A group of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors has moved to complete a mission that was about as secret as the sunrise. First, a massive review of all the centers in the UNC system was announced. Let's have a look, they said. No harm in that. Let's make sure they're fulfilling their stated missions.
Many such centers, of course, not only are funded by outside money but also bring in funding to their universities. Some, such as the Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State University, have brought the nation's most distinguished scientists and thinkers together. Others seek medical and other scientific breakthroughs.
And one, UNC-Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, raises consciousness about poverty in North Carolina and offers ways to deal with it. The director of that center, law Professor Gene Nichol, has become a well-regarded authority on poverty and has written regularly on the subject for The News & Observer.
But on Wednesday, a Board of Governors panel finally revealed the worst-kept secret in the political world: a recommendation that the poverty center, where the late UNC President Emeritus William Friday was a board member, be closed. (Two other less high-profile centers also were recommended for extinction.)
The reason, no matter what is stated along the way, is that Nichol was an outspoken critic of the Republican-led General Assembly, and that body now appoints the members of the UNC Board of Governors. The BOG recently forced out system President Tom Ross for no clear stated reason. The unstated one is that he has been too long associated with Democrats.
That maneuver has caused the university system embarrassment. The closing of the poverty center, which is almost certain after this recommendation, will do the same.
This is bigger than one center. It represents an attempt on the part of Republicans to silence dissent in the very place where it is supposed to be welcomed, if not encouraged: a university campus. Suspicions rightly rise as to what's next: Will chancellors be subject to a review of their political leanings? Will all who differ with the GOP's right-wingers on Jones Street be summarily ousted? Will there be another Speaker Ban law that allows lawmakers to dictate to whom students may listen on their campus?
This is nothing short of an outrage and an infringement on free speech and free thought for which universities stand.
Frank Porter Graham, the late UNC president who dared to speak out on civil rights at a time when his views cost him a seat in the U.S. Senate to which he had been appointed, was frequently a target of conservatives. He was, however, a man with a powerful voice fueled by passion and intelligence. And though he might have been repudiated in politics in North Carolina, he became a mediator with the United Nations and today is regarded as one of the state's great leaders of the 20th century.
How will the Republicans who are trying to silence Gene Nichol be regarded? How would they write their legacy?
"We shut down those who disagreed with us."
"We had some free-thinkers in Chapel Hill who tried to speak out, but we fired them."
"We were so scared of dissenters that we abandoned the principles of free speech."
Nichol, who'll remain a tenured law professor - although his critics will probably try to get that, too - had an appropriately passionate response to this action. Noting that Friday was an early advocate of the fight against poverty, Nichol wrote in part:
"President Friday felt it crucial 'to turn UNC's mighty engine loose on the lacerating issue of poverty.' He constantly challenged our students: 'A million poor North Carolinians pay taxes to subsidize your education. What are you going to do to pay them back?' "
Now we know how the Republican Board of Governors pays people back. How important they must feel. They've abandoned the Graham legacy, the Friday legacy and the university's legacy, all at once. They've sent the message that they don't care about poverty - and free speech.
Their legacy can be summed up in one word: shame.