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Closure of UNC poverty centers leads to questioning of rationale

Special to The Chronicle
Special to The Chronicle

In the weeks since the University of North Carolina Board of Governors' voted to close an academic center for poverty research, many have speculated that the move was politically motivated.

The Board of Governors opted last month to shut down the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, after concluding that the center was financially unsustainable and did not significantly contribute to solving the poverty issue. Among faculty and students at UNC, the decision has drawn considerable criticism. Critics have accused the Board of closing the center to silence its controversial director, who was often critical of Republican legislators and Governor Pat McCrory.

“The university's governing board moved to abolish an academic center in order to punish its director for publishing articles that displease the board and its political benefactors,” wrote Gene Nichol, the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, in an email March 3. “Were I to have praised the legislature's war on poor people rather than decry it, the board would have placed laurels on my head instead of boots on my neck.”

John Fennebresque, chairman of the Board of Governors, responded to criticisms that the decision was partisan in a column for the Charlotte Observer last week. Fennebresque noted that the center did not enhance the educational mission of the university and did not have the financial support to sustain it.

"After careful review of the Center on Poverty—including an opportunity for the center director to fully describe its work—the board concluded the center was unable to demonstrate any appreciable impact on the issue of poverty," Fennebresque wrote.

Fennebresque could not be reached by The Chronicle after multiple attempts for comment.

Critics of the decision have described the closure as political interference. The closure of the UNC Center was a way of “going after” its director, said Ted Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC—which has also come under the scrutiny of the Board.

“Gene Nichol is not someone who are on good terms with the folks in political power right now,” Shaw said. “Now, his center gets closed in a process that was very questionable.”

Shaw noted that many people are disturbed by what they perceive to be a political effort to reshape public higher education.

The Board’s decision has also incited concerns over academic freedom and freedom of speech.

“I'm terrified for what this means for academic freedom,” Adrienne Harreveld, Trinity '14 and a research coordinator at the Duke-UNC Initiative on Poverty and Inequality, wrote in an email March 4. “It seems to me that the state is sending a message that academic freedom is only meant for the private sphere. This is entirely contradictory to the purpose of higher education.”

Duke’s research on poverty is done in collaboration with UNC-Chapel Hill and other public universities, Harreveld said—adding that her research was directly impacted by the center’s work.

In his column, Fennebresque said criticisms of the Board's view on academic freedom were unfounded.

"Some have argued our action chilled academic freedom. That is simply not true," he wrote. "We encourage an open exchange of ideas—the very heart of UNC’s mission—and have no objection to the Center’s commentary on the issue of poverty, its primary activity. But we do not believe it needed the structure of a UNC center for this limited role."

Private foundations and donors have stepped forward assure that the work of the center, if not the center itself, will continue, Nichol said. Grants and donations, he added, will allow for the creation of a North Carolina poverty research fund at the law school.

Two other academic centers—the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University—were also shut down.

Although the Board voted to discontinue the Center for Biodiversity, the center’s activities will continue under a different name, said David Chalcraft, director of the Center for Biodiversity. He noted that the Board was very “complimentary and favorable” toward the center’s work but was unsure whether its designation as a UNC Center was necessary.

“There's a specific connotation of centers, and we did not fit that specific definition of centers,” Chalcraft said.

The decision to close down the centers is a violation of the Board’s own policies, said Jarvis Hall, director of the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. Hall cited the UNC Policy Manual 400.5[R], which invests each individual campus with the authority to “authorize establishment and discontinuation of institutional centers and institutes.”

“This is an unprecedented micromanagement move,” Hall said. “You should rely on the individuals you’ve hired.”

Both the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University operate almost entirely on private funding. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity’s $107,000 budget comes from foundation and corporate grants, as well as private gifts.

Aside from minor costs related to using UNC utilities and space, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change runs entirely on private contributions, Hall noted.

“This whole exercise cost more than that could be saved by closing down the institute,” Hall said. “We do not receive any direct state funding. We do not directly cost the state of North Carolina anything.”

The decision to close down three academic centers came one month after the ousting of UNC-Chapel Hill president Tom Ross by the Board of Governors—a move that has also been criticized as politically-motivated, with some speculating that Ross was too liberal-leaning for the Board.

Fennebresque deflected these claims in his column, saying that the Board's choice "had nothing to do with his performance, but simply reflects our belief that all great institutions can benefit from a change in leadership from time to time."

For a number of people within the UNC system, however, the Board's recent actions are cause for concern.

“An ill wind blows across the UNC system. Its chill does not go unnoticed, as faculty members alter their research agendas and temper their investigations,” Nichols wrote. “The members of the Board of Governors have demonstrated unfitness for their high office. Their actions represent a profound, partisan, and breathtakingly shortsighted abuse of power.”


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