UNC centers questioned about “diversity of opinion”

UNC centers questioned about “diversity of opinion”

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With threats of possible cuts looming, several academic centers faced scrutiny Thursday from a group of the UNC Board of Governors wondering, among other things, why more conservative viewpoints weren’t explored at the centers.

The liveliest exchanges during the two days of presentations from 34 centers under review came Thursday between UNC Board of Governors members and directors of the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Both centers are connected to the law school on the Chapel Hill campus and get all their funding from outside state government.

Steven Long, a Raleigh attorney and UNC Board of Governors member, questioned if the centers should remain in the university system if advocacy is part of their work.

There is no diversity of opinion at that center,” Long said, referring to the civil rights center.

Long also serves on the board of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think-tank funded through a family foundation run by former state budget director Art Pope that has pushed for cuts to university centers.

Ted Shaw, an experienced civil rights litigator who took over the UNC Center for Civil Rights earlier this year, responded that the center teaches law students how to be effective civil rights attorneys, and that work means addressing injustices that minority populations face.

We have a point of view,” Shaw told Long. “You may just disagree with it.”

The series of presentations Wednesday and Thursday from centers around the UNC system were to wrap up a review by UNC system leaders of the more than 200 centers and institutes that operate on the university system’s 16 campuses.

The Republican-led state legislature paved the way for the review by calling for up to $15 million in cuts in the 2013 budget and requiring that the UNC Board of Governors “shall consider reducing State funds for centers and institutions, speaker series, and other nonacademic activities.”

The 32-member UNC Board of Governors is now also dominated by appointees from Republican state leaders, some many of whom have called for a streamlined higher education system more attuned to meeting the state’s economic needs.

On the narrowed list of 34 centers (scroll down for list) are several centers in the social sciences fields that serve or study minority and disenfranchised populations, from the Cherokee Center that serves as a liaison between Western Carolina University and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to the Carolina Women’s Center, which coordinates academic programs and provides services to students who have been sexually assaulted.

East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have the most centers and institutes under review, with seven centers on the Greenville campus and nine based in Chapel Hill still under review.

The working group is expected to issues a report with its recommendations in January, before the full board of governors will decide what action to take. A group of nine centers that study coastal and marine science issues will face a similar review in the beginning of 2015.

UNC Board of Governor member James Holmes Jr., a Raleigh accountant, re-emphasized both Wednesday and Thursday that the review wasn’t intended to terminate or curtail any specific centers.

But, Holmes said on Wednesday, elimination is “certainly a possibility.”

No discussion was slated for either day about the merits of the various centers or institutes.

We’re not going to make any decisions,” Holmes said Thursday. “We’re not going to render any opinions.”

But at least one person in the group’s crosshairs questioned Thursday whether ideology was a driving force behind the review.

It’s hard not to worry that there is a potent ideological agenda at work,” said Gene Nichol,* the outspoken head of the UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

The most pointed questions for the centers Thursday came from Long, the Raleigh attorney and Civitas Institute board member.

He took issue with both the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity, two groups operating out of the Chapel Hill campus’ law school, and questioned why more conservative viewpoints weren’t explored by the two centers.

Shaw, the former head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, also said he wouldn’t apologize or shy away from pushing to address racial and other forms of discrimination.

The center should not be apologetic about the fact that we are representing constituents that are largely black and brown and cases that are sometimes controversial,” Shaw said. “The need is there.”

Long also accused the civil rights center of being an official part of last year’s Moral Mondays protests at the state legislature, an accusation that the center denied.

Jack Boger, the law school dean, said the center made clear it was not part of the protests, though individuals may have participated on their own.

We were quite clear about the line,” he said.

Boger also countered the suggestion that the civil rights center should offer contrary points of view, and mentioned that university groups that support the state’s financial sector aren’t expected to offer socialist or anarchist takes on the nation’s banking industry. Staff in the public health school don’t face challenge when backing obesity prevention proposals that oppose sugar-laden drinks, Boger said.

We take advocacy positions in this university all the time,” he said.

Long, the UNC Board of Governor member, also asked why the poverty center headed by Nichol didn’t reflect a broader range of viewpoints in looking at poverty issues.

Is it presenting a different viewpoint?,” Long said. “I see a point made, but not a counterpoint.”

Nichol, whose newspaper editorials criticizing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the state legislature has rankled some state political and UNC leaders, responded that much of the work the center does to document the different forms poverty takes in North Carolina.

Most of what we do is describe poverty,” Nichol said. “That’s less ideological than you think.”

A dozen UNC-Chapel Hill students also sat through the presentations Wednesday and Thursday, holding up signs urging the Board of Governors to keep academic centers intact. Several also had black tape over their mouths to symbolize the lack of student input into the review and other decisions about campuses made by the Board of Governors.

A UNC-Chapel Hill student permitted to speak Wednesday urged the panel of Board of Governors members to look at what is brought to campus communities.

They do so much for our state and for students,” said Samantha Espada, 18. “Most of the centers cannot be summed up in monetary terms; they aren’t here to make a profit.”

*Note: Gene Nichol serves on the board of the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is a part of. He had no role in the reporting or writing of this article.

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

List of centers under scrutiny:

  • Brantley Risk and Insurance Center (Appalachian State University)
  • Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis (ASU)
  • Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics (ASU)
  • Center for Applied Computational Studies (East Carolina University)
  • Center for Diversity and Inequality Research (ECU)
  • Center for Health System Research and Development (ECU)
  • Center for Natural Hazards Mitigation Research (ECU)
  • NC Agromedicine Institute (ECU)
  • NC Center for Biodiversity Institute (ECU)
  • Rural Education Institute (ECU)
  • Drug Information Center (Elizabeth City State University)
  • Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change (N.C. Central University)
  • Juvenile Justice Institute (NCCU)
  • Institute for Emerging Issues (N.C. State University)
  • Center for Cooperative Systems (North Carolina A&T)
  • Center for Human Machine Studies (NCA&T)
  • Carolina Center for Public Service (UNC-Chapel Hill)
  • Carolina Women’s Center (UNC-CH)
  • Center for Faculty Excellence (UNC-CH)
  • Center for Law and Government (UNC-CH)
  • Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity (UNC-CH)
  • James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy (UNC-CH)
  • Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History (UNC-CH)
  • University of North Carolina Institute on Aging (UNC-CH)
  • UNC Center for Civil Rights (UNC-CH)
  • Center for Creative Writing in the Arts (UNC-Greensboro)
  • Center for Educational Research and Evaluation (UNC-G)
  • Center for Social, Community and Health Research and Evaluation (UNC-G)
  • Center for New North Carolinians (UNC-G)
  • Swain Center for Business and Economic Services (UNC-Wilmington)
  • Cherokee Center (Western Carolina University)
  • Public Policy Institute (WCU)
  • Center for Community Safety (Winston-Salem State University)
  • Center for Economic Activity (WSSU)

About the author

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.