Monday, March 23, 2015
If anyone has doubts about the ability of determined individuals to control intellectual thought and speech, then s/he need only examine what is happening to faculty at the University of North Carolina. A new era of intolerance arrived some time ago, but recent actions have a different, more damaging twist.
To recap, the state’s governor, Pat McRory, announced two years ago that the state should not be “subsidizing” courses such as those on gender and those teaching Swahili. “Subsidizing” in this context means that the state university should not offer such courses. As do many driven by personal agenda, McRory cloaks himself in the rhetoric of the public good. Reminiscent of those who cannot tolerate dissention, McRory accused his targets of the very behavior he engages in. He stated: “Our universities should not be used to indoctrinate our students to become liberals or conservatives, but should teach a diversity of opinions which will allow our future leaders to decide for themselves.” He then proceeded to shut down three voices of what he perceived as “liberal” voices, seeking to eliminate diversity of opinion on campus.
In a move designed to implement his thinly disguised agenda, the state recently announced the closing of three University Centers, all of which promote interests that are not in line with the administration’s agenda. The three disbanded centers addressed environmental concerns, voter engagement and poverty. A New Yorker article focuses on the law school’s Center of Poverty, Work and Opportunity, directed by Prof. Gene Nichol, as the primary target of the state’s actions.
I will not describe the administration’s agenda as “conservative.” This form of divisive labeling does not help. Labeling by political perspective paints those who may advocate more restrained fiscal policy with individuals who, like Governor McRory, use the power of the state to destroy those who simply have a perspective different from his. McRory is not conservative, he is intolerant. Let’s not confuse the two.
A more accurate description of McRory and his kind is that they do not believe in or support the bill of rights to the U.S. constitution. Free speech is replaced by state propaganda. Disagreement with the state is grounds for punitive action.
At the heart of the closings was Prof. Nichol’s public criticism of state policy. Nichol had written a series of opinions published in the Raleigh News and Observer in which he criticized what he described as the state’s “war on poor people.” According to reports, these published opinion pieces were followed by communications by legislators to the law school’s dean threatening closure of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity if the newspaper pieces did not stop. Then in January, the President of the University was fired.
This is not a post on tenure protections, although the described actions emphasize the need for tenure and academic freedom. There is an alarm ringing for all of us. Major movements whose goals have been to suppress individual opinion in favor of state propaganda have often started with actions designed to silence university professors. 20th century examples of this sort of state action abound in our studies of human rights deprivations. But this is not 20th century history. We cannot distance ourselves from what is happening in North Carolina. The state action to suppress diversity of opinion there is an immediate human rights crisis. How will we respond?