UNC leaders blame politics for state board's suggestion to shutter poverty center

Director calls the recommendation a 'charade' that 'demeans' academic freedom

A University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governors' group released a report draft last week that recommended shuttering three centers across multiple campuses, including Chapel Hill's Center of Poverty, Work, and Opportunity—which is not directly funded by the state.

The group also recommended shutting down East Carolina University's North Carolina Center for Biodiversity, North Carolina Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change, and Winston-Salem State University's Center for Community Safety. The complete Board of Governors will meet Friday.

According to Inside Higher Ed, state conservatives have complained that such centers were launching personal attacks on GOP politicians.

The committee, which examined 240 centers, was originally directed to cut support to centers spending too much state money in order to benefit other projects.

But the Poverty Center has not received any tax dollars since 2009, says UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Law Dean John Charles Boger. He argues that the working group has no reason to close the center "beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle" the voice of the center's director, who often speaks of the state's "appalling poverty with unsparing candor."

The Chapel Hill center runs on $120,000 annually. Should it close, the center will be required to return private grant money that had guaranteed to keep it running through 2016, according to director Gene Nichols. According to Boger, the working group did not understand state funds do not directly support the center.

"Poverty is North Carolina's greatest challenge," Nichols says in a statement, adding "over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country's steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this commonwealth. Even if our leaders never discuss it."

Nichols says he has received job threats after writing articles in the News & Observer that upset state officials. "Today those threats are brought to fruition," he says in the statement, "this charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the Board, the University, academic freedom and the Constitution."

Nichols continues, pointing out that UNC will have fewer resources when the private funding is returned, employees will lose their jobs, and education and publication opportunities will narrow. "These are significant costs to pay for politicians' thin skin," he writes.

In turn, head of the board panel Jim Holmes refuted the notion that the report's recommendation was politically motivated (Strauss, "Answer Sheet," Washington Post, 2/19; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 2/19).

The takeaway: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill leaders say a Board of Governors report that recommends shutting the school's Poverty Center, which is privately funded, is politically motivated.

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