It’s all about the Nichol, not the dollar

| February 27, 2015

Tom Campbellby Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, February 26, 2015.

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 though UNC whistleblower Mary Willingham doesn’t). Even when Nichol likened Governor McCrory to racist governors Wallace, Faubus and Maddox and specifically criticized our Republican-led legislature he wasn’t fired. There is, however, an unexplained denial of the First Amendment rights to free speech. In direct violation of University policies on open meetings, the Poverty Center held at least two invitation-only events in which neither the media nor anyone not on the invite list were allowed to attend or report. Free speech must be a two-way street.

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. It is possible that public dollars have indirectly been involved but probably not to a great extent.

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 was from 2013 and seems 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. 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.



Category: NC SPIN Perspectives - Opinions from NC Leaders & Organizations

Comments (3)

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  1. Ray Midgett says:

    The teacher gives you a triple A+++ on this one. Kudos. I like it.

  2. John H. Clark says:

    Stan, you make some interesting points about the UNC Poverty Center which is housed at the UNC Law School. Some I believe are most valid, others raise important questions.

    First, the Center indeed needs to be accountable for its performance. By bypassing the responsibility of the law school dean and even that of Chancellor Folt, however, the action of the Board of Governors sets a very unfortunate precedent in dabbling in small operational matters of a large sixteen-campus system. Yes, Gene Nichol was a target and the Board blundered by couching his removal within the scope of a review of a number of centers. Instead of brandishing a hatchet, the Board could have appropriately asked Chancellor Folt about the Center’s performance and how it was benefiting the law school students.

    To note that North Carolina’s poverty has not changed since 2009 in order to somehow show the center’s ineffectiveness is specious at best. Even if the center were the most influential factor in affecting that condition, the Great Recession and its lingering negative effects weaken that point. I believe the main purpose of the Center is to benefit the education and experience of the law school students, not end poverty in N.C.

    The Board’s credibility has been greatly tarnished by its previous action to escort Tom Ross, the president of the system and a solid public servant I might add, out of his job with no clearly stated justification. The firing of Ross is much worse than the action against Gene Nichol and the Center. And beyond that, the cuts to the University systems by the Republican legislature is an even greater misdemeanor against the positive future of this state.

    These actions are mere examples of a political revolution to change all major facets of North Carolina’s economy and culture—its way of life. This, in my view, is where the tragedy lies.

  3. Tom Hauck says:

    Thanks Tom,
    Excellent column, as usual.
    As others have said, if the Center is fully funded by non-government donors why not, if the purpose is to study poverty, set up a 501-c3 organization outside the university? Law school students could come to activities as guests of the new organization.
    The US Government has spent over $20 Trillion (with a T) fighting poverty since President Johnson started the War on Poverty and I think the main ones benefitting are the professors and professional poverty workers giving speeches and holding meetings. Despite all that money we still have more people in poverty than when we started and the trend is continues towards more poor.
    Has anyone considered that all the noise about the Center is to divert our attention about the real, in my opinion, UNC scandal of not teaching student football and basketball and others by setting up a system to fraudulently give grades for studies not taken? As your column said — most of the people knowing of the scandal, even if not directly participating, did nothing to stop the practice still have jobs there while the one moral person with the courage to stop the practice is vilified.