CHARLOTTE — Amid students chanting, shaking fists and banging on doors, the UNC Board of Governors voted unanimously on Friday to approve the closing of three UNC-system centers, including Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
Friday's meeting was marked by vocal, passionate protests that at times drowned out the proceedings. It was the culmination of a high-stakes review — the most comprehensive of its kind ever done in the UNC system — of the system's 237 centers and institutes over the past five months.
The decision to close the Center on Poverty has sparked widespread reaction in recent days from faculty, who've asserted that the board's actions target outspoken UNC law professor Gene Nichol, director of the poverty center, and therefore threaten academic freedom. Students have also criticized the board for not offering good enough reasons as to why they're closing specific centers.
As the board began to consider centers recommendations on Friday, protestors stood up one by one and began reading aloud editorials and letters about the centers and institutes. Board meetings typically don’t allow for public comment.
Board Chairman John Fennebresque repeatedly told them to “please be quiet" — but, as several students and UNC geography professor Altha Cravey disregarded the demands, raised their voices and kept reading, they were escorted out by police.
The students' actions eventually caused the board to move the meeting to a smaller room, where only board members, campus chancellors, staff and credentialed press were allowed. Though most members of the public were kept out, UNC-system President Tom Ross said later that the board was within the state's open meetings law.
Undeterred, students kept up a steady stream of loud chants just outside the room, yelling "let me in" and often overwhelming board members' comments.
Shannon Brien, a UNC junior and a member of the UNC BOG Democracy Coalition, said she and other students had planned for the board to try to silence them.
"Our expectation was that they'd continue escorting people out and maybe that they'd try to vote over us — talk over us and ignore us," she said.
"I don't think we thought that they would move it to another room because that's a violation of a public meeting," she added, gesturing to the students chanting behind her. "We're going to challenge them on that."
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt was given a chance to speak briefly during the meeting — as the students shouted, she said "we know that democracy is messy."
"We actually really appreciate the students and the faculty that are outside," she said. "We actually hear you, we know what you're saying."
Holmes said during a news conference that despite the disruption, he was glad to see students engaged with the board’s work.
“I think there possibly was a more appropriate way to go about it,” Holmes said. “But I understand the emotions that they believe passionately, and who are we to squelch someone's passion?”
The purpose of board meetings has traditionally been to conduct business, not to have public forums, Ross said.
Holmes said it’s a coincidence that the three centers closing — the poverty center, N.C. Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University's Center for Biodiversity — focus on liberal policy issues. Asked why these centers were tapped for discontinuation, he said the review revealed that the activities of these centers could continue outside of a center structure.
"There was no targeting. I can assure you of that," he said.
Hannah Gage, former chairwoman of the board, said she knows the board has the power to intervene in campuses' centers, but she's concerned about the degree to which the board stepped in with the review.
"We are crossing a new line when we make these recommendations," she said. "It's a line that I hope we don't cross again."
Ross acknowledged that he didn’t agree with all of the recommendations, though he said he respected the thoroughness of the process. He emphasized that it's not an attempt to inhibit free speech.
"I strongly believe in people's right to speak out," Ross said. “Just as the students have that right, and voiced it and used it this morning, I think everyone else has a right — that's part of what makes this nation a great one."
The board also voted to approve UNC-system tuition hikes for the next two years — averaging 4 percent systemwide for in-state students — and revisions to the UNC-system president selection process. Discussion of tuition was contentious, and nine board members voted against the proposal. Several of them voiced concerns about burgeoning college costs as students in the audience snapped appreciatively.
Ross said he supported the tuition hikes because campuses had clearly expressed the need for additional funds to recruit and retain key faculty and staff. The increase will generate around $50 million in total revenue.
"It was a tough balance, as it always is,” he said. “We’re at a point where if we’re going to remain competitive, if we're going to remain great, we have to have additional revenue."
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