The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday November 30th

Opinion: Board of Governors should preserve research centers and institutes

On Wednesday and Thursday, 34 centers and institutes across the UNC system will be asked to justify their existence, including nine centers here at UNC’s flagship campus.

The centers will each make a brief 15-minute presentation to a UNC Board of Governors working group, which will then make recommendations on whether each center will be supported, have its funding reallocated, or be terminated entirely. 

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The full BOG will make final decisions about each center’s fate in January. 

This injudicious process has primarily targeted centers and institutes working to help marginalized groups, including the UNC Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, the Carolina Women’s Center, the UNC Center for Civil Rights, the UNC Institute on Aging, North Carolina Central University’s Juvenile Justice Institute and Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Center. 

The review of these institutions began with a mandate from the General Assembly ordering the BOG to consider reallocating $15 million from the UNC-System centers and institutes to distinguished professorships and the system’s strategic directions initiative. 

The legislature should not be trying to micromanage academic operations, and the BOG should not act in tandem with an overreaching legislature. Targeting other centers and institutes that serve marginalized communities only makes this process more suspect.

The process used to review these centers is bizarre. In general, these institutions rely heavily on private funding and have already seen their public funding slashed in recent years. Furthermore, many of these centers and institutes could continue to operate without it, so citing expense as an excuse to entirely shut down these institutions doesn’t make any sense.

And $15 million does not constitute a make-or-break amount of funding for the strategic directions initiative, which requires an estimated $650 million in investment between 2013-2019. These centers are not viable candidates for further cuts.

Proponents of cuts have pointed to supposed redundancies in UNC's array of centers and institutes. But it would not be unreasonable for each campus to have institutes of these types, just as each campus has English and chemistry departments. The issues with which the centers on the chopping block are concerned need more study, not less.

These institutions perform vital services for North Carolina’s residents, conduct invaluable research, provide irreplaceable learning and training opportunities for students and have become safe havens for communities that suffer from discrimination.

Disturbingly, reporting by the (Raleigh) News & Observer suggests there is reason to believe political motives are driving this review process, particularly in the case of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

The poverty center is a small organization with only three employees that operates with a small budget that is largely paid for by outside donors. But the director of the center, Gene Nichol, a law professor, has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Pat McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly for enacting policies that actively hurt the poor. Evidence collected by the News & Observer indicates the review process could have been colored by a grudge held against Nichol by McCrory’s political allies.

Student groups like the North Carolina Student Power Union and the Board of Governors Democracy Coalition have mobilized to defend these centers. They have created a petition asking the Board of Governors to end this process and are planning other actions in the midst of exams despite the BOG’s penchant for underhandedly convenient timing.

Students and staff have poured countless hours of labor and work into these centers. The Board of Governors should not punish these institutions for pursuing their missions. If they do, students and professors should react strongly, vocally and visibly.

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this editorial  misstated the number of employees at the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The center has a director who receives a stipend, one full-time employee and a part-time employee. The editorial has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

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