The targeting of an outspoken law professor by a University of North Carolina Board of Governors committee is only the latest example of powerful interests trying to smother voices of conscience.
Gene Nichol incurred the wrath of the Republicans with his criticisms of GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature’s rightward turn of state government. Last week, the Republicans showed him who was boss, when a Republican-controlled UNC board committee recommended abolishing the UNC-Chapel Hill Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity that Nichol heads.
Nichol is not the first professor to suffer for being politically incorrect with the Raleigh establishment.
Take the case of John Spencer Bassett, a well-respected historian at Duke University (then known as Trinity College) who had the audacity to write in a 1903 article, “Stirring Up The Fires of Racial Antipathy,” that black educator “Booker T. Washington (is) the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years.”
Bassett’s comments deeply offended the newly installed, segregationist Democratic establishment in Raleigh. Josephus Daniels, the editor of The News and Observer and a power in Democratic politics, led an effort to get “Professor bASSett,” as he referred to him in print, fired as a threat to the accepted “southern way of life.” Many demanded that Bassett be fired and urged that parents withdraw their children from Duke.
Bassett offered his resignation, but the Duke board voted 18-7 not to accept it.
In 1905, a visiting Republican President Teddy Roosevelt praised school leaders for standing up to political pressure.
“You stand for academic freedom, for the right of private judgment, for a duty more incumbent upon the scholar than upon any other man, to tell the truth as he sees it, to claim for himself and to give others the largest liberty in seeking the truth,” Roosevelt said.
Graham: Take me first
When a UNC English professor, E.E. Ericson, dined at a Durham hotel that catered to blacks with James W. Ford, a black candidate for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1936, UNC President Frank Porter Graham blocked an effort by trustees to fire Ericson. “If Professor Ericson has to go on the charge of eating with another human being, then I will have to go first,” Graham told the trustees.
This was in keeping with Graham’s inaugural address in 1931, in which he included social activism as part of his definition of academic freedom.
Graham was probably UNC’s most famous president and did much to set the tone for the South’s leading public university.
He said university freedom “means the freedom for consideration of the plight of the unorganized and inarticulate peoples in an unorganized world in which powerful combinations and high-pressure lobbies work their special will on general life. In the university should be found the free voice not only for the unvoiced millions but also for the unpopular and even hated minorities.”
Ban on communists
On the closing day of the 1963 legislative session, Democrats introduced and passed – in a single day without any debate – a bill banning communists from speaking on state-supported campuses. The ban resulted from anger over civil rights sit-ins at the lawmakers’ hotel. It was the only such ban in the country. Some lawmakers were particularly offended that faculty members were involved in the demonstrations with the only possible explanations that they were communists.
The ban, which threatened UNC’s accreditation, was later found to be unconstitutional by the federal courts in 1968. It not only banned communists, but people such as playwright Arthur Miller, who had refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The effort underway by the UNC Board of Governors to abolish UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity comes after the Republican-controlled legislature directed the board it appointed to cut $15 million from the various UNC centers.
The board members would have to be a quart low of oil not to understand that their job was to go after Nichol’s center. Defenders argue that even if the center is shut down, Nichol still will be a tenured law school faculty member and he would be able to speak out. But the action would be the political equivalent of putting a bloody horse’s head in Nichol’s bed in the middle of the night.
There is plenty of evidence that the Republicans have been seeking to intimidate Nichol.
Among the UNC board members who have had the sharpest knives out for Nichol has been Steve Long, a Raleigh attorney who was formerly on the board of the Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based advocacy group.
A week after Nichol wrote a very tough – in my opinion unduly harsh – column in The News & Observer about McCrory in October 2013, Civitas hit UNC with a public records request to see all of Nichol’s emails, calendar entries, phone logs and text messages, gaining access to 1,180 pages of information. The organization also published his salary and that of his wife, who is chief of staff of UNC Health Care System.
Nor have Republicans and their allies been averse to using other tactics against government critics.
It was the Civitas Institute that posted on its website the mugshots of those arrested last year during the “Moral Monday” protests against Republican policies, in a transparent effort to embarrass them.
Given the context, at the very least, it raises serious questions about why the UNC board committee is after the poverty center.
The full UNC board votes Feb. 27 on the center. Whatever it does, it will likely be remembered along with the Bassett incident, the Ericson/Ford case and the speaker ban furor in the history of academic freedom in North Carolina. How they will be remembered is up to the board.