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Faculty respond to Board of Governors decision to close poverty center

Chancellor Carol Folt raced to Friday’s Faculty Council meeting from the Board of Governors meeting in Charlotte, where members decided to close UNC School of Law’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and two other UNC-system centers.

Chairman of the Faculty Council Bruce Cairns, who also attended the Board of Governors meeting Friday, opened the Faculty Council meeting by saying how successfully Folt represented the University in front of the Board of Governors.

“You would be awfully proud of her when she had the chance to speak to the Board of Governors,” Cairns said. “I was quite proud to have her as our chancellor at that moment.”

Upon arriving, the first action Folt took was to request a moment of silence in memory of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, victims of the February 10 shooting in Chapel Hill.

Centers and Institutes

Before Folt’s arrival at the meeting, the Faculty Executive Committee submitted a resolution related to recent actions of the Board of Governors for the general faculty's approval.

The resolution states that the Faculty Executive Committee strongly recommends maintaining the UNC-system policy that each campus's Board of Trustees has full authority to both create and discontinue centers and institutes, “subject to the general policies set by the Board of Governors.”

The resolution also requested that the Board of Governors allow the UNC-CH Board of Trustees to make the ultimate decision on its centers and institutes, especially the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity.

“The important work of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity is consistent with UNC-Chapel Hill’s long and proud tradition of service to the state’s citizens and is entirely funded by non-state sources," the resolution said.

When the contents of the resolution were read at the Faculty Council meeting, faculty, students and other audience members broke into applause.

“We’re a bit concerned that every one of our centers and institutes was scrutinized in a way that made us concerned that, first of all, people did not understand what happens in centers and institutes," Folt said.

"They did not understand what they do. They didn’t understand also how they’re funded or reviewed. Part of our job was to make this an enormous educational opportunity."

Folt said the Board of Governors asked campuses to look for ways to support the centers without state funding. UNC-CH is already working on other ways to support its centers, she said.

“We were disappointed,” Folt said. “We disagreed with it. We argued against the decision to close the poverty center.”

“It’s very obvious to all of us that faculty and students, not just in Chapel Hill but in many places, really are concerned that the decision to close this center has a serious chilling effect on work in the area of poverty but also on voices that speak out in critical areas like that."

Folt and Dean said the Chancellor told the Board of Governors that UNC-CH would continue to work on poverty issues.

“There are things going on in nearly every school that deal with poverty,” Dean said. “The work that’s already going on will continue, and we hope to expand that work and put money behind that work, including what’s going on in the law school. This work can continue with or without the framework of the center, and we plan on finding the way to do that.”

After Folt and Dean spoke, faculty members pressed them on how the decision will affect UNC-CH.

School of Public Health professor Beth Mayer-Davis asked how the Board of Governors had the authority to close the center, if the Board of Trustees held the ultimate decision-making ability.

Folt responded that this is incorrect.

“It was their decision,” Folt said. “As it turns out, there were a lot of questions about who had the authority. They do have the statute of authority to do this.”

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Anthropology professor Vin Steponaitis described a proposed change in Board of Governors policy that would say, though most decisions dealing with centers and institutes would be made on a campus level, the Board of Governors could overrule these decisions at any time, without any real reason for doing so.

Folt said this hierarchy of power is actually not a proposed change, but already exists as policy.

“They say that they did not change the policy,” Folt said.

“They’ve always had the right, and they were given the mandate by the legislature. It was debated among members of the board, and that was one of the big conversations: ‘We don’t want to develop a policy where we micromanage. It’s going to be very rare and in response to unique circumstances.’”

French professor Hassan Melehy expressed fear that the Board of Governor’s decision to close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity reflects an attempt to silence certain forms of speech.

“I myself have written articles critical of certain government policies,” Melehy said. “I can always claim I’m doing it on my own time, but how long will it be before someone says we’re going to evaluate whether or not you’re do this on your own time? You could potentially be dismissed for making political criticisms. That’s very chilling.”

Applause followed Melehy’s comment. 

“We cannot respond to what they haven’t done,” Melehy said of the Board of Governors’ actions. “But there’s evidence that it’s coming.”

School of Public Health professor Beth Moracco brought a printed copy of the 74-page report, which she said she had read in its entirety.

“We in public health know that poverty and inequality are inextricably linked to physical and mental health,” Moracco said. “I’m disturbed by the outcome of the Board of Governors meeting, but I’m equally if not more disturbed by the process by which it occurred.”

“It was really disconcerting to read no good rationale for discontinuing the center. There’s one page in a 74-page document that says why they decided to close the report. That’s not good evidence. If a student turned this in as their rationale, I’d tell them it was bad writing.”

“I feel like this could just happen again, and again, and again,” Moracco said.

Dean and Folt sought to reassure faculty members.

“We will preserve academic freedom on this campus,” Dean said. "We will preserve researching poverty.”

After the meeting, Folt and Dean reiterated their defense.

"There's nothing that's going to happen, based on what's happened so far, that's going to infringe on anyone's academic freedom," Dean said.

Law professor Theodore Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights, commended the students who attended the Feb. 27 Board of Governors meeting in Charlotte.

“These students were magnificent,” Shaw said. “I think for all of us, top-to-bottom within the university, this is a defining moment of our values and who we are. This is also an opportunity. The state is watching, higher institutions are watching, the nation is watching. We don’t want to come out of this wanting.”

“If you fight, you may win, you may lose — but if you don’t fight, you can’t win.”

Joseph Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History, and Eric Muller, director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, expressed their gratitude for the help and guidance of Folt and Dean in preparing their speeches for why their centers should continue to exist.

Contextualized Grading

Undergraduate Representatives to Faculty Council Eliza Filene and Wilson Parker, along with Student Body President Andrew Powell and Vice President Kyle Villemain, presented thoughts from student government on the topic of contextualized grading.

"It's important to stress that even though we're going to have the students speak on this issue, it's not going to change the process we have in place and what we have voted on,” Cairns said.

Students presented what they see as the drawbacks of a contextualized transcript.

Sociology professor Andrew Perrin argued that the conversation is void, as decisions were made years ago that the contextualized transcript would become standard for students.

Villemain said students' needs and the University itself have changed since contextualized grading was approved.

Athletics Reform Group

The faculty council next discussed resolutions proposed by the Athletics Reform Group, as submitted by history professor Jay Smith.

The four resolutions involved changing admission standards for athletic recruits, the integration of academic advising for student athletes into the advising framework established for non-athletes, the composition of the Faculty Athletics Committee and the creation of a task force to discuss impending changes in college sports.

Ultimately, the decision was made to talk about these issues in a later meeting.

Steponaitis, chairman of the committee on university government, said many of these issues are already being dealt with by other committees and should continue to be dealt with this way, with committee members reporting their findings to the larger faculty council.

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