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The GOP's attack on universities and free speech 

U.S. government issue -- from NOAA.

U.S. government issue -- from NOAA.

Jack Boger, dean of the Unc Law School, made an arresting statement in rebuking the latest outrage from the UNC Board of Governors:

The University's core mission," Boger wrote, "(is) to be a catalyst for change."

Change, though, is the very thing a conservative wants to prevent, especially a conservative white Republican. By definition, they want to keep things the same—conserve them, that is. And in North Carolina, conserving the status quo works better for whites than for non-whites, and better for people with money than those living in poverty.

Aversion to change is why a committee of the Board of Governors recommended the closure of three academic centers on UNC campuses. The list includes one at UNC-Chapel Hill that studies poverty, and a second at historically black N.C. Central University that seeks to activate minority students as voters and advocates for change. The third, at East Carolina University, is the Center for Biodiversity, which the GOP apparently wants axed because it mixes diversity—a term that rubs Republicans the wrong way—with environmental protection—which they don't like, either.

I don't believe that every white Republican wants to keep the poor down or blacks in their place. I do find that the conservative white Republicans who control our state—and the UNC Board of Governors—are a self-satisfied group out to protect the status quo.

Most critics of the committee's recommendation zeroed in on the fact that the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is headed by Gene Nichol, a fiery progressive whose contempt for Republican policies is matched by his eloquence when decrying the declining status of North Carolina's poor.

From Nichol, we know that 25 percent of our children live in poverty. That amount is even greater for children of color: 40 percent. "Poverty is North Carolina's greatest challenge," he tells us. "Even if our leaders never discuss it."

But conservative Republican officials are surprisingly thin-skinned. They hate it when Nichol says they don't care about the poor—though they don't—and really hate it when he teams with the Rev. William Barber to denounce their disinterest as immoral.

Thus, Nichol's center had to go, like UNC President Tom Ross, no fiery liberal but not a Republican either, who was forced out in January, without explanation.

Ross was sacked but remains in office for a year. As for Nichol, the BOG will take action Friday on its committee's recommendation, after which he will continue to be a tenured law school professor. According to Boger, his center's work will continue at UNC, just under a different rubric.

In a sense, then, the Board of Governors' swipe at Nichol is about as effective as the Republican law that forbade noticing climate change and rising sea levels on the coast.

Still, if the Republicans didn't dent Nichol, they dealt a hard blow to academic freedom, at least as that concept applies to advocating for the disadvantaged.

And they'll keep hitting. That was apparent when Steven Long, a Raleigh Republican on the Board of Governors, ripped into the UNC Center for Civil Rights for failing to investigate "the full range of civil rights."

Now you may think that civil rights, in the context of the American South in the 21st century, should mean identifying and eliminating the vestiges of racial discrimination left by slavery and Jim Crow.

The UNC center, allied with the law school, does precisely that, publishing studies and suing when it discerns patterns of racial segregation in public schools, housing, water systems and employment.

Founded by famed civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, the center's mission is to "secure social, economic and environmental justice for low wealth, minority families and neighborhoods."

Long, though, from his perch as a white conservative lawyer unscathed by racial bias, finds the mission misguided. The center should limit itself to studying issues and hearing all sides, he argued. It should never take positions or sue anybody. Instead of concentrating on race, it should look at other rights too—like religious rights and the right to bear arms.

Lest you think Long is an outlier, he's a former board member of the John W. Pope Civitas Institute, which makes him a player in the Art Pope realm of Republican ideologues.

The Board of Governors gave the civil rights center a pass for this year, but UNC officials were directed to "review" its activiites and "define policies around advocacy (to) conform with applicable university regulations."

Which regulations? The committee wants it spelled out that all university employees are barred from political activity "while on duty" or when acting in the name of a UNC "center, institute or campus."

As far as Long's concerned, lawyers at the civil rights center already crossed the line into "political activity and political bias" by criticizing Republican initiatives. "Its list of allies and supporters," he complained, "are exclusively supporters of the Democratic Party and liberal causes. I don't see anybody from any other political party or point of view represented."

In effect, he was suggesting that the civil rights center hire some Republicans who oppose civil rights and turn itself into a debating society, where people are entitled to their own faith-based opinions.

In all, 13 centers and institutes in the UNC system, including some with "environment" or "diversity" in their names, were handed similar warnings about advocacy.

Take a look around a UNC campus. If you spot any advocacy, it's likely to be a business school professor clarifying the virtues of capitalism or a geology professor explaining where fracking rigs should go. This week at N.C. State, a visiting economist named John Taylor will lecture on why government intervention is the wrong way to help the unemployed. The right way is—you guessed it—"reliance on markets."

Taylor will be paid by Art Pope's family foundation.

Against this backdrop of teaching students how to fit in with a political and economic system ready to pay them well if they do, UNC offers a proud counter-history of progressive research and advocacy—in Boger's words, one aimed at meeting "the deepest human needs."

UNC leaders fought for good roads, public health, city planning and rural economic development, Boger said. They exposed the ills of tenant farming, mill villages, chain gangs and convict leasing. They fought to improve labor conditions for women and children.

In every case, they went against the grain and the political establishment, which saw no reason to change what was working for them.

Today, most advocacy at UNC favors rewarding the haves while more of us fall into poverty. Only a few like Gene Nichol challenge the prevailing political orthodoxies in clear, outspoken terms.

Now, thanks to the Board of Governors, anyone so inclined is on notice: In their UNC, the only acceptable politics is conservative Republican politics.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Fighting words."

  • In their UNC, the only acceptable politics is conservative Republican politics

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