Long before Dean Smith spoke about the “Carolina Way,” earlier generations of UNC-Chapel Hill leaders had forged an understanding of what that way meant: an unfaltering faith that light and truth, pursued freely in a university setting -- lux and libertas -- would provide keys to meeting the deepest human needs.
This week, a working committee of the UNC system’s Board of Governors announced a recommendation that would set the university on a different path. It recommended that the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, housed in the UNC School of Law, be discontinued.
The recommendation rests on no clearly discernible reason beyond a desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor. Whether or not their personal views on how best to address poverty align with those of Nichol, the members of the full BOG who are set to vote on this recommendation Feb. 27 ought to ponder the tradition he represents.
President George Tayloe Winston, who led Carolina in the last decade of the 19th century, declared that “there is nothing narrow or restricted about university culture. It is as broad as life.” His successor, Edward Kidder Graham, observed that the university’s boundaries were coterminous with those of the state and, in the words of one campus history, began “to link the campus activities with good roads, public health, city and county planning, rural economics, sociology, and civic problems.”
When President Harry W. Chase brought Professor Howard W. Odum to Chapel Hill to launch a new Department of Sociology, Odum quickly created controversy by recruiting a generation of young faculty members who pioneered research on tenant farming, mill villages, the chain gang, rural illegitimacy, sharecropping and convict leasing – all social systems that had long held back poor and nonwhite North Carolinians.
Professor Odum faced bitter attacks against these studies. Yet rather than hold aloof from the controversy, President Chase shared with the public the facts Odum and his students had uncovered, braving political blowback in order to fulfill the university’s core mission to be a catalyst for change.
When a bill in the General Assembly sought to curb the teaching of evolution, Chase condemned it as an abridgment of freedom of speech. Warned that the university’s appropriations were still before the General Assembly, he shot back: “If the university doesn’t stand for anything but appropriations, I, for one, don’t care to be associated with it.” (The bill failed on a close vote.)
Following Harry Chase as president came Frank Porter Graham, who as a young faculty member had defended what he saw as the special qualities of UNC-Chapel Hill, describing it as a place where “there is always a breath of freedom in the air ... and where finally truth shining like a star bids us advance and we will not turn aside.”
Now the special committee proposes to the full BOG that it constrict this breath of freedom and turn aside from the pursuit of truth. It would order the poverty center to cease its labors – labors that have marked it as a clear successor to so many bold forebears.
The center has been supported, despite a barrage of criticism, by Chancellor Carol Folt, who in the wake of the committee’s recommendation has expressed her disappointment. She and Provost Jim Dean have promised to promote other interdisciplinary work to combat poverty. And Nichol, of course, will remain an important colleague and tenured member of the School of Law, which will support his efforts in this area going forward. For all this we can be grateful.
Yet those who love UNC-Chapel Hill – those who remember that it once led the fight against the scourges of peonage and child labor, of woefully inadequate medical care and appallingly bad public education – and those who believe that free speech and open inquiry remain indispensable tools in addressing our greatest problems cannot help but see the committee’s recommendation as a betrayal of the university’s past achievements and its future promise. The way ahead lies with the Board of Governors. May they choose wisely.
John Charles Boger is dean and Wade Edwards distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law. He does not speak for UNC.