet, Art Pope build a Center for Freedom with UNC’s imprimatur.
Although the center claims to be “nonpartisan,” Nichol has forthrightly trumpeted his allegiance to the Democratic Party. “I’ve been in mourning since the election,” he wrote in November, in response to the GOP’s latest electoral sweep, describing Republicans as a “horror,” a “brutal” group of bullies that has unleashed a “tide of cruelty.” Those statements are many things, but nonpartisan is not one of them.
To be fair, the board’s decision has received wall-to-wall coverage in the mainstream media because it is seen as an attack on the progressive beliefs, values and assumptions that are the Nicene Creed of America’s intelligentsia. When the dean of the UNC law school, Jack Boger, said UNC’s core mission is “to be a catalyst for change,” he meant transformation in line with liberal orthodoxy.
The progressive elite would betray itself if it acted otherwise. That orthodoxy reflects honestly held views from study and reflection.
To be fair, academia also has powerful mechanisms to reinforce its values. Students and professors who accept perceived wisdom are rewarded far more than those who question it. This can be problematic. Like journalists who compromise their chief value of objectivity to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” academics jeopardize their highest principle of open and free inquiry when they sacrifice diversity of thought on the altar of political correctness. They become secular priests who may ask many questions but always come to the same answer.
To be fair, politics was behind the closing of the thoroughly political center. It is wrong, but not surprising. It is not a betrayal but an expression of the political process. If we are to learn something more from this episode, we should also consider whether our universities are free and independent in every sense of those words.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.