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What UNC’s Poverty Center was hiding

By Francis De Luca
Posted Wednesday, February 26, 2014

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Chapel Hill, NC - A public records request filed by the Civitas Institute confirms that the UNC Poverty Center continues to use publicly funded resources for blatantly political activities in ways that are inappropriate, violate UNC policies, and possibly illegal.

Email records show that the center – formally the UNC Center for Poverty, Work, & Opportunity – hosted an invitation-only conference in November 2013 of top liberal activists and organizers. Details on the conference come from 1,180 pages of email correspondence grudgingly provided by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We requested six weeks’ worth of email correspondence by Poverty Center Director Gene Nichol in October 2013. Our request was met by foot-dragging and a firestorm of political outrage from the UNC law school and its allies. A group of liberal professors led by Duke professor Nancy McLean (see inset below) compared us to Nazis, newspapers across the state accused Civitas of intimidation, and the university did everything possible to stonewall our request. At the time, we were mystified by the sudden liberal opposition to transparent government. But after reviewing the results of our request, it now seems clear why there was so much pushback from Gene Nichol and his friends: They had something to hide.

The gross impropriety of using taxpayer-funded resources for political purposes is self-evident.

In September of 2013, UNC faculty at the Poverty Center began planning a conference that would ultimately be titled “Poverty, Partnerships, and the Public Good.” From the start, the event was highly partisan in nature. In the first draft of the event description, UNC School of Law professor Joe Polich wrote: “Poor people … face a legislature that is making sure the resources they depend on to help make ends meet are drying up.” This language was toned down in later revisions. The final “Save the Date” email, sent September 19, read:

On November 25th, the UNC Poverty Center and the Program on Public Life will convene a set of intimate discussions to explore obligations, strategies, and opportunities for various North Carolina advocates, service providers, institutions, programs, universities and funders – private and public – to address the challenges presently faced by poor and low income North Carolinians.

At Nichol’s direction, the Poverty Center began soliciting participants and invitees for the conference. Dan Gerlach of the Golden LEAF Foundation expressed concern about the political tone of the invitation: “I would be cautious about attending given my Board makeup if this turns into a political fight against the current regime.” In his response, Nichol reassured Gerlach that there would be no such “political fight.” But in correspondence with Tim Tyson, a Duke professor, Nichol’s tone changed sharply. Tyson wrote that he would “come holler at the panel … [and] tell folks … [to] run McCrony[sic]-Pope over with the Steamroller of Love.” Nichol responded: “[T]hanks my brother. I do want you to yell a little bit. Or maybe a lot.”

The invitation list for the event makes it clear that the Poverty Center intended for their “intimate discussions” to be exclusively between liberals. Indeed, the list of 90-plus invitees reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Left in North Carolina. Among the groups represented were the NAACP, the North Carolina Justice Center, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the ACLU, Democracy North Carolina, and other leftist organizations.

It’s not clear what exactly was said at the conference. Only one reporter, Leoneda Inge of WUNC, is known to have attended, and she took part as a panelist, not a reporter. Inge filed a story, but the story made no mention of the fact that she attended as a participant, not an observer. But an outline of one presentation by Legal Aid describes a “grim picture” in North Carolina, and calls the state’s actions a “bad direction for public policies.” Additionally, the panel titles give some clue as to the subjects of discussion:

  • The 2013 Legislative Session and Its Impact on Low-Income North Carolinians
    • Panelists: Rev. Curtis Gatewood (NC NAACP), Leoneda Inge (WUNC), Bill Rowe (Justice Center), Pam Silberman (NC Institute of Medicine)
  • The Altered Landscape of Community Economic Development in North Carolina
    • Panelists: Yolanda Burwell (Rural Center), Tracey Dorsett (Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation), Martin Eakes (Self-Help), Andrea Harris (NC Institute of Minority Economic Development), Anita Brown-Graham (Institute for Emerging Issues)
  • Challenges and Responses of the North Carolina Philanthropic Community
    • Panelists: David Dodson (MDC), Dan Gerlach (Golden LEAF), Melinda Lawrence (Justice Center), Leslie Winner (Z. Smith Reynolds)
  • UNC, Public Universities, Public Obligations
    • Panelists: Prof. Hodding Carter (UNC), Prof. Ferrel Guilory (UNC), Prof. Jarvis Hall (NCCU), Prof. Tim Tyson (Duke), Prof. Lynne Vernon-Feagans (UNC).

Based on internal correspondence, the invitation list, and the event descriptions, there is no question that the event was political in nature. Of course, that is hardly anything new for the Poverty Center. The Poverty Center started as a place for John Edwards to remain visible after his failed 2004 bid for Vice President. Edwards used the Poverty Center to remain in the public eye as he prepared for the 2008 presidential campaign. Since then, the Center has repeatedly engaged in liberal activism. In 2011, the Poverty Center hosted a summit titled “Progress and Economic Justice in a Time of Crisis.” During the summit, speakers attacked “the people that control the General Assembly,” “right-wing think tanks,” and the ever-predictable chimera of the Koch brothers. Civitas’ attempts to access public records pertaining to the 2011 event were repeatedly stymied by UNC.

The gross impropriety of using taxpayer-funded resources for political purposes is self-evident. But it appears that in the latest conference the Poverty Center may also have violated state law. As a public body, UNC is prohibited from holding closed meetings except in very specific circumstances. Under Chapter 143 of the General Statutes, all meetings must be open to the public at large. Public bodies must also provide advance notice of meetings. But in multiple emails to invited participants, Gene Nichol described the Poverty Center event as a “closed conference.” A draft of the official invitation called it a “small, invitation-based conference,” while a later draft described it as a “small gathering of select invitees.” No matter the phrasing, this was not an open meeting.

Despite Nichol’s best efforts to keep the event secret, word of the conference spread in liberal circles. Duke professor Nancy MacLean sent the invitation to the entire listserv of the Duke CLASS Center, much to Nichol’s annoyance. And word-of-mouth also led uninvited parties to invite themselves. Among the groups that tried to nose in on Nichol’s exclusive conference were the state AFL-CIO, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, the UNC American Indian Center, Stone Circles, and the North Carolina Community Development Initiative.


Spotlight: Professor Nancy MacLean

Nancy MacLean, a professor of history at Duke University, jumped into the public spotlight as the head of a group called Scholars for North Carolina’s Future (SNCF). The organization, which was once called Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina, requires its members to use their academic credentials to influence public discourse for liberal causes.

When Civitas filed its request for public records pertaining to this article, SCNF was the primary source of liberal outrage. The groups and its allies held a press conference on the grounds of the State Capitol, shrilly warning of the threat that transparency laws have for “academic freedom.” MacLean had a role in the Poverty Center’s secret conference. Despite the fact that the invitation made it clear that the event was private, MacLean distributed it to a Duke listserv.

With considerable frustration, Gene Nichol, head of the UNC Poverty Center, emailed MacLean: “Nancy, this is an invitation only conference. You can’t send it out to list serves [sic] …”

MacLean responded: “Oh dear, I was trying to be helpful. Will fix.” In a private email to Poverty Center staff, Nichol complained: “Right. Let’s don’t do anymore [invitations] yet … we don’t want our invite list to become Nancy’s …”It’s worth asking whether MacLean, in protesting Civitas’ public records request, was trying to prevent knowledge of the UNC conference and her involvement from becoming public.


Poverty Center staff realized that their event likely violated state statutes pertaining to open meetings. On October 9, UNC program coordinator Mary Irvine wrote: “I … do not want to run afoul of any policy regarding events being open to the public vs. closed meeting.” Nichol responded: “Right … any response we make will need to begin with the notion that we only have 50 seats because of the room – it’s not that it’s closed – we just can’t accommodate many folks.” Irvine responded: “Unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll indicate that the room holds 50 persons so space is limited and we cannot currently accommodate additional participants ….” Nichol wrote simply: “Good….”

Effectively, these emails by Nichol and Irvine show that Nichol was aware that their event was subject to open meeting laws. Nichol told Irvine to tell interested parties that the room was full, but that was a lie. The room did not actually become fully occupied until almost a week later on October 14, when Irvine wrote: “I’m concerned we are getting quite close [to full].”

It all boils down to this: The UNC Poverty Center used public resources to host a closed event which was political in nature and appears to have been blatantly partisan, in violation of the state laws on open government. I suspect, given the Poverty Center’s previous activities, that this is likely the tip of the iceberg. Further review of the Poverty Center will likely show that North Carolina taxpayers have been subsidizing political organizing and activism, not higher education. The UNC Board of Governors should initiate a full investigation of the Center for Poverty, Work, & Opportunity. If the investigation confirms our findings, UNC should move to close the center or to end all public funding and support for it.

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What UNC’s Poverty Center was hiding
What is Gene Nichol, director of the school's Center on Poverty, hiding from the public?