N.C. GOP leadership likes to bully opposition
By Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist
Whether they strut across schoolyards or along the polished halls of a state capital, all bullies are alike. They have to be the boss of everything. They can’t stand anyone who talks back. But they can be beaten.
For now, though, the bullies are on a roll in North Carolina.
When the General Assembly ordered the Board of Governors last year to study all 240 specialized centers in the University of North Carolina system, it was with a conspicuous target in mind. The intended victims were the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, and its eloquent and outspoken liberal director, law professor Gene Nichol. For several years, Nichol, a regular contributor to newspaper op-ed pages, has defied warnings from Raleigh to shut up or face the consequences.
Sure enough, a Governors committee has now recommended axing the center, even though it’s financed without a dime of public money.
To make it look good, the hit squad also targeted three others. It called for closing the East Carolina Center for Biodiversity and N.C. Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. It also gave UNC-Chapel Hill a year to review the bona fides of its Center for Civil Rights.
Steve Long, a board member, accused the civil rights center of “political activity and political bias.” That’s like being called ugly by a frog. Long has also been on the board of Art Pope’s Civitas Institute, the cheerleader for every backward step North Carolina has taken lately.
Poverty. The environment. Civic engagement. Civil rights. To the right-wing regime in Raleigh, these are not exactly favorite things.
Speaking of bullies, when students at the meeting spoke out against the hit list, police officers threatened to remove them.
The party line goes something like this: North Carolina’s universities should educate, period, not advocate for a better state.
That narrow perspective intentionally ignores the fact that a meaningful education requires more than simply drilling students in the arts, sciences and humanities, or in providing quasi-professional athletics. It also necessarily challenges the status quo, questions every conventional wisdom, and relentlessly seeks truth. By so doing, a great university serves its state in ways that no other institution can. The University of North Carolina earned its luminous reputation by doing precisely that.
As the UNC law school’s dean, John Charles “Jack” Boger explained in protest of the recommendation: “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,” Boger wrote.
The attack on the centers coincides with the board’s unexplained decision to sack UNC President Tom Ross. There are rumors, not effectively refuted, that Art Pope himself may become Ross’ successor.
Speaking for himself, Nichol pointed out that 18 percent of this state’s people live in poverty.
“The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along — closing the Poverty Center,” Nichol continued. “This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution.”
Nichol added that he felt “honored to be singled out for retribution by these agents of wealth, privilege and exclusion,” and he warned that as a tenured law professor, he will continue — with even more time on his hands — to speak out against a “burgeoning war on poor people.”
As we all learned on the schoolyard, there is a way to beat the bullies. You stand up to them. You fight back. It’s time to do that in North Carolina. Otherwise, the bullies will continue to win.