Critics allege censorship as UNC Board closes three research centers

Critics question motives for closure

The University of North Carolina's (UNC) Board of Governors voted Friday to close three academic centers, amid criticism that the decision was politically motivated and limited academic freedom.

The board voted unanimously to close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity (CPWO) at the UNC- Chapel Hill School of Law, the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change (ICESC) at North Carolina Central University, and the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University.

The decision to close the poverty center has been particularly controversial, with critics saying the center's director, law professor Gene Nichol, is being punished for his political views.

Allegations of censorship

"Were I to have praised the legislature's war on poor people, rather than decrying it, the board would have placed laurels on my head instead of boots on my neck," Nichol said in a statement Friday.

However, Jim Holmes, a board member who led the committee that recommended the closures, says the decision was a result of an "objective process."

Nearly one in three presidents of public colleges feels pressured by governor

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 CPWO has not received any tax dollars since 2009, says John Charles Boger, dean of UNC-Chapel Hill's law school. 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."

Jarvis Hall, the director of ICESC, agreed that "there appears to be a political motivation" behind the closures. Nichol frequently comments on state politics in a column for The News & Observer, a Raleigh-based newspaper.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt told the Charlotte Observer that she also disagreed with the decision. She pointed out that it could have a "chilling effect" on academic research and diverse perspectives. Folt also noted how important it is for the university to be clear that it supports academic freedom.

Last week, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) also released a statement prior to the vote characterizing the board's move to close CPWO as a threat to academic freedom.

Center's work will continue

The vote Friday was interrupted by protestors, according to the New York Times. Eventually, the board moved to a different room in order to hold its vote. Holmes was unaffected by the protests. "Just because it's not popular doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do," he says.

Nichol said Friday donors have come forward to "assure that the work of the center, if not the center itself, will continue and markedly expand (Fausset, New York Times, 2/27; Dunn/Stancill, Charlotte Observer, 2/27; Ovaska, North Carolina Policy Watch, 2/24).

The takeaway: The UNC Board of Governors has voted to close three academic centers as a cost-cutting measure, but critics point out none of the centers receive taxpayer funding and allege they are being singled out for political reasons.

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