by Andy Taylor, NC State professor, Political Science, published in Carolina Journal, April 30, 2015.
On Feb. 27, the UNC Board of Governors voted to close the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at its Chapel Hill campus. Many on the left and faculty within the UNC system argued the board’s decision was political and an attack on academic freedom.
The center is directed by professor Gene Nichol of the UNC Law School, a frequent critic of Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican majorities in the General Assembly. Those opposing the decision saw it as revenge for Nichol’s vitriolic commentaries on conservative policymakers published in The News and Observer.
Media reports frequently described the decision as petulant, and the board did itself no favors by providing a rather mealy-mouthed explanation of what it had done. It should have responded more directly and forcefully to the principal arguments for keeping the center open.
One questioned the decision because it was so blatantly political. Not only was the board attempting to quiet a foe, it wanted to stop work on a critical issue that the board presumably disliked or felt uncomfortable about.
The board’s argument that the center proved “unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty” was particularly unhelpful because, accurately or not, it was interpreted as describing the center’s direct and material influence on actual standards of living, something practically impossible to achieve and therefore unreasonable to demand.
Instead, the board should have explained that the alleviation of poverty is a tremendously important issue requiring close study by experts in disciplines like public policy, economics, and sociology. It is the job of university faculty to suggest various courses of action based upon data and sound analysis, not undertake them through political organizing.
The center was doing the wrong kinds of things, and, as demonstrated by his qualifications and actions, Nichol was an unsuitable director.
It also should be noted the center was set up in 2005 essentially to serve former Sen. John Edwards’ presidential aspirations. The decision to create it was at least as political as the board’s critics have characterized the decision to shut it down.
Second, the board should have discredited the idea that the center’s very existence conferred some kind of legitimacy on it. UNC system campuses — including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University — have enumerated, stringent policies on the formation and continuation of these entities.
They vary by campus and time, but it is fair to say they tend to share three fundamental characteristics: any center should (1) constitute a formal collaborative effort of faculty across fields and units (otherwise the task could be performed within the existing administrative structure); (2) provide synergies to that effort (otherwise the task could be performed by individuals); and (3) secure a steady, significant, and independent resource base that will not detract from the university’s ability to perform its core mission — external funding or a line item in the state budget are desirable.
The poverty center seems to fail all three of these “tests” — and UNC board chairman John Fennebresque touched upon this in a News and Observer piece published following the final decision. The center is a small enclave within the Law School, and any intra- and inter-campus connections it enjoys seem ad hoc and personal.
In fact, most of the center’s work is clearly Nichol’s and, at least according to his melodramatic personal statement following the decision, this episode was always about him. If he’s right, then closure made sense. A single faculty member does not a center make.
The center’s meager and frankly low-quality output since 2005 is probably less than expected of an individual tenure-track faculty member; its accomplishments in the time period are certainly fewer than mine (and I get paid less than half of what Nichol does). A sizable portion of the small amount of money the center received for its operations came from the UNC Law Foundation endowment and presumably could be diverted to the school’s more mission-critical operations.
If subjected to the rules in place today, therefore, the center never would have been established. It is hard to judge whether a third claim of the center’s supporters, that it did not consume public money, is correct.
Nichol did get at least one course buyout — possibly more, as he seems to do a lot less teaching than colleagues
— but that may have been paid for from his named professorship. Regardless, he no longer has an excuse to stay out of the classroom as much.
If one good thing came from this, it is that Nichol will be doing more to help the university meet its fundamental responsibilities. By all accounts, I’ve heard he’s a pretty good teacher.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.