A University of North Carolina Board of Governors panel has recommended the elimination of three university centers – including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, whose director has been an outspoken critic of the state’s Republican political leadership.
At a meeting Wednesday in Chapel Hill, a group that has worked for months discussed its recommendations. Student protesters sat by with signs painted with slogans such as “Dear BOG, Why are marginalized groups a target?”
At times, the debate was intense. Students and others spoke out, challenging members of the board and prompting police officers to threaten removal of protesters.
In September of last year, the panel started by reviewing all 240 centers and institutes that conduct research, service or policy analysis across the UNC system. The legislature had directed the university to consider redirecting $15 million from centers to core university activities.
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Most centers emerged from the panel’s review unscathed. Eight were discontinued by their campuses voluntarily. Thirteen more could undergo further study by their campuses in the next six months to a year, according to the recommendation.
In addition to the poverty center, the panel wants to end East Carolina’s Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.
The panel’s chairman, Jim Holmes, called the review a thorough and worthwhile exercise that resulted in fewer than 1 percent of centers being recommended for closure.
The poverty center’s director, Gene Nichol, a law professor and outspoken liberal, has written opinion pieces in The News & Observer that have been critical of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislative leadership. Chapel Hill campus leaders required Nichol to include a disclaimer in his writings, indicating he doesn’t speak for the university.
On Wednesday, Nichol said in a statement that poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge, with 18 percent of the state’s population living in poverty.
“The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center,” Nichol wrote. “This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution.”
Holmes said the recommendation to eliminate the center had nothing to do with Nichol’s political stances or the importance of studying poverty. He pointed out that the Chapel Hill campus has many projects aimed at poverty and has launched a multidisciplinary effort on the issue.
“There’s not one person on this board that doesn’t believe poverty doesn’t need to be addressed in the state,” Holmes said. “The university should be focused on that. We’re absolutely committed to it. This is not a commentary on poverty proper.”
Another board member, Doyle Parrish, said the poverty center had failed the review on questions about its financial status, management structure and mission, though he did not give details on those factors.
Nichol said the center engages in no partisan electioneering, though its publications have criticized policies of the governor and legislature. Nichol wrote in an email: “But prohibiting university faculty from criticizing government is a core, defining violation of the First Amendment.”
The panel recommended policy revisions that would require centers to have annual reviews, comprehensive reviews every five years and adherence to the university’s standing rules that prohibit employees from engaging in political activity while on duty. In addition, the recommendation includes requiring center and institute directors to undergo annual training on IRS restrictions on political and lobbying activities by such organizations.
At times, Wednesday’s debate turned ideological. Board member Steve Long, who has served on the board of the conservative Civitas Institute, took aim at the Center for Civil Rights at Chapel Hill’s campus. The center was recommended for a 12-month review by the campus, with defined policies about advocacy.
“We have 240 centers at the university, with only one that engages in litigation, and that’s this one,” Long said, adding: “It engages in political activity and political bias.”
He said only Democrats were invited to a center conference on redistricting. “It’s really not an academic center at all,” Long said. “It’s an advocacy organization.”
Others chimed in and said it was inappropriate for the center to engage in lawsuits against other government entities. The center has filed a brief in North Carolina’s school voucher lawsuit and other education lawsuits.
Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the Center for Civil Rights, stood to counter some of the panelists’ assertions, calling them “lies and propaganda.”
A police officer approached Dorosin, who got up to leave before UNC staffers waved off the officer.
Not about money
The poverty center, originally linked to former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, does not receive state funding. Nichol is paid a state salary as a faculty member in the law school.
Holmes reiterated that the overall review was not about money. He said he did not have a firm dollar amount of what could be saved by closing three centers.
The panel suggested that all centers with the ability to raise private money be urged to do so. The Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University is recommended for a review and closure, unless it can secure private funding for its operations.
In at least one case, a review may actually result in additional funding. Panel members said they wanted a quick analysis of the Carolina Women’s Center at Chapel Hill, which provides counseling to sexual assault victims. That review would be aimed at determining what level of revenue is necessary to meet the need for more counselors.
The panel’s recommendations could go before the Board of Governors next week.
Centers recommended for campus review in the next year:
▪ Brantley Risk and Insurance Center, Appalachian State University
▪ Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics, Appalachian State University
▪ Center for Diversity and Inequality Research, East Carolina University
▪ Center for Health Systems Research and Development, East Carolina University
▪ Center for Natural Hazards Mitigation Research, East Carolina University
▪ Carolina Center for Public Service, UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ Carolina Women’s Center, UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ UNC Center for Civil Rights, UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ University of North Carolina Institute on Aging, UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ Cherokee Center, Western Carolina University
▪ Center for Community Safety, Winston-Salem State University