A woman? Young? Poor? African-American? Native American? A UNC Board of Governors working group is scrutinizing centers that focus on you.
For the first time in its history, the BOG is reviewing the UNC System's centers and institutes, narrowing the list to 34 that could face deep funding cuts or be dismantled altogether. And the mission of more than half of these centers could be viewed as counter to the agenda of the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Critics of the review argue that the process is neither as fair nor as objective as the Board of Governors claims, citing the fact that many of the centers under scrutiny focus on issues facing minorities, women and the economically underprivileged. Through budget cuts to social services, education and health care, all of these demographic groups have arguably suffered under Republican control of the legislature and governor's office.
Jim Holmes Jr., a BOG member and the chairman of the working group, said this is a "fair and objective" process aimed to reduce any redundancies in research coming from similar centers.
"A lot of people think this was mandated by the legislature, but that's simply not true," Holmes said. "We have no political agenda."
It's hard to take that statement at face value. In September, the Board of Governors created a working group to review almost 240 centers and institutions in the UNC System's 16 universities ostensibly to streamline it.
That's the same month, both the Pope Foundation and the Civitas Institute called for such a review as a cost-cutting measure.
Both of those groups have a long history of animosity toward the UNC System. The Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, has long assailed public education, often calling for UNC budget cuts. It is funded by the Pope Foundation, whose chairman is conservative millionaire Art Pope. He chaired the Civitas board until 2012, when Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him state budget director. In that position, Pope rejected the UNC System budget and sent it back to the BOG for revisions. He resigned as budget director earlier this year.
Even though Pope is officially out of state government, his reach continues. Working group member Steven Long served on the board of the Civitas Institute from 2009–2013.
The results of the review will not be released until January. The Board of Governors could choose to validate these centers, cut their funding, roll them into existing university departments or disband them entirely
"Will everybody be happy? Will we ever eliminate all of the complaints? No. That will never happen," said Holmes, a Republican appointed to the BOG two years ago by a GOP-controlled House. "But I would ask everyone to hold comment until the final body of work is released. The end result is going to speak for itself. You've got to take away the fear of the unknown and put that aside for a moment."
But that fear is real—and realistic. Though the legislature did not directly mandate the review process, the Board of Governors is political. All 32 voting members of the board are appointed by the General Assembly, 16 by the Senate and 16 by the House.
"Once you get to this board, there is no political motivation or bias," Holmes said. "We're all political appointees. That's how you get on the board, but once you get here, that doesn't matter. It has been that way for a hundred years."
One of the institutes under scrutiny is the Juvenile Justice Institute at N.C. Central University, a historically black college in Durham. Since 1999, it has researched how young people wind up in the criminal justice system. Recently, the center has been studying the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionately high rates of minority students who face disciplinary action in schools. The institute has an annual budget of about $214,000.
"I want to try to be open-minded about this, but looking at the centers that are left, I really have to wonder what's motivating them," said director Arnold Dennis. "If the centers that are cut are the ones that deal with minorities, with poverty and with young people, it sends a message about what our state cares about."
Joseph Jordan, the director of UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History recognizes the impact that these centers and institutions have on their communities. "It doesn't just give a voice to people, it gives a presence," Jordan said. "The Stone Center interjects a different narrative into the narrative of the campus, and that's where our importance lies."
Established in 1988, the Stone Center received $254,000 from the state last year. Though Jordan said he doesn't think the center will be defunded, he fears that the review process could undermine confidence in the UNC system.
"It's a little like cutting off your nose to spite your face," Jordan said. "You'd end up hurting yourself more than helping anything. You can't expect anybody to invest in a place that the state itself won't invest in."
Roseanna Belt is director of Western Carolina University's Cherokee Center, which has an budget of $77,000. It has just two employees. "When I found out that our center had made it this far in the process, I thought, 'Oh my gosh. I cant believe this is happening,'" Belt said. "The fact that we have to wait till January to hear what's going to happen is pretty unnerving."
Belt, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has been with the center for 12 years. She said she can't imagine why the center is under review, given that it is the only point of contact the UNC System has with the Cherokee community—and cheap to run.
"Just by being here, this center shows that Western has made a commitment to the Cherokee community," Belt said. "Why would the board want to jeopardize the university's relationship with the tribe? "If we were cut, I think the reputation of our university in the tribal community would be ruined. The community will think the university just doesn't care about them."
A Change.org petition is circulating to end the review process. It has received about 2,500 signatures since Dec. 8.
"Maybe the petition will help," Belt said. "Maybe there will be an epiphany of enlightenment over everybody, but we'd better not hold our breath."
How it was assembled: Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque and Jim Holmes Jr. chose the seven members. "There was no rhyme or reason to why we picked them," Holmes said. "There was no real criterion to decide who we picked. I wouldn't read a whole lot into it."
By race: All are white
By political affiliation: Six Republicans, one unaffiliated
By gender: Five men, two women
Members: Jim Holmes, Peter Hans, Steven Long, Mary Ann Maxwell, W. Edwin McMahan, R. Doyle Parrish, Joan Perry
APPALACHIAN STATE UNIVERSITY
Brantley Risk and Insurance Center
Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis
Research Institute for Environment, Energy and Economics
EAST CAROLINA UNIVERSITY
Center for Applied Computational Studies
Center for Diversity and Inequality Research
Center for Health Systems Research and Development
Center for Natural Hazards Mitigation Research
N.C. Agromedicine Institute
N.C. Center for Biodiversity
Rural Education Institute
ELIZABETH CITY STATE UNIVERSITY
Drug Information Center
N.C. A&T UNIVERSITY
Center for Cooperative Systems
Center for Human Machine Studies
N.C. CENTRAL UNIVERSITY
Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change
Juvenile Justice Institute
N.C. STATE UNIVERSITY
Institute for Emerging Issues
Carolina Center for Public Service
Carolina Women's Center
Center for Faculty Excellence
Center for Law and Government
Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity
James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy
Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History
UNC Center for Civil Rights
Institute on Aging
Center for Creative Writing in the Arts
Center for Educational Research and Evaluation
Center for New North Carolinians
Center for Social, Community and Health Research and Evaluation
Swain Center for Business and Economic Services
WESTERN CAROLINA UNIVERSITY
Public Policy Institute
WINSTON-SALEM STATE UNIVERSITY
Center for Community Safety
Center for Economic Analysis
This article appeared in print with the headline "The politics of scrutiny"