Earlier this year, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Governors ordered the closing of the law school’s Poverty Center in an act of political retaliation against its outspoken director, Gene Nichol. The AAUP condemned the decision.
This month, Nichol announced that Center would be replaced by the new North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the Law School, which would do much of the same work. As Nichol noted, “Censorship has a poor track record. It won’t prevail here either.”
Jay Schalin of the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy wrote a commentary blasting the new fund and calling upon the Board of Governors to ban it.
I criticized Schalin’s earlier defense of banning the Center, and his new argument is even worse.
Schalin claims that the new fund “shows great contempt for the UNC system Board of Governors, the state legislature, and the people of North Carolina. It also may be illegal.” It’s not illegal (unlike the decision to close the Center, which violated the First Amendment). Nichol could have wasted taxpayer money in a lengthy lawsuit; instead, he chose a creative way to make sure that research on poverty wasn’t banished from the University of North Carolina because of petty partisan hatred.
According to Schalin, “Nor is the Center’s closure a matter of academic freedom. Nichol has not been punished for anything he said. He has openly bellowed his opinions across a wide swath of media outlets in North Carolina both before and after the center was ordered to be closed and his job as a professor has not been threatened.” This is a ridiculous standard. Suppose that the Democrats controlled a state legislature and announced that any professor who criticizes Democrats would have any centers they are connected with closed, but they wouldn’t lose their jobs. Schalin would be shouting “academic freedom” from every rooftop, as would the AAUP and every other group. There are many ways to try to silence academic freedom, and shutting a center for the political speech of its director is definitely one of them.
According to Schalin, “the center was not academic. This means that it failed to meet proper constraints of ‘open inquiry’; it deliberately did not explore the full rational range of potential reasons for poverty”
This is total nonsense. Schalin has been one of the loudest advocates of overtly ideological, right-wing programs, and every single conservative center promoted by Schalin would fail to meet this test. No scholar and no academic center anywhere explores “the full rational range of potential reasons” for anything. It’s an impossible standard to meet. Moreover, Schalin has no evidence that the Center excluded any of the ideas Schalin supports; Schalin simply assumes that this is the case because scholars involved with the Center didn’t choose to focus on the issues Schalin thinks are important.
Schalin rather ominously invokes the authoritarian powers of the Governors: “everything that goes on in the university system is in the purview of the Governors.” He demands that the Governors must shut down the new Fund. And then Schalin goes further, calling for “a full investigation” of Nichol and suggesting that Nichol and anyone else involved in approving the new Fund should be fired: “Nichol and others involved should be sent packing.”
Schalin is guilty of doing exactly what he falsely accuses Nichol of doing: treating a university as a political plaything, promoting one’s own side exclusively, banishing opposing voices, and seeking to suppress other views.
Schalin’s call for repression and censorship is unethical, unprincipled, hypocritical, and indefensible.