Board of Governors’ review of UNC centers has clear agenda

Jim Holmes, the chair of the working group tasked with reviewing all 200-some centers and institutes in the UNC system, has said that “everyone is looking at this like there is some sort of agenda. I assure you there is not.”

But of course there is. You don’t take on herculean tasks without an agenda.

Ostensibly, the agenda comes from Section 11.1(a) of the Appropriations Act of 2014, which required the BOG to consider cutting funding at centers and institutes for cash to add to the funding of Distinguished Professorships and to the UNC Strategic Plan. (One could wonder why centers and institutes – which overall bring in $8 for every state dollar invested – were selected at all).

To accomplish the task, the BOG created a system to whittle down the 200-some centers into a more manageable number for cuts or closure. From the look of the flow charts and phase descriptions (they’re available in the board’s October meeting materials), the BOG spent a great deal of time on it.

A center could move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 if it received more than $100,000 in state funds, had a total budget of $50,000 or smaller or brought in less than double the money it received from the state. The move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 (the hearings last week) was even more complicated but relied on more questions about budgets and center activities. Centers at 16 universities in our state collected those documents at no small expense of staff energy and attention.

I know. I was being a bit obtuse about Holmes’ statement there at the beginning. He meant there was not a political agenda. But I think Holmes’ fervent and nonsensical denial and the behavior of the working group at the hearings belies, well, a political agenda. At least an agenda that was not prescribed in 11.1(a).

During the Q&A period for the Center for Civil Rights, BOG member and former board member for Civitas Steven Long asked pointed questions not about its budgets but about a perceived partisan agenda. After reviewing its website, Long criticized the center for having “no diversity of opinion” regarding civil rights. He accused the center of sponsoring HKonJ and Moral Monday (it did not). “You are an advocacy organization,” he added. “I see a point, but no counterpoint.” Maybe the Center for Civil Rights saw this coming: It was a “committee selection,” given a “Golden Ticket” to Phase 3 and to the hearings, Phases 1 and 2 (and budgets) be damned.

Similar questions were levied after the Poverty Center’s presentation. Long claimed he took the time to listen to the audio of our 2012 Poverty Summit. Listening to even half of it would be no small chore, and its undertaking makes no sense in the context of what was billed as a budgetary review. Long admits as much. “I was listening to all these materials,” Long said, “to see ‘is it presenting a different viewpoint?’ That’s the criticism I have of your center.”

Other centers were congratulated early and often for their “diverse opinions,” and some centers caught on. By the end of the hearings, center directors knew to highlight interactions with conservative people and groups for fear of cuts or closure.

The hidden agenda was the BOG’s: This was a content-review ambush hidden beneath budget qualifications and “phases.” If the BOG decides to close the Poverty Center or the Center for Civil Rights – I say “close” because cuts aren’t possible as neither of these centers receives state funding – its lines of questioning would suggest that the justification was the ex post facto application of a “diverse opinions” policy that was unheard of before last week.

The hearings were a classic bait-and-switch, a ducking of the scrutiny that (I hope) a content-based restriction on speech would ignite from folks of all political stripes.

Joseph Polich is a postdoctoral research fellow at the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He doesn’t speak for UNC.