Political fervor inundated N.C. Central University on a clear October morning in 2008. Colorful signs and impassioned chants of student voters filled the street. It was a march to the university's early polling site, organized by the school's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. Brian Kennedy remembers it well.
A 2012 graduate of NCCU, Kennedy is spearheading a campaign to keep the Institute open after the UNC Board of Governors voted last month to close it by September.
"Truth and Service. The institute was really a functionality of that motto. It was truth and service in action," says Kennedy of the 2008 march.
An online petition calling on the BOG to reverse its decision collected more than 1,500 signatures in three days. Its comment section speaks to the implications the Institute's closing could have on academic freedom at NCCU.
"I've worked with the Institute throughout my undergraduate years and have seen the contribution it has made to NCCU and the greater Durham community. Closing it would be a great disservice to the students and community it serves," says Brianna Hargrove of Durham.
It's not entirely clear why the Institute—an organization that worked independent of state funding—failed to pass BOG review. The criteria is unclear, the reasoning difficult to substantiate in the group's report, which leaves politics as the likely impetus for the closure list. The BOG also voted to close on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill and the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University.
"It is completely contrary to academic freedom and the greater interests of North Carolina for partisan appointees to interfere with our university system," echoes Melody Ivins of Chapel Hill.
Jarvis Hall, an NCCU professor who founded the Institute in 2006, sees the comments as testament to the center's impact. Since its creation nearly a decade ago, it has encouraged civic engagement by young people, especially those of color, through voter registration drives, surveys and community outreach.
The Institute's events, organized by research assistants and student volunteers, often emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary learning. A 2010 Census Engagement Project called on students to encourage local homeowners to participate in that year's survey. The Institute's Constitution Days invited participants to think critically about the intersection of social, political and economic injustice in America. Presenters including distinguished faculty and state legislators discussed voter suppression, immigration, education, health care and sexual orientation issues.
Though the Institute itself is nonpartisan, it operates in a largely Democratic district. The Institute collaborated with progressive groups like the North Carolina NAACP and North Carolina Common Cause in the 2008 election. Together they registered more than 500 new voters and encouraged thousands of students to march to the polls. Ninety percent of registered voters from NCCU's campus precinct cast a ballot that year, compared to a statewide rate of 69 percent.
This boom in voter mobilization largely benefited Democrats. About 93 percent of voters in NCCU's district were African Americans between the ages of 18 and 22, according to the Durham Board of Elections data. A 2008 CNN exit poll showed that nearly 100 percent of North Carolinians that fit into that demographic voted for Obama.
The Obama victory was met with a "Yes We Can" mentality on campus. A survey by the Institute following the election showed a 200 percent increase in the number of students who actively advocated for policy. Three quarters of students surveyed said that they believed they could make a difference in community problems. A young, confident generation of progressive thinkers could threaten the status quo, like that at the BOG.
Under fire from conservatives in North Carolina government, from 2009 to 2014, state funding for academic centers plummeted from $115 million to $69 million. That ostensibly spurred the BOG to establish a working group on centers and institutes last fall. Charged with redirecting up to $15 million from "nonacademic endeavors" and toward university-wide "strategic plans" and endowment funds for distinguished professors, the working group reviewed 240 institutions across 16 campuses.
The group reviewed each center to determine if it was "meeting its intended purpose, enhancing the education, research, and service mission of the University, and providing more value than the investment of state funds, university funds and in-kind support."
It conducted the investigation in three phases. If an institute operated on a budget less than $50,000, it immediately failed the first phase and was moved to phase two. There, it was reviewed under a series of open-ended questions. Why is a center/ institute the appropriate structure? What are the activities and output of the center or institute? How is the center or institute operating with such a small budget? If an institute failed to appropriately answer to two of these three criteria, it was pushed to the final review phase.
The working group used vague review criteria that targeted institutes that functioned on a tight budget. The contradiction doesn't stop there. Through the whole process, committee members were allowed to request that a center remain under review regardless of how it stacked up to the agreed-upon criteria.
Earlier this month, BOG chairman John Fennebresque defended the group's ruling with an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer. He claimed that the decision to close the Institute was a response to its limited resources and narrow scope.
"We applied the same fact-based criteria to each center to evaluate its cost, financial sustainability, interdisciplinary reach and value to UNC," the article reads.
"The general reasons for closing the Institute were its very small budget and lack of funding. When you really get down to it, there was nothing that center was doing that couldn't be done by another department," says working group chair Jim Holmes.
Kennedy and Hall disagree. They are drafting strategies that could keep the Institute open as a campus resource. In building a coalition of notable Institute alumni, they hope to demonstrate the value of the center's work to NCCU decision makers.
"We're working to expand the campaign beyond the institute to the larger issue of maintaining the value of the University system itself," says Kennedy.
This campaign to save the center isn't the only thing Kennedy is working on, though. He's also pursuing a master's degree in public policy with a concentration in civic engagement—a focus directly inspired by the undergraduate Institute he has come to care so much about.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Activism in action"