The greatest threat to North Carolina, says Gene Nichol, director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, is a plague of wrenching poverty. Ten years ago, North Carolina ranked 26th in poverty; it's now 11th. Forty-one percent of minority children are poor, and in places like Charlotte, with the worst upward mobility of any American metropolitan, their lives will never change.
But the Poverty Center is on the verge of shutting down. Nichol's criticism of Republican policies made him an enemy of the governor, a target of the state legislature and a victim of a conservative takeover of the university system.
Amidst public scrutiny from UNC's Board of Governors, Nichol agreed to meet with me last November. Brawny with brown but graying hair below his ears, Nichol wore short sleeves, and unfazed by the freezing temperature, spoke of childhood in a Dallas Catholic school.
Son of a Texas sharecropper, Nichol's worldview formed when influential boosters recruited the high school star to play college football. "My father was the most impressive person I knew, and these wealthy people thought he was inferior," says Nichol. "Even then, I knew it was fucked up."
The Poverty Center was founded in 2005 by former senator John Edwards and UNC's School of Law, where Nichol was dean. During his unsuccessful vice presidential campaign, Edwards used the center to hone his "Two Americas" platform. Nichol left to become president of the College of William & Mary, but was forced to resign in 2008 for removing a cross from a secular chapel and allowing a sex workers' art show in the name of free speech.
Nichol returned to take over the center as the Great Recession forced thousands more into poverty, and resulting education cuts ended public funding of the Poverty Center in 2009.
With private grants from the UNC Law Foundation and Z. Smith Reynolds, the center carried on its work, taking a poverty tour of the state, filling its blog with articles on issues like being pregnant and poor, and releasing policy briefs on topics ranging from the Earned Income Tax Credit to a community approach to retail development.
Then Republicans swept the 2010 election. Nichol decided, "given altered circumstances in Raleigh and Washington, it [was] essential to change directions ... we face an unfolding crisis in North Carolina for poor and working class folks." Nichol penned editorials in the News & Observer when Republicans cut unemployment benefits and refused the Medicaid expansion.
The criticism was not welcomed. On three occasions in 2013, UNC law dean Jack Boger relayed threats from the legislature. If Nichol didn't stop writing articles, they'd close the Poverty Center, move it to UNC-Pembroke, or he'd be fired. But he pressed on, accusing the GOP of an "unforgivable war on poor people," violating "our history, our ethics, our scriptures and our constitution."
When protestors gathered for Charlotte's Moral Monday, legislators indicated if Nichol gave a speech, grave consequences would follow. Nichol gave the speech.
After McCrory signed the voter ID bill, Nichol wrote a column, in which he called Gov. McCrory a "21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus," three segregationist governors from the 1960s.
Imagine McCrory's face. "Pat called from Mississippi this morning," wrote UNC Board of Governors member Ed McMahan to board chairman Peter Hans. Hans complained to UNC president Tom Ross, who felt they were "over-reacting."
Retaliation came from McCrory's budget director, Art Pope, or at least the think-tanks his family financed, including the John Locke Foundation, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and the Civitas Institute.
Three days after Nichol's Oct. 15, 2013, N&O story, Civitas's Francis De Luca and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy's Jane Shaw simultaneously published an online piece entitled "Academic Freedom or Shrill Partisanship?" In it, they wrote: "Nichol's nastiness and increasingly unhinged partisanship ... reflects an arrogance and radicalism that have been building for years."
Claiming the Poverty Center violated university policy by engaging in politics, Civitas filed a public records request for Nichol's emails, phone calls and text messages, obtaining 1,180 pages of correspondence.
"He uses the Poverty Center as a personal left-wing play toy," De Luca told me in a recent interview. "The only poverty the Poverty Center addresses is that of Gene Nichol and the people who work there."
In response to the controversy, UNC required Nichol give a "heads up" before every column, and add the line "He doesn't speak for UNC" at the end.
That didn't end the backlash.
Last August, McCrory signed a budget directing the Board of Governors to consider cutting $15 million from centers and institutes. Despite private funding, the Poverty Center was targeted for review.
It's politics. "There's a bright line between expressing opinions of your expertise and engaging in advocacy," says John Hood, president of the John W. Pope Foundation. "Nichol goes far beyond the causes and solutions of poverty to personally criticize elected officials in ways that aren't academic."
Nichol says he's honored the Poverty Center is among the threatened institutions (including the Juvenile Justice Institute, Carolina Women's Center, and the Sonja Haynes Center for Black Culture and History), but worries an "ideological agenda" is behind the review.
All 32 members of the Board of Governors were appointed since 2010; 29 are registered Republicans. "The Board of Governors is philosophically different than it used to be," says De Luca. "Republicans appointed them."
A factor-based inquiry narrowed 237 centers down to a list needing further inquiry, but a second phase focusing on 34 centers "was a very subjective process," says Jim Holmes, the chairman of a working group formed in September to make cuts. "Any member for any reason, or motivation, could pick a center they wanted to hear from."
Steven Long, one of the seven members of the working group, is a former board member at Civitas. Another is Ed McMahan, the board member McCrory called from Mississippi.
When the group convened in December to hear from the 34 centers, students lined the walls, some with black tape over their mouths, others with signs that read "Dear BOG, why are marginalized groups a target?"
Nichol's hand shook as he wiped sweat from his forehead. "I don't deny we engage in advocacy, and that we have an agenda," he told the panel. "We think people at the bottom aren't getting a fair shake."
According to Holmes, recommendations, including termination, will go to the full Board of Governors for a Feb. 27 vote, and they plan to implement an advocacy policy advising center directors on what they can, and can't say.
On Jan. 16, the Board of Governors announced UNC system president Tom Ross will leave next year, forcing him into retirement. If he's expendable, supporters of the Poverty Center expect the worst.
The real victims are the 1.7 million living at or below the poverty level in North Carolina; they're losing a voice. "I spent an afternoon with a homeless woman in Hickory, and haven't gotten over it," Nichol tells me. "She lost her cat, and said, 'I know it sounds stupid, but when you've lost everything, there is no longer any expectation you'll have a decent life. And you start to think you don't even deserve one.' I remember coming home after that and hearing some fool in the legislature say, 'We don't have any real poor people in North Carolina.'"