A contrary view on Gene Nichol and his poverty center

Tom Campbell
Tom Campbell

From Tom Campbell, a former assistant N.C. treasurer and host of NC SPIN, a statewide television talk show:

You’ve heard the spin the media, the progressives and the professors have put on the closing of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, but let’s step back and look at what this is and isn’t about.

It’s not another attempt to impose a 1960s Speaker Ban Law passed to prohibit known Communists from speaking on campus. Director Gene Nichol still has his university job. Even when Nichol likened Gov. Pat McCrory to racist governors Wallace, Faubus and Maddox and specifically criticized our Republican-led legislature, he wasn’t fired.

And despite what a national group of professors is claiming, this isn’t an attempt to “deprive North Carolinians of critical research and education on poverty; chill academic freedom and inquiry; and hurt our law students who desperately need and greatly benefit from the real-world experience that interning there provides.” We hear these tired claims any time someone questions academia. Methinks they protest too much.

This closure is not about dollars. Public dollars pay Nichol’s salary but no direct taxpayer dollars have been used to support this center for some years.

This is mostly another distraction from the core mission of our public universities at a time when tuition costs have soared, when resources are scarce and we need to be focused on how to best educate students. The legislature had every right to ask the University and Board of Governors to examine these centers. Such a periodic review should be conducted on every aspect of our universities.

This decision should be based on an honest evaluation of the work product of the Poverty Center and its staff. The latest annual report we saw from their website was 2011-12. Most of the data reported were from 2013 and seem available elsewhere. Where is the “critical research and education” we would lose? What “academic freedom and inquiry” would we miss? What has this organization really accomplished since 2005? There isn’t much evidence of demonstrable results.

At almost 18 percent, North Carolina’s poverty rate is two percent higher than the U.S. average. About 41 percent of single-parent families with children, 36 percent of low-income families with jobs and a disproportionate number of people of color live in poverty. These statistics haven’t changed much since Democrats controlled the state in 2009.

This issue has become one about the Nichol, not the dollar. If the Board of Governors wanted to muzzle Gene Nichol they badly miscalculated. The resultant media coverage has brought even more attention to Nichol, but that spotlight reveals someone intent on criticizing and polarizing rather than uniting and resolving this vexing problem.

It’s about poverty, not Gene Nichol. If he is truly fervent about fighting poverty, he should remove himself from the fight. Then perhaps a new entity with less baggage could begin the process anew.