Ten years ago, fresh off his loss to Bush/Cheney as John Kerry's running mate, John Edwards returned home to open a center on poverty at the University of North Carolina School of Law, his alma mater.
Today, that move looks downright prescient: Ranked better than average in poverty in 2005, North Carolina has since experienced the greatest increase in concentrated poverty in the country. Charlotte has the worst upward mobility of America’s 50 biggest cities. In the east, hundreds of black agricultural towns are neglected and abandoned, and in the west, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia are suffering from a meth and prescription drug epidemic.
The Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was formed by Edwards—the son of a mill worker—and UNC Law School Dean Gene Nichol with a stated mission to “advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty in North Carolina.” Edwards used the center to hone his “Two Americas” platform for 2008, and an early bipartisan event featured former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp. Then Edwards left to run for president.
After a controversial stint as president of the College of William & Mary, Nichol took over the Poverty Center in 2008. The following year, the Great Recession forced education cuts that ended public funding for the center, which carried on with a $117,000 budget made up of private grants from the UNC Law Foundation and Z. Smith Reynolds.
Then Republicans swept the 2010 midterm and won the governorship in 2012, giving the GOP control of Raleigh for the first time since the Reconstruction. Despite the state's fifth-highest unemployment rate in the nation, legislators cut unemployment benefits, refused to expand Medicaid, slashed taxes on the rich and raised them on the poor. North Carolina fell to eleventh worst in poverty.
So Nichol joined the state's Moral Mondays civil disobedience movement and began excoriating state government in columns for the News & Observer.
"Few would have guessed, three years ago, that a governor and General Assembly would, or could, so swiftly alter the character and meaning of a commonwealth," he wrote in March 2014. "North Carolina must reject and inter its unforgivable war on poor people…. It is a rank violation of our history, our ethics, our scriptures and our constitutions. We’re a decent people. We aren’t bullies. And we don’t like those who are."
With the American labor movement in decline, the last bastion of liberalism, especially in the south, is academia. But Nichol, and the center he helped build, today are on the verge of being ousted by the very same right-wing, free-market ideologues who are partly responsible for—and see no problem with—the state's spiraling poverty.
The University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors (BOG) is a policy-making body governing 16 campuses and made up of 32 voting members appointed by the state legislature. Since 2010, Republicans have appointed all 32 members, 29 of them registered Republicans, including prominent campaign contributors like board chairman John Fennebresque.
Last month, the BOG forced UNC system President Tom Ross into early retirement, for no reason except need for a “leadership transition.” Ross, a former superior court judge and president of Davidson College, is a moderate Democrat.
Later this month, the BOG will vote whether to close the Poverty Center, a goal of North Carolina Republicans since the day it was founded.
“Its creation was an embarrassment from the beginning and everything done since does not disguise its political origins,” says John Hood, president of the John W. Pope Foundation, which “works to improve the well-being of the citizens of North Carolina and the nation through the advancement of individual freedom and personal responsibility.”
The Pope Foundation’s chairman is Art Pope, a free-market philanthropist and friend of the Koch brothers. According to the Washington Post, the foundation steered over $55 million to conservative think-tanks and advocacy organizations including the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, the John Locke Foundation, and the Civitas Institute.
Not only did those organizations oppose the creation of the Poverty Center; they viscously denied poverty was even a problem.
While Edwards was running for president in 2004, George Leef, director of research at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, wrote: “Now, we can feel sorry for kids in families where there are hard times, but why is that a governmental problem, much less a presidential one?… Most unemployed workers find new employment within a month or two and in the meantime they can get by.”
When the Poverty Center launched, Leef disparaged its desire to move “more Americans out of poverty and into the middle class,” because poverty is “something individuals need to overcome through their own efforts.”
Another Pope staffer argued that “the only way the law can contribute on those issues is by scaling back—reducing regulation, cutting bureaucracy, returning to a more laissez-faire approach toward people's incomes and decisions.”
If Art Pope’s friends ever took over the university system, the Poverty Center was finished. And Pope planned exactly that: His family and organizations spent $2.2 million in 2010, winning 18 of 22 targeted races in the legislature, and the Pope-backed Americans for Prosperity chapter in North Carolina backed Pat McCrory's winning bid for governor in 2012. McCrory named Pope his budget director.
Nichol, a former college quarterback and anti-war protestor, doesn't back down from a fight—even if it costs him his job. He was forced out at William & Mary, for instance, after he removed a cross from a secular chapel and allowed a sex workers’ art show in the name of free speech.
On three occasions in 2013, UNC Law Dean Jack Boger called Nichol into his office to relay threats from the legislature. If Nichol didn’t stop writing articles, they’d close the Poverty Center, move it to UNC-Pembroke, or he’d be fired. Nichol kept writing the articles.
Then in August 2013, as protestors gathered in Charlotte for another Moral Monday, Boger called Nichol. Legislators had warned that there would be consequences for Nichol if he spoke at the event. Nichol gave the speech, saying, “Our governor and our General Assembly looked at those strong inequalities and decided to make them deeper.”
When McCrory signed a voter ID bill, Nichol wrote a column in the News & Observer describing the governor as a “21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus.” Three days later, Civitas’s Francis De Luca, and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jane Shaw posted an article saying, “Nichol’s nastiness and increasingly unhinged partisanship … reflects an arrogance and radicalism that have been building for years,” and revealing Nichol’s $204,400 law school salary and that of his wife, the chief of staff for the UNC Health Care System.
Then Civitas filed a public records request for six weeks of Nichol’s emails, phone calls, and text messages from the fall of 2013, obtaining 1,180 pages of correspondence. Over a hundred professors signed an open letter to McCrory and Pope calling the request an abuse of power, and “citizens may reasonably infer that a sitting administration is using a private tax-exempt nonprofit organization funded by one of its leading officials to retaliate for criticism of its policies and intimidate future dissent.”
As a result of the controversy, Nichol was required to give the university a “heads up” before every column, and to add the words “He doesn’t speak for UNC” at the end. The News & Observer’s Jim Jenkins prophesied, “Republicans won’t respect the university for bending to their pressure. Instead, they’ll see weakness.” He was right.
In June of 2014, Civitas recommended cutting from centers and institutes. Two months later, McCrory signed a budget directing the Board of Governors to consider cutting $15 million. Despite private funding, the Poverty Center was targeted by a BOG Working Group on Centers and Institutes formed last September to review all 237 centers within the university system.
The working group selected 34 centers for scrutiny in “a very subjective process,” admits Working Group Chairman Jim Holmes. “Any member for any reason, or motivation, could pick a center they wanted to hear from, and we didn’t question [the] reason.”
Six of the seven working group members are Republicans—including Steven Long, who previously sat on the board at Civitas—and the other one is unaffiliated. Targeted centers include the Juvenile Justice Institute, Carolina Women’s Center, the UNC Center for Civil Rights, and the Sonja Haynes Center for Black Culture and History. In December, representatives of the 34 centers spoke at a hearing. “I don’t deny we engage in advocacy and that we have an agenda,” Nichol said at the hearing. “We think people at the bottom aren’t getting a fair shake.”
The working group will make recommendations about cuts and closing to a full BOG vote at their February 27 meeting. If the Poverty Center survives, according to Holmes, we should expect a policy requiring center directors to receive training on what they can and can’t say.
Closing the Poverty Center wouldn’t stop Nichol from writing, but it would be a further hollowing out of a public university system that used to have high regard for the poor. Former UNC system President Bill Friday was on stage when President John F. Kennedy told UNC students this “great institution … has required great sacrifice by the people of North Carolina. I cannot believe that all of this is undertaken merely to give this school's graduates an economic advantage in the life struggle.”
Friday, who served on the board of the Poverty Center till the day he died in 2012, later told Nichol’s students, “A million Tar Heels living in poverty paid taxes to support your education. You’ll want to think about what you’re going to do to pay ‘em back.”
The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy sees it differently. Last month, in a 36-page paper unironically titled "Renewal of the University," it proposed a national effort to replace centers that espouse “philosophies of multiculturalism, postmodernism, and statism” with centers that preserve and promote a “general philosophy of liberty.”
“At times in my life," Nichol says, "I’ve thought that if we work hard enough, that if we make these issues visible, then the wealthy will do more to help those at the bottom. I think that less frequently now.”