(NC Justice Center)

(Correction: Earlier versions had some references to Gene Nichol as Nichols. It has been corrected.)

Early this month Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) quietly tried to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system by removing words in the state code that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” The changes didn’t happen when his effort was made public, but it was nevertheless a targeted shot against the foundational principles of higher education. And now, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there is a new one.

A University of North Carolina Board of Governors’ working group issued a draft report on the university’s institutes and centers this week that recommended shutting down three centers on university campuses, including Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The center — a non-partisan, interdisciplinary institute designed to study and advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty — does not receive funding directly from the state, operates on $120,000 a year and, if closed, will be forced to return private money that had been secured to keep functioning through 2016, its director, Gene Nichol, said in a statement.

John Charles “Jack” Boger, dean of the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, issued his own statement saying that the working group “rests its recommendation on no genuine reason beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor.” He also noted that working group members apparently did not understand that the poverty center does not get direct state funding.

Also recommended for placement on the chopping block is the North Carolina Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University, as well as the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University. The Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University must find new funding or face closure.

If you’ve noticed a theme, that’s because there is one. Centers and institutes seen as doing advocacy work the working group doesn’t like are under attack. Not incidentally, another recommendation in the report was for university system officials to tighten policies banning political participation and limiting advocacy, according to the Progressive Pulse.

Nichol, who is a law professor at UNC, condemned the decision in a statement:

Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, eighteen percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re 9th, speeding past the competition. Greensboro is America’s second hungriest city. Asheville’s ninth. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. 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.

And, astonishing as they are, these bloodless statistics don’t fully reveal the crush of economic hardship. That resides more brutally in the terror and despondency of the hundreds of homeless Tar Heels living in the woods and under the bridges of Hickory; or in the 1100 wounded souls waiting in line, most all night long, outside the Fayetteville civic center, desperate for free dental care; or in the quivering voice of the Winston-Salem father who describes deciding which of his children will eat today, and which, only, tomorrow; or in the daughter from Wilson fretting for her 62 year old father with heart disease who can’t see a doctor unless he scrapes together the $400 he owes and has no prospects for.

Some believe such urgencies are beyond the focus of a great public university. Bill Friday wasn’t among them. An active and engaged Poverty Center board member, from its founding until the last days of his life, President Friday felt it crucial “to turn UNC’s mighty engine loose on the lacerating issue of poverty.” He constantly challenged our students: “A million poor North Carolinians pay taxes to subsidize your education. What are you going to do to pay them back?”

I’ve been blessed with a long and varied academic career. But none of my efforts has approached the extraordinary honor of working, side by side, with North Carolina low-income communities and the dedicated advocates and providers who serve them. Together, we have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice. No doubt those messages are uncongenial to the Governor and General Assembly. But poverty is the enemy, not the Poverty Center.

I have been repeatedly informed, even officially, that my articles have “caused great ire and dismay” among state officials and that, unless I stopped publishing in the News & Observer, “external forces might combine in the months ahead” to force my dismissal. Today those threats are brought to fruition. The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the only result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center. This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the Board, the University, academic freedom and the Constitution. It’s also mildly ironic that the University now abolishes the Center for the same work that led it to give me the Thomas Jefferson Award a year ago.

The Poverty Center runs on an annual budget of about $120,000. None comes from the state. Grant funding has been secured through 2016. These private dollars will now be returned. UNC will have fewer resources, not more. Two terrific young lawyers will lose their jobs. Student education, employment and publication opportunities will be constricted. Most importantly, North Carolina’s understanding of the challenges of poverty will be weakened. These are significant costs to pay for politicians’ thin skin.

Personally, I’m honored to be selected for retribution by these agents of wealth, privilege and exclusion.  I remain a tenured law professor. When the Poverty Center is abolished, I’ll have more time to write, to speak, and to protest North Carolina’s burgeoning war on poor people. I’ll use it.

Fifty years ago, Chancellor William Aycock testified against the Speaker Ban Law, saying if UNC bowed to such “external pressures,” as it does today, it would “forfeit its claim to be a university.” He noted: “our legislators do not look with favor on persons, especially teachers, who express views different than their own.” But no public official can be “afforded such immunity”. Leaders “freely extol the supposed benefits of their programs, but object to their harmful effects being called to the attention of the citizenry…. The right to think as one wills and to speak as one thinks are requisite to a free society. They are indispensable to education.”

In his statement, Boger discussed how UNC has long been involved in important efforts to combat “the scourges of peonage and child labor, of woefully inadequate medical care and appallingly bad public education,” and that while such “faculty-led initiatives drew fierce opposition from those who managed to benefit from others’ poverty and oppression,” the university “pressed on.” Now, he said, “The Special BOG committee would constrict that breath of freedom. It would order the Poverty Center to turn aside from investigating conditions of human misery in our state that cry out for greater attention, not less.”

Here is Boger’s full statement:

Long before recent generations came to love the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of Dean Smith and basketball, an earlier generation learned to love it for the virtues that Smith exemplified in his exceptional life — courage, vision, openness to change and a belief in the worth of every person. President George Taylor Winston, who led Carolina in the last decade of the 19th century, declared that “there is nothing narrow or restricted about university culture. It is as broad as life.” His successor Edward Kidder Graham famously observed that the university’s boundaries were coterminous with those of the state, and he energetically linked the campus to campaigns for good roads, public health, city and county planning, and rural economic development.

When President Harry W. Chase brought Professor Howard W. Odum to Chapel Hill to launch a new Department of Sociology, the bold Odum created controversy by recruiting a generation of young faculty members who pioneered research on tenant farming, mill villages, the chain gang, sharecropping, and convict leasing — all social systems that had long held back poor and non-white North Carolinians. Professor Odum faced bitter attacks against these studies that laid bare the appalling poverty of North Carolina life. Rather than hold aloof from the controversy, President Chase shared the facts Odum had uncovered with the public, braving political blowback in a conservative state in order to fulfill the University’s core mission to be a catalyst for change. When a legislative bill in the General Assembly sought to curb the teaching of evolution, President Chase condemned it as an abridgement of freedom of speech. Warned that the University’s appropriations were still before the General Assembly, President Chase shot back: “If the university doesn’t stand for anything but appropriations, I, for one, don’t care to be associated with it.” The bill failed on a close vote.

The President who followed Harry Chase was Frank Porter Graham. Even as a young faculty member, he had spoken out strongly to defend the special qualities of Chapel Hill: “Freedom to think, freedom to speak and freedom to print are the [university standard] . . . . Lux & Libertas is cut with native chisel deep in the stones quarried from local soil.” Graham advocated tirelessly for working people’s interests; he drafted an “industrial bill of rights” that sought to reduce the prevailing 60-hour work week, abolish night work for women, and improve child labor. Named the University’s President despite his disputes with the state’s industrial leaders, he continued to champion academic and service efforts that would address the most pressing needs of North Carolina’s people.

Thirty years later it was President Bill Friday and the brave and decent Chancellor William B. Aycock who took on the unwise legislative choice to enact a Speaker Ban Law, ostensibly to protect the students of Chapel Hill from ideas too radical to be heard. In scores of meetings across the state, Friday and Aycock reasoned with citizens about why curtailing free speech hurt, not helped, the interests of the people and the University.

These leaders exemplify what I’ve always understood to be the real meaning of the “Carolina way”: the unfaltering faith that light and truth, set free without fear or favor in a university setting, will eventually provide keys to meeting the deepest human needs.

Yet now a special committee of the University’s Board of Governors appears to be veering from that way. On Feb. 18 the committee announced its recommendation to discontinue the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, housed in the UNC School of Law. That center is a clear successor to earlier efforts by Edward Kidder Graham, Howard Odum, Frank Porter Graham, and other forbears. It has been steadfastly supported, despite a barrage of criticism, by Chancellor Carol Folt, who today expressed her disappointment in the committee’s recommendation and reaffirmed her determination that UNC-Chapel Hill continue its efforts to address the pressing problem of poverty in our society.

The BOG special committee rests its recommendation on no genuine reason beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor. The committee’s original charge was to cut funds to centers that spent too much and to redirect their state aid toward other projects. On that basis, targeting the Poverty Center makes no sense at all. The center hasn’t taken state tax dollars since 2009, and its modest staff — a few earnest post-JD law graduates and an army of dedicated student volunteers — are housed in three small rooms nestled in an off-campus building and paid through private sources.

In prior decades, the University of North Carolina won the hearts and the gratitude of the state’s people by combatting the scourges of peonage and child labor, of woefully inadequate medical care and appallingly bad public education. These earlier faculty-led initiatives drew fierce opposition from those who managed to benefit from others’ poverty and oppression. Yet the University pressed ahead, fulfilling what Dr. Frank Graham once celebrated as “a tradition of our people”: that in Chapel Hill they would find “a place where there is always a breath of freedom in the air . . . and where finally truth shining like a star bids us advance and we will not turn aside.”

The Special BOG committee would constrict that breath of freedom. It would order the Poverty Center to turn aside from investigating conditions of human misery in our state that cry out for greater attention, not less. Several of its members, indeed, raised hostile voices against the work of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, wrongly claiming that the center staffers’ salaries are paid by state taxpayers (they aren’t) and any suit by a state or local official against another state official is inappropriate. (It’s done routinely in state criminal law trials and appeals and in legal clinics across the land. Indeed, our Governor, a state official, has sued the General Assembly, state employees all, apparently without BOG objection.)

Bob Dylan famously asked, “How many times must a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” For a great University, one time is one too many. To be sure, the University’s other centers — including the Carolina Women’s Center, the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History and even the UNC Center for Civil Rights — have thankfully survived review and will continue their important work. Chancellor Folt and Provost Jim Dean have promised other interdisciplinary work to combat poverty. And Gene Nichol himself remains a respected colleague and tenured member of the UNC School of Law. We will support his efforts in every way possible going forward. Yet those who love UNC-Chapel Hill, who believe that free speech and open inquiry are indispensable tools in addressing society’s greatest problems, cannot fail to see in today’s recommendations made to the full BOG, a betrayal of the University’s finest historical traditions and its future promise.

The full Board of Governors meets next Friday, Feb. 27, in Charlotte. Would that I spoke for the University on that day, but I am obliged to say that I do not.