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John Edwards's new platform

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 21, 2005

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"The university ought not to be giving him a platform to run for President-and then paying him for it."

A few people around Chapel Hill were registering this complaint about John Edwards' new part-time position at the UNC Law School. He is the first director of the law school's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. This job was created especially for him and pays $40,000 a year.

I tried to answer one of the complaints, the one about the money. I explained that the funds to pay Edwards were coming from private

"This is not a political campaign. This is not about elections. This is about changing the country."

"Doesn't matter," one of my critical friends said, "it is still law school money."

Edwards himself tried to respond to the complaint about using the law school as a political platform. "This is not a political campaign. This is not about elections. This is about changing the country."

My friend was not satisfied. "He is running for President and everybody knows it. And now the university has made itself his launch pad."

This friend would probably not be convinced that having John Edwards on the Carolina campus is a good idea, no matter what good arguments there might be for it. In fact, my friend is almost certainly correct that John Edwards is already planning a Presidential run.

So, what is the answer to these complaints? What will the presence of a future presidential candidate do for Carolina?

Law school Dean Gene Nichol gave me part of the answer the other day. "I could do a pretty good job getting a group of panelists for a program on poverty and the law, but with John Edwards' connections, he can get the very best minds in the country and make for an outstanding program."

It is true, as I have learned, that much of getting things done is having people answer or return your phone calls. Important people across the country, who would not have time to talk to you or me or even Dean Nichol, will drop what they are doing to talk to a nationally known figure like Edwards.

Nichol thinks that having Edwards' connections working for the law school and the university is worth a whole lot more that Edwards is being paid.

Getting a national figure to a college campus just to give one speech is often an expensive proposition. In connection with former President Bill Clinton's and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's appearances at the recent Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State University, we learned that Clinton's usual fee is about $100,000 and that Gingrich's is about $40,000. Maybe Edwards does not command that much as a speaker today, but his friends will remind us that when he was practicing law in the courtroom, his speeches to the jury often earned him millions of dollars.

When you put all these things in the pot, $40,000 a year seems like a bargain.

Still, my critical friend would press, are we still avoiding the basic question about the propriety of a university giving a presidential candidate a launching platform?

A similar question arose, in the 1970's when then Duke President Terry Sanford launched efforts to win the Democratic presidential nomination. There were some critics, but most Duke supporters accepted the connection between Sanford's active political life and the benefit to Duke of his connections and energy, which were part and parcel of the political animal that he was.

Universities are centers of teaching and learning. They do a better job with those tasks when they are also breeding grounds for new ideas and market places where these ideas compete for attention from those who can put them to work in service to the public.

When hard-charging, well-informed, ambitious, articulate people bring their ideas and programs to college campuses, they spark discussion and activity.

These kinds of people are attracted to presidential candidates like bears to honey (or Carolina basketball fans to the Dean Dome). Why? They want their ideas in the mind of a possible president. And they want their names to be on the possible president's list of possible advisors and cabinet officials.

A possible president, wherever he happens to be, can create a beehive of intellectual activity, debate, and attention. These will benefit North Carolina's flagship public university and the entire state, whatever you might think of John Edwards and his politics.


[i]D.G Martin is host of "Who's Talking" on radio station WCHL in Chapel Hill each week day evening at 6 and 10. Archived editions are available on the station's website (WWW.WCHL1360.COM). An interview with UNC Law School Dean Gene Nichol about John Edward's new position is archived as program #140.

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John Edwards's new platform
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