Commentaries
Gene Nichol's Poverty Fund: Two Views

By John K. Wilson and Jay Schalin

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July 27, 2015

One issue that gets North Carolinian blood boiling is the former Center for Work, Poverty, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school. To conservatives it is a symbol of the left’s abuse of its dominance of academia, in which a Democratic politician, John Edwards, was unethically gifted a phony academic center so he could launch his next presidential campaign on a class warfare theme. Followed by failed Democrat politician and law professor Gene Nichol abusing his position as center director to launch attacks on Republicans. 

To progressives, it is a symbol of the right abusing its political dominance of North Carolina to intimidate an outspoken opponent (Nichol) into silence. 

Only a few days after the Poverty Center was closed on the orders of the Board of Governors of the UNC system, Nichol announced the creation of a Poverty Fund that may be a continuation of the Poverty Center by another name. The state’s conservatives cried foul; the Pope Center’s director of policy analysis, Jay Schalin, penned an ardent critique of the new Poverty Fund on this site, entitled “Gene Nichol’s Poverty Fund Is About the Politics, Not the Poverty.” 

This led to a response by John K. Wilson, an editor for Academe Blog, an online publication of the American Association of University Professors, who regularly writes on academic freedom issues. At Wilson’s suggestion, Schalin prepared a second response, also published today on Academe Blog. The Pope Center presents both responses below. 

A Poverty Fund Reborn at UNC, and Critics Want to Destroy It 

By John K. Wilson 

Earlier this year, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Governors ordered the closing of the law school’s Poverty Center in an act of political retaliation against its outspoken director, Gene Nichol. The AAUP condemned the decision. 

This month, Nichol announced that Center would be replaced by the new North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the Law School, which would do much of the same work. As Nichol noted, “Censorship has a poor track record. It won’t prevail here either.” 

Jay Schalin of the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy wrote a commentary blasting the new fund and calling upon the Board of Governors to ban it. 

I criticized Schalin’s earlier defense of banning the Center, and his new argument is even worse. 

Schalin claims that the new fund “shows great contempt for the UNC system Board of Governors, the state legislature, and the people of North Carolina. It also may be illegal.” It’s not illegal (unlike the decision to close the Center, which violated the First Amendment). Nichol could have wasted taxpayer money in a lengthy lawsuit; instead, he chose a creative way to make sure that research on poverty wasn’t banished from the University of North Carolina because of petty partisan hatred. 

According to Schalin, “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.” This is a ridiculous standard. Suppose that the Democrats controlled a state legislature and announced that any professor who criticizes Democrats would have any centers they are connected with closed, but they wouldn’t lose their jobs. Schalin would be shouting “academic freedom” from every rooftop, as would the AAUP and every other group. There are many ways to try to silence academic freedom, and shutting a center for the political speech of its director is definitely one of them. 

According to Schalin, “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” 

This is total nonsense. Schalin has been one of the loudest advocates of overtly ideological, right-wing programs, and every single conservative center promoted by Schalin would fail to meet this test. No scholar and no academic center anywhere explores “the full rational range of potential reasons” for anything. It’s an impossible standard to meet. Moreover, Schalin has no evidence that the Center excluded any of the ideas Schalin supports; Schalin simply assumes that this is the case because scholars involved with the Center didn’t choose to focus on the issues Schalin thinks are important. 

Schalin rather ominously invokes the authoritarian powers of the Governors: “everything that goes on in the university system is in the purview of the Governors.” He demands that the Governors must shut down the new Fund. And then Schalin goes further, calling for “a full investigation” of Nichol and suggesting that Nichol and anyone else involved in approving the new Fund should be fired: “Nichol and others involved should be sent packing.” 

Schalin is guilty of doing exactly what he falsely accuses Nichol of doing: treating a university as a political plaything, promoting one’s own side exclusively, banishing opposing voices, and seeking to suppress other views. 

Schalin’s call for repression and censorship is unethical, unprincipled, hypocritical, and indefensible. 

No Special Treatment for Political Activists of any Stripe 

By Jay Schalin

University governing bodies routinely close and defund academic programs, be they degree programs, academic departments, or centers and institutes. In 2009, the North Carolina Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school was stripped of its state funding, while almost all other academic centers in the UNC system retained theirs. This occurred with a Democratic majority in the state legislature and a large Democratic majority on the system’s governing body, the Board of Governors. 

At that time, it was generally accepted throughout North Carolina that the Poverty Center was unworthy of state funding. It was too focused on advocacy, rather than on objective academic scholarship. Its association with John Edwards was an embarassment. Furthermore, a law school was an odd place to have a center supposedly devoted to studying poverty. 

The Poverty Center continued for a few years with private funding—but it received in-kind subsidies such as using university resources and the UNC name for fundraising. 

Last year, the state legislature ordered the Governors to evaluate the UNC system’s 240 centers and perhaps “thin the herd” a little. Three were ordered closed and eight placed on probation. The choice to close the Poverty Center was non-controversial, as most thought it should have been closed years ago. 

Or it was non-controversial until Poverty Center director Gene Nichol began hurling accusations that it was politically motivated and an attack on academic freedom.

The closure had nothing to do with Nichol’s increasingly shrill attacks on the state’s Republican majority. But Nichol—an attention-seeking former aspiring politician who unsuccessfully ran for both the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate in Colorado—turned it into a political football.

The Poverty Center’s closure is not a First Amendment issue—except in the minds of Nichol and his supporters. He is as free as anybody else to say whatever he pleases when speaking as a private citizen who happens to be a law professor. He still writes columns in the North Carolina media. Nobody in North Carolina’s conservative community wants Gene Nichol silenced. Not only do we support his right to free speech, but we like having him as the voice of North Carolina progressives, as his reasoning tends to be sloppy and his rhetoric is abrasive. 

In fact, in 2008, when he arrived back in North Carolina, 58 percent of the state legislature and 54 percent of the state’s Congressional delegation were Democratic; today, 36 percent and 23 percent are. He is a non-factor in state politics.

Nor has Nichol had his academic freedom violated. As the AAUP’s own documents attest, academic freedom means professors have responsibilities as well as rights. Just as it is inappropriate to introduce partisan politics into the classroom, it is inappropriate to turn an academic center subject to the spirit of open inquiry into one’s personal partisan soapbox, as did Nichol with the Poverty Center. 

Nor can he claim that he was making extramural comments as a private citizen who happens to be a professor rather than as a center director, thereby giving him wider latitude. Many of his political attacks were published in his Raleigh News & Observer column entitled “Seeing the Invisible.” It was specifically about poverty, and his byline stated that he was “…director of the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.” He clearly wrote as the center director about the center’s specific subject matter. By also writing as a partisan, he clearly crossed a line beyond which there is no academic freedom. 

As Mr. Wilson said, I have written approvingly of centers that have conservative origins. But those centers are not “overtly ideological,” as Wilson claims. I know of no case in which center directors with conservative origins at public universities write angry columns attacking Democratic politicians. Whereas Nichol openly admitted that he has an “agenda” of “advocacy,” those center directors scrupulously focus on their academic missions and avoid any hint of involvement with current politics because they know they have powerful adversaries ready to pounce at the slightest hint of partisanship. 

And they indeed include a variety of views. For instance, Wade Maki, who runs the Program in Capitalism, Markets, and Morality at UNC-Greensboro, often includes readings by Karl Marx in his course “Markets and Morality.”

Nichol deliberately picked this fight. He could have done the right thing when ordered to close his center by opening up a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, which would permit him to be as partisan as he likes. He could have fought openly in court, putting it all on the line. 

Instead, he petulantly challenged the governance structure by reopening the center at the law school under a different name and structure. He openly stated that he will continue the activities of the Poverty Center—how then is it not a center? There are far too many puzzling and conflicting elements as to how the Poverty Fund was created out of the ashes of the Poverty Center to mention here—or to concede its legitimacy. 

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy will continue to ask questions about the new Poverty Fund. We expect Gene Nichol to submit to legitimate governance just like everybody else; there is nothing about his message that warrants special treatment.

 


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