Peter St. Onge

The biggest cut facing UNC

A UNC Board of Governors report recommends cutting the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, led by outspoken law professor Gene Nichol.
A UNC Board of Governors report recommends cutting the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, led by outspoken law professor Gene Nichol.

Academia can be annoying.

It’s full of people who ask difficult questions, sometimes loudly. They take what’s comfortable and roll it around their fingers, looking for flaws.

It’s disconcerting. It’s supposed to be. It’s how we learn.

So you can imagine how educators feel this week about a University of North Carolina Board of Governors panel recommending the elimination of three university centers, including one that’s run by an outspoken critic of Republican policies in the state, Gene Nichol.

They’re disheartened that the UNC system is seeing more cuts, and they’re troubled by the target of these cuts. They’re worried that higher education in North Carolina continues to become a tool of Republican interests.

They’re even more worried about saying something. Not one I spoke to would go on the record.

That’s just how the Board of Governors – and the Republicans who appointed them – seem to want it. Board members argue that cutting the centers is about efficiencies, but how much of a coincidence is it that the three to be eliminated shine a light on issues that make Republicans squirm?

There’s N.C. Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change, which addresses racial, gender and other social injustices. There’s East Carolina’s Center for Biodiversity, which urges North Carolinians to change behavior that’s harmful to our planet.

And, of course, there’s Nichol’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill.

Here’s an even clearer message: The Board of Governors’ panel also recommended strengthening language that prohibits UNC and center employees from engaging in political activity while on duty.

That includes using the “authority of one’s position” to further the success or failure of candidates, parties or political groups.

That also includes doing anything that could “influence legislation.”

All of which is vague enough to include most any kind of advocacy.

It’s not a stretch to imagine some educators thinking harder now about what they say in lectures and public appearances. One university staffer told me about hesitating to even send a tweet about Nichol this week.

And what about research? Last month, UNC researchers co-authored a year-long study that found streams near hog farms were filled with bacteria from hogs. In this new era, with Republicans supporting big industries like pork, maybe that conclusion isn’t very well received in Raleigh.

Supporters of the Board of Governors say that’s as it should be – at least with the public speaking/political activity part. Gene Nichol, along with any other loudmouth, should remember who ultimately signs the paychecks, they say. Who among us gets away with making our bosses look bad?

But is that how we want higher education to work?

Our country’s universities have long been insulated from policy preferences at the state capitol. Our educators, and in turn their students, have been pretty much welcome to challenge whatever they believe might need challenging.

There’s a reason for that. We send our children to college not only to check off job skills they need to learn, but because it’s a place where thoughts clash with other thoughts. It’s where you learn to confront the big and small things you believe, maybe even change some.

It’s uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be. It’s freedom.