The UNC Board of Governors Friday approved hikes in tuition and fees across the UNC system. But the center of controversy at the board’s meeting was its unanimous decision to close three university-based policy centers, most notably UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The vote came after the meeting was moved to a smaller room because of protestors.
The meeting started out quiet enough but when the agenda turned to the closing of the three university-based academic centers, things became unwieldy.
Protesters in the audience stood up, interrupting the discussion. Some were ejected, others took their place, speaking out in support of the three centers. Supporters snapped their fingers in a rhythm and shouted chants, accusing the board of attacking their free speech.
The meeting became so chaotic that the board recessed and moved to a smaller room. Only the media was allowed in with board members and other university officials, which angered many.
Some tried to go through a door leading to the new location for the meeting but were stopped by security.
Eventually, the meeting resumed in a separate area and was streamed to the public in what had been the main meeting room. But about 20 protesters stood outside the doors, their loud chants heard clearly as board members continued discussion on the centers.
In the end, the board voted to close the poverty center, East Carolina’s Center for Biodiversity and North Carolina Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change.
NC Central student Denea Crowell was saddened by the vote.
“The Civic Engagement and Social Change Center is a liaison between black youth on their rights as citizens and voting and things like that, so we just need to keep that liaison,” Crowell said.
The poverty center remained the main focus for many other protesters, who accused the board of closing it because of its director, Gene Nichol.
“It’s clearly politically motivated,” said Elizabeth Brown a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill. “The fact that Gene Nichol the director of the poverty center has been speaking out against the legislature’s policies and board of governors, it’s censorship, so I’m here to protest that.”
Seth Keel, a junior at UNC Charlotte, agreed and added, “If they don’t think poverty is important, their eyes are not open. Poverty is growing at a high rate in North Carolina and if there’s no research and aren’t attacking it, you won’t solve the problem.”
James Holmes chaired the board’s working group that recommended the closures. He told the board that although the poverty center has been singled out as a scapegoat, politics played no hand in the recommendation that it close.
“Our review of that center was no different than any other,” he said.
“The center structure is not required for any activity ongoing in that endeavor. All of their work can continue it just doesn’t require this structure which requires a level of overhead and oversight that not requisite.”
The protesters had the support of UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. She said efforts are underway to increase the school’s focus on poverty and made it clear that she does not agree with the board’s decision.
“I disagreed with this action and hope we could have found a different way to go forward,” Folt said. “I think what I think the faculty and students are saying is they are fearful this decision is having a chilling effect on their work and their diverse perspectives on the area of poverty.”
Emeritus board member Hannah Gage told the board she was concerned about setting a precedent of interference.
“We clearly have the powers to intervene, the question is knowing when to use them and historically we’ve been judicious when we use them,” Gage said. “We are crossing a new line when we make this recommend and I think it’s a line I hope we don’t cross again, ends up being an exception and not the norm.”
According to Holmes, “Once we’re finished, campuses will be responsible for administering their centers and institutes as they were before with more rigorous guidelines and standards.”
Those guidelines include reviewing campus centers and institutes on a regular basis to ensure they are in compliance with university policies and training directors on those policies.
In other action, the board of Governors also voted to raise student tuition and approved a $30 per student charge to pay for security needs.