Academic Freedom or Shrill Partisanship?

(Editor’s note: This article is being simultaneously posted on the Pope Center and the Civitas Institute websites. On October 21 it was updated with a note about Nichol’s wife’s salary.)

In 2011, President Obama called for a more civil discourse to “make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” Unfortunately, Gene Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor—and former dean—at UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, appears to have no interest in adhering to that advice.

Nichol writes a regular column for the Raleigh News and Observer. On such subjects as hunger, unemployment, etc., his articles are predictably to the left and sometimes approach a screed or rant. “We’re engaged in a breathless competition to produce the most extreme government in America,” is a fairly typical statement. Or, “Havoc nears. The result will be unlike anything we’ve seen in more than three decades. ”

But Nichol outdid himself earlier this week. In an attack on North Carolina governor Pat McCrory published on Monday Oct. 14, Nichol called North Carolina’s new voter ID and election reform law the “most oppressive in the nation. ” Furthermore, McCrory’s support for the act in the face of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s suit against it makes McCrory “a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, those three were Democratic segregationist governors who made national publicity, to the shame of their states. Lester Maddox became famous in 1964 for keeping three African-Americans out of his Atlanta restaurant, with axe handle in the air. He was elected governor of Georgia two years later. In 1963, George Wallace stood in front of the University of Alabama in an unsuccessful effort to block black students from entering. Orville Faubus was an Arkansas governor who tried in 1957 to stop black students from entering Little Rock Central High School—until President Eisenhower ordered federal troops into Little Rock.

It’s hard to imagine a more vicious and false comparison for McCrory.

Nichol went on, referring to the state of North Carolina: “We now constitute the leading edge of Southern civil rights oppression.” Calling the state a vanguard of “civil rights oppression” is a fantastic accusation, one without foundation. Every major provision in the election reform law merely puts North Carolina on par with the majority of other states, and in some respects our election laws continue to be less restrictive than liberal northern states like New York.

Nichol simply detaches himself from reality with such wild accusations.

A nasty attack of this sort on a governor might be ignored if Gene Nichol were a fringe figure. But he is not. He is a law professor who receives $205,400 per year from North Carolina taxpayers. He is also director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, the UNC center founded in 2005 by former senator (and subsequently disgraced) John Edwards. He was dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school from 1999 to 2005, before a short stint as president of the College of William and Mary. He was also dean of the University of Colorado Law School from 1988 to 1995.

Nichol’s nastiness and increasingly unhinged partisanship—legally allowable but an embarrassment to the university of which he is a part—reflects an arrogance and radicalism that have been building for years.

Nichol courts controversy. He was fired from William and Mary in 2008 (the trustees declined to renew his contract and he abruptly quit) primarily for two acts that reflected his politics and his disdain for traditions. One was his decision to remove a historic cross from the Wren Chapel, a chapel used for religious services but also for secular events—because he didn’t want to subject secular students to such a sight. The second was his willingness to allow a crude and explicit performance of the Sex Workers’ Art Show (which the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin brought to public attention).

But, as Schalin wrote later, the Democratic establishment at UNC was quick to bring Nichol home. Indeed, he and his wife, Glenn George, were promised jobs within weeks of his resignation, even though the jobs were never advertised and there was no indication that any such jobs were needed, and normal hiring procedures were short-circuited. Nichol received a salary of $200,000 at the time and George received $168,000 in 2009. Each of them was to teach one class a semester. (Editor’s note: George is now chief of staff for the UNC Health Care System and the UNC School of Medicine and is paid $407,410 per year.)

Jack Bolger, dean of the law school, made the offers. He had been on the faculty when Nichol was dean, and succeeded him. In addition to the soft landing for him and his wife, Nichol was named director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the law school.

Although the legislature stopped public funding of the Center in 2010, it received nearly a million dollars in taxpayer funds from 2005 to 2008. The Poverty Center at UNC has avoided revealing details about its current funding, even though it is required by law to do so. In 2011, in response to a Civitas Institute public records request, a representative of the UNC Law School said that because the “Center’s programs and staff are funded entirely by private funds, its activities and associated work products do not fall under the jurisdiction of Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes.”

This is actually untrue. Chapter 132 is the North Carolina public records law. The law states that it covers documents relating to “transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.” As Clark Riemer of Civitas has pointed out, there is no exception in the law based on the source of funding.

Because the center is funded by private dollars, its officials falsely claim that it does not have to provide financial documents. However, it does not file an IRS Form 990, as all nonprofits are required to do, on the grounds that the center is part of the public UNC system. Thus, the center claims to be both private and public, depending on whom they are trying to conceal information from. (While the center ultimately turned over some documents to Civitas, it never released requested information about its fundraising and budget).

The Poverty Center claims that it is a “non-partisan” institute, yet the center and its director violate the spirit of that requirement. Nichol’s latest article is just the most recent example. Indeed, when state legislative control turned Republican in 2010, Nichol’s approach became decidedly more partisan (not to mention shrill). He even revamped a conference after the election of 2010.

Nichol said in an email that he had initially planned a conference “to explore a wide array of public and non-profit practices and ventures which have proven effective in fighting poverty and wealth disparity. But, frankly, given the altered circumstance in Raleigh and Washington, it has now seemed more important, or essential, to change directions.” Thus, the conference would take the form of “a large set of discussions, in mid-spring, to explore and develop and press an agenda for working people at a time of exigency in Carolina.“

In short, the center scrapped a conference on measures that at least proposed to aim at fighting poverty and instead planned a partisan rally against the new GOP majority. No conservative academics or legislators were invited to be on any of the panels. Instead, Nichol invited Z. Smith Reynolds and other Blueprint NC cohorts like NC Policy Watch, the NAACP and the NC Justice Center. Readers should recall that Blueprint NC was notoriously exposed through a leaked strategy memo that implored member organizations to “eviscerate” and “cripple” GOP leaders. Nichol continues to serve on the board of directors for the NC Justice Center, which ties him directly in with the Blueprint eviscerate network.

Nichol didn’t just write invective; he spoke it, as he did in 2011 at an event hosted by a Democratic women’s group. A blogger, Michael Carmichael, described his performance as: ariveting Jeremiad rippling with penetrating punchlines orchestrated against a leitmotif of bitterly incisive invective skewering the Republican radicalism now infecting the American electorate.”

Disappointingly, yet all too typical of Nichol, his “penetrating punchlines” amounted to little more than name-calling and clichéd fear mongering using well-worn out left-wing bogeymen.

“A politics of the Koch brothers, and Art Pope, and Wall Street, and John Roberts, and Nino Scalia, and Citizens United, and the Chamber of Commerce, and Bank of America—the malefactors of great wealth. Say, we’re not going to have it—whether we’ll occupy not only Wall Street, but—America.”

When reading Nichol’s diatribes, readers should consider the source. Nichol is a radical partisan who has desperately ratcheted up his rhetoric after seeing his preferred party lose control in North Carolina for the first time in more than a hundred years. Perhaps more disturbing is Nichol’s abuse of his stature at UNC-Chapel Hill to propagate his invective.

If President Obama and left-wing progressives want to see a more civil tone in public debate, they should start by addressing the rhetoric of Gene Nichol.