UNC Poverty Center facing closure, as university system leaders finish review of centers

UNC Poverty Center facing closure, as university system leaders finish review of centers

Jim Holmes of the UNC Board of Governors talks Wednesday with Ted Shaw of UNC's civil rights center.
Jim Holmes of the UNC Board of Governors talks Wednesday with Ted Shaw of UNC’s civil rights center.

Three centers in the university system – including a poverty research center run by an outspoken law professor —   should be shut down, according to recommendations approved Wednesday by a special committee of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was the most well-known among the three centers singled out for closure in a draft report of a UNC Board of Governors’ committee made public Wednesday.

The Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and N.C. Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University also face closure at the end of a review ordered at the legislature’s behest. The draft report also suggests campus-level reviews of 13 more centers, and shutting down a community safety research center on Winston-Salem State University’s campus if new funding isn’t secured.

The panel of UNC Board of Governors members looked at more than 200 centers and institutes across the state’s 16 college campuses in the public university system, after the state legislature called for the review in last year’s budget bill and authorized up to $15 million in cuts.

The poverty center attached to the law school in Chapel Hill owes much of its public profile to its current director, Gene Nichol*, a tenured law professor who pens editorials in newspapers lambasting political leaders for the treatment of the poorest North Carolinians. The Civitas Institute, a conservative think-tank funded largely by retail magnate Art Pope’s family foundation, has repeatedly called for Nichol’s ouster, calling his criticisms partisan and unfair.

In a statement released Wednesday, Nichol said the proposed closure is an attempt by sensitive state leaders to stifle his voice, and sends a message contrary to what esteemed North Carolina educational leaders like Bill Friday felt about the need to expose and combat poverty.

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Gene Nichol of UNC Poverty Center

“Most importantly, North Carolina’s understanding of the challenges of poverty will be weakened,” Nichol wrote. “These are significant costs to pay for politicians’ thin skin.”

As a tenured law professor, Nichol also said eliminating the center would do little in the way of silencing him, but instead would mean terminating two recent law graduates and reject the $120,000 the center secured in private funding.

“When the Poverty Center is abolished, I’ll have more time to write, to speak, and to protest North Carolina’s burgeoning war on poor people,” he wrote. “I’ll use it.”

The recommendations passed Wednesday included reiterating existing university policies about political participation and putting limits on advocacy work and came after a months-long process of reviewing, vetting and evaluating the academic centers across the UNC system. Several centers were kept in the review process at the request of one or more committee members.

Many of those kept under the review process included a number of centers that study or serve disenfranchised populations, and both the poverty center and the Center for Civil Rights at UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school were asked in a December meeting about a lack of conservative viewpoints and whether the centers embraced a “diversity of opinion.”

The full UNC Board of Governors will vote on the recommendations next Friday, during their monthly meeting on the UNC-Charlotte campus.

This will be the second high-profile meeting for the board of governors in as many months. The governing board for the UNC system opted to fire UNC President Tom Ross at its January meeting, in a move that took many by surprise. Ross will stay on until at least 2016, while a search for his successor is underway.

The Republican-led state legislature is also in the midst of taking recommendations to replace or reinstate 16 of the 32 members of the UNC Board of Governors.

Review began at legislature’s request

The review of centers and institutes across the UNC system was triggered by the Republican-led state legislature, which included an item in last summer’s budget requiring the UNC system to examine the centers, and make up to $15 million in cuts.

The months-long review began with 237 centers, and the draft report made public Wednesday recommends action at 16 groups, most of which will be reviewed at the campus level while campuses moved on their own to shut down eight others. A group of nine centers related to the marine sciences are expected to be examined at a later date.

Jim Holmes, a Raleigh accountant who chaired the centers review, reiterated on Wednesday that the review of centers did not have intended targets, and the process gave needed oversight to an area of the university system that was previously unmonitored.

“We’ve done our best to be fair and objective,” Holmes said.

The potential demise of the poverty center outlined on Wednesday wasn’t unexpected. Speculation from the beginning of the review has been that the poverty center would be shuttered.

Holmes said the recommendation to eliminate the poverty center wasn’t due at all to politics, or Nichol’s public statements.

“I didn’t know who Gene Nichol was” before beginning this review, Holmes said to reporters after Wednesday’s meeting, saying the review had been educational for the board of governors. “I really didn’t realize a lot of this stuff.”

Other academic groups on the Chapel Hill campus already study poverty, an issue that the board of governors is committed to, and Nichol can engage in those efforts, he said

Committee members ultimately felt that the poverty center didn’t fit into the larger academic mission of the law school, Holmes said.

But Jack Boger, the Dean of the Law School, issued a statement Wednesday questioning that premise, and criticized the Board of Governors for shutting down a center funded with $120,000 in outside money.

“The BOG special committee rests its recommendation on no genuine reason beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor,” Boger wrote in a statement published on the law school’s website.

Civil rights center faces ire

The most contentious comments made during Wednesday’s meeting were directed at another group in Chapel Hill’s law school, the Center for Civil Rights started by the late Julius Chambers, a nationally renowned civil rights litigator.

The draft report released Wednesday doesn’t seek to eliminate the center but recommends a review of the civil rights center within a year to “define center policies around advocacy and conform with applicable university regulations.”

Steven Long, a conservative Raleigh attorney who joined the Board of Governors in 2013, conducted his own research on the civil rights center and, at Wednesday’s meeting, said the center engaged in partisan politics, advocated for narrow points of view and routinely sued the state.

“It’s really not an academic center at all; it’s an advocacy organization,” Long said, during lengthy remarks he gave Wednesday.

The civil rights center, which receives its funding from outside state government, often represents plaintiffs in complex legal cases challenging government policies that have disproportionate effects on racial minorities.

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UNC Board of Gov. member Steven Long talks Wednesday with Ted Shaw of UNC’s civil rights center.

Long asked why the center concentrated on racial equality, and didn’t pursue what he termed as “other civil rights,” like freedoms of expression and religion and Second Amendment rights to bear arms.

Mark Dorosin, an attorney at the civil rights center, spoke up during Wednesday’s meeting, saying Long’s “presentation was filled with inaccuracies

A police officer approached Dorosin to escort him out of the meeting for speaking out during the public meeting, but Dorosin and two students also approached by security who separately spoke out in protest were permitted to stay.

Two other UNC Board of Governors members who participated in the meeting over the phone echoed some of Long’s concerns about centers engaged in litigation against government agencies, while Holmes, the committee chairman, said he respected and supported the work being done at the civil rights center.

Long was a board member for the Civitas Institute until 2013, and said after Wednesday’s meeting his comments came from his own independent research, and not from groups funded by Pope, the controversial benefactor of many conservative causes in North Carolina, including the Civitas Institute.

“Art Pope is not here, Civitas is not here,” Long said. “I do my own homework.”

Ted Shaw, the director of the civil rights center and a well-known litigator in the civil rights arena, said he was disturbed by Long’s comments at Wednesday’s meeting, offered no opportunity for Shaw to refute Long’s assertions and defend the work done at the center.

“One thing that’s clear to me is that the attack on what the Center for Civil Rights is, on the part of at least one board member, an attack based on the substantive work we do and hostility to that substantive work,” he said.

Shaw said he hoped to continue conversations with Long and other critics of the civil rights center, and planned on defending the often-controversial work of pushing for racial equality.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Long highlighted an ongoing school desegregation case the Center for Civil Rights filed against Pitt County on behalf of African-American parents challenging a school reassignment plan.

“Why is UNC-Chapel Hill suing Pitt County, when we’re here to serve the state and not sue the state?,” Long said.

Shaw, meanwhile, questioned why the board of governors would take issue with the center tackling modern forms of segregation, more than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Board vs. Brown of Education.

“The notion that we can’t sue a school board that segregates?,” Shaw asked. “Is that the position that the Board of Governors wants to take?”

*Gene Nichols recently served as a board member for the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is part of. Nichol, who stepped off the Justice Center board in 2014, had no role in the reporting or writing of this article.

Questions? Comments? You can reach reporter Sarah Ovaska at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com or follow her on Twitter, @SarahOvaska, for live reports from next week’s UNC Board of Governors meeting.

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.