Gene Nichol’s new poverty fund at UNC generates same controversy

A new fund that supports research on poverty through UNC’s law school has stirred more controversy around Gene Nichol, the outspoken professor who says he was targeted this year by the shutdown of a previous UNC poverty center.

The UNC system’s Board of Governors acted in February to abolish three centers across the state, including UNC’s privately funded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Nichol, a well-known liberal who has been publicly critical of the state’s Republican leaders, was the center’s director.

At the time of that decision, Nichol said his work on poverty would continue through private donations to a law school fund.

The center closed June 30. Within days, Nichol had launched a website for the N.C. Poverty Research Fund. In a letter on the site, the professor wrote that the fund’s purpose was to carry forward the center’s efforts “to explore, document, research and publish about the immense challenges of economic hardship in North Carolina.”

Conservative critics say the new fund is merely a reconstitution of the center – a move that circumvents the board’s action.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jay Schalin wrote that the action to create a fund shows contempt for the board, the legislature and the taxpayers, and “also may be illegal.” He called on the board to dismantle the new effort.

“The mere change of names from Center to Fund does not make the academic unit any less a center,” Schalin wrote. “The name change instead appears to be an attempt to defraud – if so, Nichol and others involved should be sent packing.”

But a UNC-Chapel Hill spokesman said Thursday that funds and centers are structured and governed differently.

Rick White, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said the fund is part of the UNC Law Foundation, a charitable organization run by a board composed of the law school dean and alumni. He said any professor can propose research projects to the foundation.

“A faculty member does not have discretion to say, ‘OK, I’m going to use these funds,’” White said. “They have to make a request to the foundation; it has to be granted, and it has to be used the way the foundation says to use these monies.”

White added that unlike the center, which provided a stipend to Nichol as director, the fund would not provide additional compensation to a faculty member. The money could be used for administrative expenses and perhaps stipends to research assistants, he said.

Donors to the previous center indicated a desire to see research on poverty continue, White said, so the fund was created through the foundation. Others schools and departments have such foundation funds that support research and other activities.

There didn’t appear to be any movement by the UNC board to stop the new poverty fund.

Not in board’s purview

John Fennebresque, a Charlotte lawyer who is chairman of the board, said Thursday, “Assuming all the channels have been checked in terms of establishing this foundation with an independent board, I hope it’s very successful.”

He said he had confidence in the new law dean, Martin Brinkley, and in UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.

“The center has been closed,” Fennebresque said. “I understand that Professor Nichol is back in the classroom teaching a full load. His research interests and private funds that support them are not within the purview of the Board of Governors.”

Nichol was on vacation this week and declined to be interviewed. But in an email, he said the work had already begun. He and an associate, plus a half dozen students, are working on detailed portraits of the challenges of poverty, focusing on Charlotte, Salisbury, Greensboro, Asheville, Roper, Lumberton and Goldsboro. Reports will be published throughout the year, he said.

He said he didn’t have a dollar total for the fund because donations are still coming in. But he said the fund, started by former dean Jack Boger, will have more financial support than the poverty center, which had a budget of about $120,000 a year.

In response to the Pope Center’s critique, Nichol wrote: “It is not yet illegal for a faculty member to do research on poverty in North Carolina. Beyond that, I won’t comment on claims from yet one more ridiculous ass at the (John) Locke outfit. If I answered them all, it’d be a full time job. Maybe that’s the point. It’s remarkable how much energy, time and money this crowd will spend trying to shut up one person. I’m honored I guess.”

The Republican-dominated UNC board forced the center to close, saying its work did not require that type of structure. At the time, faculty decried the action, saying the system board had hurt the cause of academic freedom and had intruded on a campus matter.

The center has been a lightning rod since its creation in 2005 and its affiliation with former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, after his failed run as a Democratic vice presidential candidate. Critics have described it as a political organization under UNC’s banner, not an academic entity.

Nichol has written regular commentary about poverty for The News & Observer’s editorial page, in which he criticized Republican-led legislation and the policies of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

‘Address societal problems’

The website of the new fund said it would support a publication called “Poverty and Public Policy in North Carolina,” which would explore “the impact of various North Carolina legislative, executive and judicial decisions on the state’s lowest income residents.”

White, the UNC spokesman, said the fund would be like any other that directs money to researchers.

“One of the things we do very well is address societal problems and do research on the causes and solutions to problems that vex us every day,” he said. “Poverty is one of those. No one that I have seen has argued that poverty is not an issue for us.”

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Twitter: @janestancill