UNC centers review sparks sharp debate

Three UNC system centers that were recommended for termination this week deal with poverty, the environment and voter empowerment – prompting concern by some faculty about whether academic freedom is alive and well in North Carolina.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s outgoing law school dean has crafted an impassioned response about a UNC Board of Governors panel’s recommended closure of the school’s poverty center and further scrutiny of its civil rights center.

Jack Boger posted on the school’s website a lengthy statement, evoking past university leaders’ defense of free academic inquiry and charging that the panel’s actions are “a betrayal of the university’s finest historical traditions and its future promise.”

He cited university stalwarts, including former Presidents Frank Porter Graham and Bill Friday, and even the late basketball coach Dean Smith, who advocated for civil rights and for the poor.

“These leaders exemplify what I’ve always understood to be the real meaning of the ‘Carolina way’: the unfaltering faith that light and truth, set free without fear or favor in a university setting, will eventually provide keys to meeting the deepest human needs,” Boger wrote.

On Wednesday, a board working group recommended the shutdown of the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, along with two others – East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.

Thirteen other centers could be slated for further campus review, and eight centers decided to close on their own. The panel began by reviewing 240 centers and institutes that conduct research and interdisciplinary academic work; the legislature had directed the board to consider redirecting $15 million from these entities to other priorities.

No significant savings

But the review did not result in significant savings. The panel’s chairman, Jim Holmes, stressed Wednesday that spending on centers is generally up to campus chancellors. Most centers will go untouched.

“We’re incredibly impressed with the value that the UNC research centers and institutes bring to the university system and to the state of North Carolina,” Holmes said.

Still, the ones chosen for closure by the Republican-dominated panel were generally identified with liberal causes – especially the poverty center, whose director, law professor Gene Nichol, has been a fierce critic of the state’s Republican leadership. He has written a regular column for The News & Observer’s opinion pages.

Nichol wrote a piece Wednesday about the center’s expected demise. He wrote that “poverty is the enemy, not the Poverty Center,” and vowed to work harder on the issue, while remaining employed as a tenured law professor. The only difference, he said, is that two recent law graduates will lose their jobs when the center’s private grants disappear.

He suggested that the panel’s entire review process was aimed at killing his center.

Some found that idea absurd. “I don’t think there’s any reasonable possibility that closing the poverty center will muzzle Gene Nichol,” said John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation, which generally funds conservative causes.

‘Outlandish’ suggestion

The board knew that, Hood said. “So the notion that they’re trying to shut him up or shut him down is outlandish.”

Hood said the board has done what governing boards are supposed to do – exercise oversight and independent judgment. The poverty center, which originated as a launching pad for a presidential bid by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, was always a target.

“The origin of the center was such that it is not illegitimate to ask what its academic function and output are,” Hood said.

Holmes said he didn’t even know who Nichol was when the process started.

“We were looking for how the poverty center fits in the academic mission of educating the next generation of lawyers in the law school, how it fits into the UNC law school mission,” he said. “That’s a struggle.”

Jarvis Hall, director of the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NCCU, said he was surprised the institute was recommended for closure.

“We don’t get any state funds, so the cost to the university and the state is really nominal,” he said. “It wasn’t clear to me why they recommended our particular institute was to be discontinued.”

The center aims to build civic capacity in young people, Hall said. It hosts an annual Constitution Day, with panel discussions on current issues. It also focuses on voter empowerment – voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives and election protection.

Hall: Center nonpartisan

Hall said the center is nonpartisan and doesn’t tell people what positions to take.

“What we advocate,” he said, “is for people to advocate.”

UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, founded by the late civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, was perhaps the most hotly debated topic this week. It was not recommended for termination, but panel members raised intense questions about the center’s ideological balance and whether it should be allowed to sue government entities.

‘A lot of red flags’

The university’s lawyers represented black parents in arguing a desegregation case against Pitt County schools in 2013. The center has worked on cases about a toxic waste dump in Brunswick County and about forced sterilization of women by the state.

“There are a lot of red flags about this center,” said panel member Steve Long. “You have a center with litigation as its focus, you have ideological bias, you have state-funded lawyers, their allies and supporters only members of one political viewpoint. The university is a place where the partisans are supposed to meet and debate in front of the public and students. It cannot do that if the university is a partisan itself.”

He and several other members suggested that the center should not be allowed to participate in lawsuits against the state or other governments. That concern was not universal. Holmes said the center has done “great work,” but he promised that talks would continue between the center and the board.

Assertions disputed

Boger, in his statement, disputed some of Long’s assertions, saying the state does not pay the salaries of center staffers.

Ted Shaw, law professor and director of the center, said its primary purpose is to train the next generation of civil rights lawyers, not to litigate. But he pointed out that government entities in North Carolina frequently sue each other: Governors have sued the legislature, and school boards have sued the state, for example.

“It’s very common, no question about it,” he said. “It begs the question: What is it about our work that raises people’s hackles? I’ll leave that for other people to go and figure out.”

Shaw arrived in North Carolina last summer from New York, where he was leader of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He also taught law at Columbia University.

He knew he had arrived at a time of political polarization in the state, he said.

“When people win elections, they have a right to implement their agendas, but when they do that in a way that either marginalizes other people or silences them or intimidates them or tries to take away their ability to participate in the political process,” he said, “that subverts democracy.”

The state’s leadership can argue that they’re not doing those things, Shaw said.

But, he added: “The optics don’t look good at the very least.”

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The full statement

Read UNC law school Dean Jack Boger’s full statement: www.law.unc.edu/news/2015/02/18/a-statement-from-dean-boger-unc-centers-/