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Board of Governors to Threaten All Life on Earth? An Analysis of the Decision to Discontinue Three UNC Centers

By Spencer Bennington
Guardian contributor

The Decision to Close Three UNC Centers
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On February 18th, a working committee from the UNC system’s legislative body, the Board of Governors (BOG), unanimously voted for the discontinuation of three separate University centers across North Carolina. The three centers recommended to close were Chapel Hill’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity; the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central; and the Center for Biodiversity located here at East Carolina University.

For readers unfamiliar with the hierarchy of the UNC collegiate system, these centers were all approved by the BOG for state funding years ago, once the associated campus faculty submitted an official proposal which outlined the center’s mission statement, goals with regard to education of college students and community members alike, as well as a financial plan detailing the process by which these centers would strive to become self-sustaining. After these proposals were accepted and approved, the centers and their operation procedures became the responsibility of the campus with which they were affiliated. As stated in the UNC policy manual, section 400.5[R], “Full authority for the oversight of institutional centers rests at the campus level, including establishment, management, and discontinuation” [emphasis added].

The UNC Policy Manual explicitly states that the decision to close a center rests solely on the campus level. In other words, this recommendation should have been one to come from each college’s Board of Trustees and executed by their Chancellor. Instead, in a tyrannical display of power, the BOG moved to deny each campus a say in their own fate by not only overstepping their own boundaries, but by forcefully removing protesters from the public meeting space. In fact, the committee only voted after first retreating into a sealed room for the remainder of the meeting.

Former BOG Chair Hannah Gage grimly stated, “We are crossing a new line, and I hope this is a line we don’t cross again.” Gage currently sits as an emeritus member of the board and does not hold voting power. Instead, her hopes that “this is an exception and not the norm” emerge only as hollow sentiments. While her sympathy may be real, her counsel apparently means little to the current BOG chair, John Fennebresque, and other voting members.

Ulterior Motives?
Many have tried to uncover the reasoning behind the recent decision. Out of 247 centers and institutes across the UNC system, why were these three subject to such sentencing? The obvious first answer when dealing with higher education is always the dreaded budget. In fact, the decision by the BOG to enact a full review of UNC centers and institutes did arise from the General Assembly’s attempt to save the state $15 million.

However, the three centers recommended to close only accounted for a total of $6,000.

$6,000. Out of $15,000,000.

Finding six thousand dollars when you’re looking for fifteen million is like finding a needle when you’re looking for the whole hay stack.

To add to this absurdity, UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for Poverty accounted for zero state funding. So to make the argument that any amount of the budget saved is beneficial is flawed because the discontinuation of at least one of these centers must have been motivated by something more substantial. Jim Holmes, committee chair for the review, stated that “State funding was a component of review, but it was not the only consideration.”

So what else was to consider? If these centers did not threaten the resources of the state in any way, what was the reason to close them? Board Chairman John Fennebresque wrote an opinion article explaining the proceedings stating that the poverty center specifically had not made “any appreciable impact on the issue.” Speaking more broadly regarding the investigation, Fennebresque stated that the criteria for assessing all centers rested on three metrics: the enhancement of the university’s educational mission, financial support, and intra-disciplinary collaboration.

Many speculate, however, that political posturing and muscle flexing is to blame here. Specifically, this suggestion hinges on the reputation of Gene Nichol, director of Chapel Hill’s Center for Poverty. Nichol has long been outspoken against the Republican Party, dominant within the state, especially with regards to conservative policies affecting higher education. In an op-ed for the News and Observer, he called the proceeding a “dark day” and referred to the decision as “censorship efforts,” a sentiment with which many, including Hannah Gage, tend to agree. “We [the Board of Governors] clearly have the powers to intervene at any point,” said Gage after the vote. “The question is knowing when to use them.” Gage stated that she felt the vote moved too far into management of individual campuses. Despite this, the BOG voted to enact reviews of campus centers every five years.

Pirates Cut Through Red Tape
While others try to discover the whys behind the BOG decision, we’ll focus here on what is a more pressing concern: How, exactly, this will impact East Carolina University and the work of its Center for Biodiversity.

Gene Nichol said he would continue the work of the Poverty Center at Chapel Hill, only now the initiative would be housed in the school of law. Similarly, ECU’s Biodiversity Center plans to do what pirates do best—ride the wave.

In a joint statement on the status of the center, East Carolina’s vice chancellor, its Biodiversity Center directors, biology department chair, and others spun this decision as a positive one, suggesting that the term “discontinue” provides the wrong connotation. Instead, the statement reminds the public that Jim Holmes lauded the Center for Biodiversity in December of 2014 as an excellent example of an initiative effectively run within a department.

If this is true, then why would the working committee recommend discontinuation in the first place? The answer, according to ECU’s joint statement, lies in item 6, section B under the aforementioned 400.5 [R], where the UNC policy manual describes “other coordinating entities” and how these groups can be exempt from the regulations imposed on “centers” and “institutions.” The defining difference between a “center” or “institution” and one of these “other entities” is that the latter can oversee itself without “structure, funds, or management” of the UNC system.

The joint statement adds, “The BOG Working Group is not advocating that the activities of the Center be discontinued.  Instead, the question being addressed is whether designation as a UNC Center is necessary to accomplish its mission and is the most efficient mechanism for the activities to be administered.” If the Center for Biodiversity is affected, according to the statement, it will be in name only.

In other words, the only thing disappointing about the decision is the rhetoric. Much of the public opinion is to view this entire vote from the BOG to be a complete violation of power. ECU, however, chooses to interpret what some might see as a slap in the face differently. The authors of the statement describe the “discontinuation” as a blessing that will allow the “decrease of administrative burden” and for more resources to be allocated for direct support of the center’s programs.

This is, of course, the heart of the issue—the actual education and outreach programs which the Center for Biodiversity provides. Since the center is so efficiently run within the Department of Biology at ECU, its many contributions to the field and to the local community will, say its leadership, be mostly unaffected.

The Continued Mission of the Center for Biodiversity
Many readers may be unfamiliar with the concept of biodiversity and what a wild success ECU’s North Carolina Center for Biodiversity (NCCB) has been since its inception in 2009. In its “Plan to Establish” document, the center quoted E.O. Wilson’s “The Future of Life” to set the stage for its research. Wilson describes an impending “Armageddon” marked by the “wreckage of the planet by an exuberantly plentiful and ingenious humanity.” While Wilson’s words are strong, they shed light on what drives the NCCB’s biological research and community outreach—the preservation of all life on Earth. The center focuses on studying ecology in a broader sense of cooperation and the fostering of a philosophy of harmony within the Greenville community and beyond.

The center established a computational lab with “6 state-of-the-art workstations to facilitate cutting edge biodiversity research.” The lab allows biology students to perform research in areas of biodiversity with a focus on best practices for educating the surrounding community on pressing ecological issues.

One such issue, recently addressed by associate professor Carol Goodwillie, is habitat restoration. Goodwillie incorporated tenets of the NCCB into her lectures and encouraged her students to consider “what physiological and reproductive aspects of plants make them invasive,” a question which, at its core, teaches patience, understanding, and empathy for all forms of life. Their education did not end in the classroom. Goodwillie obtained funds from the faculty senate’s Teaching Grants Committee to establish ECU’s first service learning science course. She and 30 of her students aided the Greenville Recreation and Parks department in restoring River Park North and in removing over 3,000 stems of Chinese lespedeza (an invasive species) from the South Tar Greenway. “I hope to encourage other faculty to explore this approach with other kinds of student service projects,” Goodwillie said.

The idea has certainly germinated in other members of the biodiversity community, such as Dustin Foote, an MS student under Dr. Chris Balakrishnan, who is presenting a series of lectures at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, one way the NCCB supports education and outreach for the local community. On April 21st, the NCCB will host a free admission Earth Day Expo in the Breezeway of the Howell science complex, featuring a special treat for kids, Sid the Science Kid of PBS fame.

Sid won’t be the only one visiting ECU in the coming weeks. Best-selling author Amy Stewart is also coming April 21st, to discuss how her books, like The Drunken Botanist, expose the general public’s daily interactions with biodiversity. And later this month, Dr. Scott Edwards, an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist from Harvard, gives two lectures on March 20th.

With all of these educational and outreach programs, the continued support of private donors and grants, as well as the sheer passion of ECU faculty and students, the NCCB should remain unscathed by the recent BOG decision. Its edict may, in fact, benefit the center in the ways the joint statement from ECU faculty has outlined, by removing much of the bureaucratic red tape which perhaps kept the NCCB from reaching its full potential. Indeed, the Center for Biodiversity seems poised to flourish and move closer to one of its original goals—partnering with downtown Greenville business leaders in order to establish the Eastern Carolina Natural History Museum.

The Takeaway
The decision from the BOG can be interpreted in at least two ways. On a philosophical level, the working committee acted reprehensibly not only in their decisions, but in the ways in which they were executed. Their actions symbolize an era of the state micromanaging of higher education and stripping individual campuses of basic rights.

On the a more practical level, however, those centers “discontinued” can continue to operate freely as “other entities,” with new license and fewer restrictions. The decision may merely have been the BOG’s way of trying to maintain the illusion of supremacy.

ECU and its Center for Biodiversity are looking at the decision as something more than an overstep, threat or BOG power play, specifically, an opportunity. The coming years will be the true test, but with continued support from the university and surrounding community, Greenville’s NCCB has a chance to become an icon for a more environmentally responsible future, one that would help ensure the continued advancement and sustainability of all life in our community.

More information on the NCCB and its work is available at their webpage.

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