An advisory panel of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors has recommended closing three academic centers, including a poverty center and one dedicated to social change, inciting outrage among liberals who believe that conservatives in control of state government are targeting ideological opponents in academia.
Conservatives are cheering the move, seeing it as a corrective to a higher education system they believe has lent its imprimatur to groups that engage in partisan activism.
“They’re moving in the right direction, though I don’t think they went far enough,” said Francis X. De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh. “A lot of these centers were started up with a specific advocacy role in mind, as opposed to an educational role.”
But critics say the moves by a panel whose members were appointed by a Republican-dominated Legislature reflect the rightward tilt of state government.
“It’s clearly not about cost-saving; it’s about political philosophy and the right-wing takeover of North Carolina state government,” said Chris Fitzsimon, director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal group. “And this is one of the biggest remaining pieces that they’re trying to exert their control over.”
The impassioned response is the latest manifestation of a deep ideological rift in North Carolina that was exacerbated by the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. They soon enacted an ambitious conservative agenda in what had been one of the South’s more moderate states.
The fate of the 17-campus public university system was bound to be affected: While many here take pride in its carefully cultivated rise to the top tier of American public education, conservatives have long groused about some campuses, particularly the flagship school at Chapel Hill, as out-of-touch havens of liberalism.
Since the recession began, the state government has also subjected the system to budget cuts leading to the loss of hundreds of positions.
Twenty-nine of the 32 university board members were appointed by the Legislature after the Republicans’ 2010 gains. Last year, lawmakers instructed the board to consider redirecting some of the funding that goes to the system’s 240 centers and institutes, which focus on topics ranging from child development to African studies.
The advisory group’s report, which is likely to be considered by the full Board of Governors next Friday, recommends closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at Chapel Hill; North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change; and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity.
Jim Holmes, the chairman of the advisory group, said the three centers were not doing much work and were not encouraging multidisciplinary efforts as intended. “This is not a political issue or a political report,” he said. “Everybody wants to make it that.”
Representatives of the civic engagement institute and the poverty center defended their work as substantive; officials at the biodiversity center did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The report urges all of the centers to include in their regulations references to an existing university policy that prohibits employees from engaging in political activity on duty.
It also recommends a review of the Center for Civil Rights, affiliated with the University of North Carolina School of Law, to “define center policies around advocacy.”
Steven B. Long, a member of the advisory group and a former Civitas board member, said that the center had engaged in “inappropriate” activism. He also criticized it for filing costly lawsuits against local governments.
The head of the poverty center, Gene R. Nichol, a law professor, said that Republican lawmakers had made it known to him, through university officials, that they would shut the center if he did not stop criticizing them and Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, in his columns for The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Mr. Nichol said the center’s only agenda was to raise the profile of poverty in the state through research, teaching and advocacy. He added that the center did not receive any money directly from the Legislature, relying solely on private donations for its $120,000 annual operating budget.
The problem was not the center’s work, Mr. Nichol said, but the focus of its work. “The poverty center is an immensely productive operation,” he said. “They just don’t like what we produce.”