Commentaries
Gene Nichol's "Poverty Fund" Is About the Politics, Not the Poverty

By Jay Schalin

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July 06, 2015

The reopening of UNC–Chapel Hill Law School’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity as the “North Carolina Poverty Research Fund” by law professor Gene Nichol shows great contempt for the UNC system Board of Governors, the state legislature, and the people of North Carolina. It also may be illegal.

The Governors voted to shut down the Poverty Center in 2014, after they were ordered to explore closing academic centers in the UNC system by the state legislature. It was one of three such centers closed—out of 240 total centers in the system. Nichol’s act challenges the very legitimacy of the Board’s authority (as well as the will of the people as the final authority). It is now up to the Governors to demonstrate that they are actually in charge of the system by taking firm and immediate action to put a stop to Nichol’s defiance of a properly conceived policy.

Otherwise, what purpose do the Governors serve if they can be bullied and held hostage by an out-of-control professor and a few of his misguided supporters?

It appears that the name change is a deliberate ruse to circumvent the ordinary procedures for establishing an academic center. It fools nobody; the new center will conduct its business exactly the way the old one did.  

Nichol himself describes how “the purpose of the Fund is to carry forward earlier efforts by the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity.” Both are or were funded primarily by private resources, and much is made of the fact that the new center has raised its own funds. But it continues to use UNC resources and function as an academic unit within the law school, just as the earlier center did. It has a UNC website, uses the UNC email system, and even conducts fundraising on the law school website, with the money run through the law school’s Office of Advancement. 

And how a center raises its funds is irrelevant to whether it belongs on campus or not. There are two main reasons why the Poverty Center needed to be closed, neither of which has to do with funding.  

One is that the center was not academic. This means that it failed to meet proper constraints of “open inquiry”; it deliberately did not explore the full rational range of potential reasons for poverty but only a predetermined and politicized subset that matched the narrow worldview of Nichol. This politicization occurred right from the start, since the center was founded to provide support for John Edward’s presidential campaign platform focused on a “Two Americas” class warfare theme. 

The second reason why the Poverty Center needed to be closed was that it openly took part in partisan politics. Nichol regularly used his position as center director to rail against the Republican Party. 

Nor is the Center’s closure a matter of academic freedom. Nichol has not been punished for anything he said. He has openly bellowed his opinions across a wide swath of media outlets in North Carolina both before and after the center was ordered to be closed and his job as a professor has not been threatened. Academic freedom does not mean every professor at a public university can have his own state-sanctioned soapbox from which to broadcast his political opinions. This is instead a human resources matter of an employee who refuses to abide by a legitimate policy enacted by his superiors. 

And it is also not a simple matter of a professor’s research, as suggested by Joni Worthington, the vice president for communications of the UNC system, in a WRAL article. “His [Nichol’s] research interests and the private funds that support them are not within the purview of the Board of Governors,” she said, ostensibly speaking for Board chairman John Fennebresque. 

Her statement is wrong on two counts. First, it is not a common practice for professors to entitle their research efforts as a “Fund” and then solicit contributions from the general public on the school website. That is how centers operate, not individual professors who apply for research grants from government agencies, private industry, or non-profit organizations.

Second, everything that goes on in the university system is in the purview of the Governors if an individual campus fails to resolve an issue locally. 

If Nichol’s real concern were to start an organization that advocates for the poor according to his beliefs, he would have taken the proper route of creating a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is totally independent of the university. Such a non-profit would not be bound by university mandates to be academic and apolitical—he could politically advocate all he wants from any perspective he chooses.  

Instead, his methods appear to be blatantly political and personal—by daring the Governors to shut his center down once again, he hopes to stoke the fires of contention and drum up animosity toward the system’s rightful leaders: the Governors and the state’s legislators. 

Furthermore, Nichol is doing so at a time of great vulnerability for UNC-Chapel Hill, given that the university has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency. If he wants to play high-stakes poker, the Governors should give him what his actions deserve—a full investigation into his attempt to re-establish his “center by any other name,” in order to see which regulations have been broken and which administrators were complicit with the improprieties.  

For there are very clear guidelines about the creation of an academic center in the UNC system. At Chapel Hill, a center proposal is a two-step process, with well-developed planning and establishment phases. Both phases require approval by the provost. 

An investigation must make sure that every part of this process was conducted properly. If it was, then the provost is answerable to the Governors about why he reversed their decision to continue the Poverty Center. The mere change of names from Center to Fund does not make the academic unit any less a center. The name change instead appears to be an attempt to defraud—if so, Nichol and others involved should be sent packing.

This is one of those key moments with important implications for the future governance of the UNC system: nothing less than control of the system hangs in the balance. If the Governors falter or try to “punt” away their responsibilities for fear of political repercussions or legal action, they will be deemed impotent by precedent and public opinion. If they stand tall against the venal tactics of Gene Nichol, a message will be sent that UNC truly is “The People’s University,” not the private fiefdom of the loudest and most self-serving members of the faculty.

 


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