Posted 4:58 a.m. today
By EMERY P. DALESIO, Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s public university board is thinking about eliminating an anti-poverty center headed up by an outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican lawmakers he accuses of doing too little to help the poor.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors planned to vote Friday on a special review committee’s recommendation to close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school. The committee also recommended closing two other programs: the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University and the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University.
The poverty center is headed by law professor Gene Nichol, who was the law school’s dean when he helped created the center as a platform for John Edwards ahead of the former Democratic vice presidential candidate’s 2008 campaign. Nichol has acidly criticized the policies advanced by McCrory and Republican lawmakers. In one 2013 opinion essay, he compared McCrory to 1960s-era segregationist Southern governors because of his support for tougher election laws. Subsequent newspaper opinion pieces included the disclaimer that Nichol doesn’t speak for UNC.
None of the programs being looked at receive direct funding from state taxpayers. The centers at ECU and NCCU operate on the equivalent of $5,000 a year or less of shared office space. The poverty center’s $107,000 budget comes from corporate and foundation grants and private gifts, according to the law school.
The review committee said the poverty center should be closed because it “did not provide a wide range of alternatives for addressing poverty,” because other anti-poverty efforts are underway on the Chapel Hill campus, and because it is not clear how the center meets the law school’s educational mission.
Opposing the poverty center’s closing are law school dean Jack Boger, a national professors’ association, and liberal groups in the state.
Three local Democratic legislators who wrote a letter urging the Board of Governors to reconsider the closing said the board’s decision to investigate the value of nearly 250 centers and institutes across the 16-campus university system was sparked by Nichol’s criticism of Republican policy decisions.
“It’s hard not to conclude that closing the center is an intentional signal to other faculty researches to speak publicly only on subjects and positions more comfortable to the current majority,” the letter said.
State lawmakers told the university system’s board to look at ways to divert funding for the centers to other UNC system programs. UNC centers and institutes received $69 million in state appropriations last year.
Nichol was dean of the UNC-CH law school when he recruited Edwards to start the poverty center at his alma mater after his 2004 run as Democrat John Kerry’s vice-presidential candidate. In an email sent two weeks after the election, Nichol told the former North Carolina senator that the law school “would be thrilled to provide any affiliation you might choose — from full time faculty to part-time director of a think tank we’d help raise the money to support.”
Nichol had himself run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate, losing Colorado’s Democratic primary in 1996. He campaigned after leaving the University of Colorado law school, where he was its dean. Two years later, Nichol ran for the U.S. House in Colorado but again lost the Democratic primary.
The center provided Edwards a platform to travel the country discussing poverty, which he focused on heavily during his own presidential run before joining the Kerry ticket. A multimillionaire trial lawyer, Edwards earned $40,000 a year as the think tank’s director before declaring his candidacy for president in December 2006.
Nichol gets an extra $7,500 as the poverty center’s director on top of his $211,400 salary, law school spokeswoman Allison Reid said. He also is allowed to teach one course instead of two each semester to accommodate his work as the center’s director.