March 16, 2015; The Chronicle (Duke University)

It’s important for nonprofits to advocate on behalf of their causes, but an organization and its leaders need to embark on advocacy efforts with their eyes wide open. Sometimes, there can be fallout from taking on powerful interests, and you need to fully evaluate the pros and cons of going out on a limb.

Duke University’s student-run newspaper, the Chronicle, reported on a vote by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to close an academic center for poverty research, which many have speculated may have been politically motivated.

The board voted to shut down the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, “after concluding that the center was financially unsustainable and did not significantly contribute to solving the poverty issue,” according to the paper.

“Among faculty and students at UNC, the decision has drawn considerable criticism. Critics have accused the board of closing the center to silence its controversial director, who was often critical of Republican legislators and Governor,” it said.

“The university’s governing board moved to abolish an academic center in order to punish its director for publishing articles that displease the board and its political benefactors,” the Center’s director told the Chronicle.

The chairman of the board responded to those criticisms in a column for the Charlotte Observer, saying that the center did not enhance the educational mission of the university and did not have the financial support to sustain it.

Critics say the closure was a way of “going after” its director. They told the paper that many people are disturbed by what they perceive to be a political effort to reshape public higher education, raising concerns over academic freedom and freedom of speech. The board chair called such claims “unfounded.”

The beleaguered center director told the Chronicle that “private foundations and donors have stepped forward assure that the work of the center, if not the center itself, will continue,” in the form of poverty research fund at the law school.

Two other academic centers—the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University—were also shut down, although the biodiversity center’s activities will continue under a different name.

Both the Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University operate almost entirely on private funding, primarily from foundation and corporate grants, as well as private gifts. They do not receive any direct taxpayer funding from the state aside from the spaces on campus they inhabit.

The decision to close down three academic centers came one month after the firing of UNC-Chapel Hill president Tom Ross by the Board of Governors—“a move that has also been criticized as politically-motivated, with some speculating that Ross was too liberal-leaning for the board,” said the article.—Larry Kaplan