No Special Treatment for Political Activists of any Stripe

AcademeBlog invited Jay Schalin, Director of Policy Analysis at The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy to respond to a critique by John K. Wilson of Schalin’s essay on Gene Nichol and the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at UNC-Chapel Hill. Below is Schalin’s response, which is crossposted at the Pope Center.

No Special Treatment for Political Activists of any Stripe
By Jay Schalin

University governing bodies routinely close and defund academic programs, be they degree programs, academic departments, or centers and institutes. In 2009, the North Carolina Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school was stripped of its state funding, while almost all other academic centers in the UNC system retained theirs. This occurred with a Democratic majority in the state legislature and a large Democratic majority on the system’s governing body, the Board of Governors.

At that time, it was generally accepted throughout North Carolina that the Poverty Center was unworthy of state funding. It was too focused on advocacy, rather than on objective academic scholarship. Its association with John Edwards was an embarrassment. Furthermore, a law school was an odd place to have a center supposedly devoted to studying poverty.

The Poverty Center continued for a few years with private funding—but it received in-kind subsidies such as using university resources and the UNC name for fundraising.

Last year, the state legislature ordered the Governors to evaluate the UNC system’s 240 centers and perhaps “thin the herd” a little. Three were ordered closed and eight placed on probation. The choice to close the Poverty Center was non-controversial, as most thought it should have been closed years ago.

Or it was non-controversial until Poverty Center director Gene Nichol began hurling accusations that it was politically motivated and an attack on academic freedom.

The closure had nothing to do with Nichol’s increasingly shrill attacks on the state’s Republican majority. But Nichol—an attention-seeking former aspiring politician who unsuccessfully ran for both the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate in Colorado—turned it into a political football.

The Poverty Center’s closure is not a First Amendment issue—except in the minds of Nichol and his supporters. He is as free as anybody else to say whatever he pleases when speaking as a private citizen who happens to be a law professor. He still writes columns in the North Carolina media. Nobody in North Carolina’s conservative community wants Gene Nichol silenced. Not only do we support his right to free speech, but we like having him as the voice of North Carolina progressives, as his reasoning tends to be sloppy and his rhetoric is abrasive.

In fact, in 2008, when he arrived back in North Carolina, 58 percent of the state legislature and 54 percent of the state’s Congressional delegation were Democratic; today, 36 percent and 23 percent are. He is a non-factor in state politics.

Nor has Nichol had his academic freedom violated. As the AAUP’s own documents attest, academic freedom means professors have responsibilities as well as rights. Just as it is inappropriate to introduce partisan politics into the classroom, it is inappropriate to turn an academic center subject to the spirit of open inquiry into one’s personal partisan soapbox, as did Nichol with the Poverty Center.

Nor can he claim that he was making extramural comments as a private citizen who happens to be a professor rather than as a center director, thereby giving him wider latitude. Many of his political attacks were published in his Raleigh News & Observer column entitled “Seeing the Invisible.” It was specifically about poverty, and his byline stated that he was “… director of the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.” He clearly wrote as the center director about the center’s specific subject matter. By also writing as a partisan, he clearly crossed a line beyond which there is no academic freedom.

As Mr. Wilson said, I have written approvingly of centers that have conservative origins. But those centers are not “overtly ideological,” as Wilson claims. I know of no case in which center directors with conservative origins at public universities write angry columns attacking Democratic politicians. Whereas Nichol openly admitted that he has an “agenda” of “advocacy,” those center directors scrupulously focus on their academic missions and avoid any hint of involvement with current politics because they know they have powerful adversaries ready to pounce at the slightest hint of partisanship.

And they indeed include a variety of views. For instance, Wade Maki, who runs the Program in Capitalism, Markets, and Morality at UNC-Greensboro, often includes readings by Karl Marx in his course “Markets and Morality.”

Nichol deliberately picked this fight. He could have done the right thing when ordered to close his center by opening up a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which would permit him to be as partisan as he likes. He could have fought openly in court, putting it all on the line.

Instead, he petulantly challenged the governance structure by reopening the center at the law school under a different name and structure. He openly stated that he will continue the activities of the Poverty Center—how then is it not a center? There are far too many puzzling and conflicting elements as to how the Poverty Fund was created out of the ashes of the Poverty Center to mention here—or to concede its legitimacy.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy will continue to ask questions about the new Poverty Fund. We expect Gene Nichol to submit to legitimate governance just like everybody else; there is nothing about his message that warrants special treatment.

2 thoughts on “No Special Treatment for Political Activists of any Stripe

  1. It is doubtful to imagine, as Schalin claims, that “The closure had nothing to do with Nichol’s increasingly shrill attacks on the state’s Republican majority,” especially since Schalin cites those attacks to justify the closure.

    Academic freedom has no “line” of “writing as a partisan” “beyond which there is no academic freedom” as Schalin says. This is a frightening vision of academia as a world where any opinion deemed “partisan” by some opponent is grounds for suppression and punishment.

    According to Schalin, “As the AAUP’s own documents attest, academic freedom means professors have responsibilities as well as rights. Just as it is inappropriate to introduce partisan politics into the classroom, it is inappropriate to turn an academic center subject to the spirit of open inquiry into one’s personal partisan soapbox, as did Nichol with the Poverty Center.”

    Schalin’s thinking on this point is wrong in many ways. Staying silent about politics is absolutely not one of the responsibilities required for professors by the AAUP’s documents. To the contrary, the AAUP explicitly protects the right of professors (like anybody else) to express political opinions. And if centers can be closed because of the views of their directors, then why can’t professors be fired for their political views, especially if it is “beyond” the protections of academic freedom?

    Schalin denies the charge of hypocrisy which I make: “I know of no case in which center directors with conservative origins at public universities write angry columns attacking Democratic politicians. Whereas Nichol openly admitted that he has an ‘agenda’ of ‘advocacy,’ those center directors scrupulously focus on their academic missions and avoid any hint of involvement with current politics because they know they have powerful adversaries ready to pounce at the slightest hint of partisanship.”

    This is manifestly untrue. I could find a thousand examples, but here’s one. A few days before the 2008 presidential election, Robert George (whom Schalin calls “renowned”) wrote an essay attacking Barack Obama and urging people to vote against him. Just before the biographical note identifying him as the Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, George concluded: “Voting for the most extreme pro-abortion political candidate in American history is not the way to save unborn babies.”(http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2008/10/133/)
    If that’s not an “angry column attacking Democratic politicians” and a “hint of involvement with current politics,” I don’t know what is. But George should be perfectly free to express his opinions about politics. No one should threaten to remove the James Madison Program just because George has political views, whatever they are.

    We do need to take politics out of the university, by making sure that politicians and universities do not punish professors–or the centers and departments they work with–for the expression of political views. Instead of trying to ban politics on campus and trusting administrators and the government to decide what words are political, we should be defending the freedom of everyone, left and right, to speak.

  2. The hypocrisy of Schalin’s response would be laughable were it not for the apparent power he and his Center wield in North Carolina and, alas, elsewhere. Back in February the Pope Center issued a slick “report,” which boasted that there are now about 150 college centers, programs, or institutes devoted to exposing undergraduates to conservative, traditionalist, or free-market-oriented perspectives—up from just two in 2000. Most of the centers described in the report are financed by just a few private major donors. These donors, the report said, “have the leverage to negotiate the terms that can keep centers safe from faculty control.”

    At the time I posted a lengthy response to this spurious and crude report on this blog here: https://academeblog.org/2015/02/06/are-conservative-academic-centers-thriving/. My post concluded:

    “The report argues that conservative centers should strive to avoid “politicization” (good advice), but then suggests that they have succeeded in doing so while centers funded by allegedly liberal sources remain highly politicized. But the fact is that there are centers on campuses whose approach leans left and others where the approach leans right. This is hardly problematic, so long as these centers function in a scholarly way. There is no such thing as totally “objective” scholarship; in all fields scholars argue for their conclusions. In some cases these conclusions may have political implications. That’s fine. But it seems to me that to conclude that centers where the conclusions appear, to the authors of this “report,” to be “liberal” are somehow “political,” while those that produce outcomes they support are not politicized is simply disingenuous.”

    Both Nichol and Schalin have every right to criticize each other’s views and to advance their own political agendas. And, as I wrote in my previous post, “While overall a school’s curriculum should reflect the full breadth of ideas across the spectrum of knowledge, I see no reason to establish ideological litmus tests that might prevent individual courses being taught from either a “pro-capitalist” or “anti-capitalist” perspective.” But if anyone has unduly politicized the university, as John points out, it is the North Carolina Legislature whose intrusion into decision-making that should be strictly academic is a classic example of what the AAUP — and just about everyone else but the Pope Center — has always seen as a violation of the basic principles of academic freedom.

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