A Statement from Dean Boger: UNC Centers and University Values

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The following is a statement from Dean John Charles "Jack" Boger '74 in response to the recommendation by the working group of the UNC Board of Governors to close the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Long before recent generations came to love the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of Dean Smith and basketball, an earlier generation learned to love it for the virtues that Smith exemplified in his exceptional life -- courage, vision, openness to change and a belief in the worth of every person. President George Taylor Winston, who led Carolina in the last decade of the 19th century, declared that “there is nothing narrow or restricted about university culture. It is as broad as life.” His successor Edward Kidder Graham famously observed that the university’s boundaries were coterminous with those of the state, and he energetically linked the campus to campaigns for good roads, public health, city and county planning, and rural economic development.

When President Harry W. Chase brought Professor Howard W. Odum to Chapel Hill to launch a new Department of Sociology, the bold Odum created controversy by recruiting a generation of young faculty members who pioneered research on tenant farming, mill villages, the chain gang, sharecropping, and convict leasing -- all social systems that had long held back poor and non-white North Carolinians. Professor Odum faced bitter attacks against these studies that laid bare the appalling poverty of North Carolina life. Rather than hold aloof from the controversy, President Chase shared the facts Odum had uncovered with the public, braving political blowback in a conservative state in order to fulfill the University’s core mission to be a catalyst for change. When a legislative bill in the General Assembly sought to curb the teaching of evolution, President Chase condemned it as an abridgement of freedom of speech. Warned that the University’s appropriations were still before the General Assembly, President Chase shot back: “If the university doesn’t stand for anything but appropriations, I, for one, don’t care to be associated with it.” The bill failed on a close vote.

The President who followed Harry Chase was Frank Porter Graham. Even as a young faculty member, he had spoken out strongly to defend the special qualities of Chapel Hill: “Freedom to think, freedom to speak and freedom to print are the [university standard] . . . . Lux & Libertas is cut with native chisel deep in the stones quarried from local soil.” Graham advocated tirelessly for working people’s interests; he drafted an “industrial bill of rights” that sought to reduce the prevailing 60-hour work week, abolish night work for women, and improve child labor. Named the University’s President despite his disputes with the state’s industrial leaders, he continued to champion academic and service efforts that would address the most pressing needs of North Carolina’s people.

Thirty years later it was President Bill Friday and the brave and decent Chancellor William B. Aycock who took on the unwise legislative choice to enact a Speaker Ban Law, ostensibly to protect the students of Chapel Hill from ideas too radical to be heard. In scores of meetings across the state, Friday and Aycock reasoned with citizens about why curtailing free speech hurt, not helped, the interests of the people and the University.

These leaders exemplify what I’ve always understood to be the real meaning of the “Carolina way”: the unfaltering faith that light and truth, set free without fear or favor in a university setting, will eventually provide keys to meeting the deepest human needs.

Yet now a special committee of the University’s Board of Governors appears to be veering from that way. On Feb. 18 the committee announced its recommendation to discontinue the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, housed in the UNC School of Law. That center is a clear successor to earlier efforts by Edward Kidder Graham, Howard Odum, Frank Porter Graham, and other forbears. It has been steadfastly supported, despite a barrage of criticism, by Chancellor Carol Folt, who today expressed her disappointment in the committee’s recommendation and reaffirmed her determination that UNC-Chapel Hill continue its efforts to address the pressing problem of poverty in our society.

The BOG special committee rests its recommendation on no genuine reason beyond a barely concealed desire to stifle the outspokenness of the center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol, who continues to talk about the state’s appalling poverty with unsparing candor. The committee’s original charge was to cut funds to centers that spent too much and to redirect their state aid toward other projects. On that basis, targeting the Poverty Center makes no sense at all. The center hasn’t taken state tax dollars since 2009, and its modest staff -- a few earnest post-JD law graduates and an army of dedicated student volunteers -- are housed in three small rooms nestled in an off-campus building and paid through private sources.

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. Several of its members, indeed, raised hostile voices against the work of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, wrongly claiming that the center staffers’ salaries are paid by state taxpayers (they aren’t) and any suit by a state or local official against another state official is inappropriate. (It’s done routinely in state criminal law trials and appeals and in legal clinics across the land. Indeed, our Governor, a state official, has sued the General Assembly, state employees all, apparently without BOG objection.)

Bob Dylan famously asked, “How many times must a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” For a great University, one time is one too many. To be sure, the University’s other centers -- including the Carolina Women’s Center, the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History and even the UNC Center for Civil Rights -- have thankfully survived review and will continue their important work. Chancellor Folt and Provost Jim Dean have promised other interdisciplinary work to combat poverty. And Gene Nichol himself remains a respected colleague and tenured member of the UNC School of Law. We will support his efforts in every way possible going forward. Yet those who love UNC-Chapel Hill, who believe that free speech and open inquiry are indispensable tools in addressing society’s greatest problems, cannot fail to see in today’s recommendations made to the full BOG, a betrayal of the University’s finest historical traditions and its future promise.

The full Board of Governors meets next Friday, Feb. 27, in Charlotte. Would that I spoke for the University on that day, but I am obliged to say that I do not.

John Charles Boger
Dean & Wade Edwards Distinguished Professor of Law

-February 18, 2015

UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106


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