Saturday, March 14, 2015

'The Center for the Eradication of Poverty Through Free Enterprise at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill'

'Thou Shalt Not Violate The Hatch Act!'
Much ado has been made about the 'attack on academic freedom' with the recent closing of the Center on Poverty by the UNC Board of Governors (BOG).

As far as we can tell, life goes on at every campus in the UNC System as it did before the announcement of the closing of the Poverty Center: students are going to class that professors and teaching assistants are teaching; the libraries are still open and people are following the basketball teams still playing in the tournaments.

In short, much of campus university life is going on just as it did before the Center for Poverty was opened at the UNC Law School in February of 2005.

Does anyone remember the circumstances of the 'founding' of the Poverty Center at UNC Law School in the first place?

Former US Senator John Edwards (NC) had lost his vice-presidential bid as running mate to failed presidential candidate John Kerry just 3 months previous. His platform included a lot of talk about  'Two Americas', the haves and the have-nots, and he wanted a place where he could continue talking about poverty and other issues of his political interest.

There was no 'Center for Poverty' at UNC before John Edwards wanted to set it up as a platform to advance his political interests. Later, confrontational and controversial professor Gene Nichol took over as director of the Center.

You would think that a university of that size would have had such a poverty center already on campus if that was a chosen priority of interest before a political figure decided he/she needs a place to hang their hat after a losing campaign at any level, yes?

The argument that the BOG closing of the Center for Poverty at the UNC Law School is an 'attack on academic freedom' has to be couched more in terms of it being closed as a result of 'reversing a political favor' first, doesn't it?

Beyond that, we got to thinking about what would have happened if, say, the tables had been turned and the Democrats in North Carolina now had 100% control of everything in state government from the Governor's Mansion to the Lt. Governor to the state general assembly after 140 years of straight Republican rule since right after the Civil War.

Let's make-believe and imagine that in 2004, after a person left the employ of a Republican US Senator in Washington, he/she asked friends and political supporters on the BOG and at Carolina at that time, since they were all Republicans, to set up 'The Center for the Eradication of Poverty Through Free Enterprise' (CEPTFE) at UNC.  The idea would be to work on issues this person considered important to eradicate poverty through the miracles of the private sector and expansion of jobs in our capitalist society in addition to advancing his/her political career.

Which may have included, oh, say...running for President of the United States of America in 2008, perhaps.

The Koch Brothers would have been asked to fund it separately from the University although the person in question would have been granted an adjunct visiting professor of the practice position to be paid for by the taxpayers of North Carolina. It would have been housed in the Kenan-Flagler School of Business because this person would have had an MBA from Carolina, not a law degree as John Edwards had which is why his preferred choice of venue was the UNC Law School.

Let's also imagine that the North Carolina General Assembly allocated over $1 million of your hard-earned taxpayer-paid money from inception in 2005 to 2010 to support this political figure and their efforts at CEPTFE (because that is exactly what was done for Gene Nichol and the Center on Poverty at the UNC Law School by the Democrats then in charge of state government in Raleigh).

Let's go on to imagine that over the years, this person may have taught a few classes in the business school on public policy and business. A few.

However, this person's main reason to get up every morning was to blast the Democrat in the Governor's Mansion at the time, Mike Easley and the Democrats who ran the GA at every single opportunity and public speaking engagement.

Every single day, this person wrote columns and gave speeches excoriating the Democrats in charge of North Carolina as to their ignorance about how to help poor people through the miracles of private business and proper training and education. There was no real academic research going on; instead of thoughtful persuasive arguments on the merits of the facts, this person just hauled off like a long-driver on the golf course who could smash a golf ball with a picture of Mike Easley or Marc Basnight or Tony Rand on it as far as humanly possible.

Here are some of the paraphrased quotes this person could have used (which are based on just some of the actual quotes used by Gene Nichol during his tenure)

'North Carolina must reject and inter its unforgivable war on private business…. It is a rank violation of our history, our ethics, our scriptures and our constitutions. We’re a decent people. We aren’t bullies. And we don’t like those who are'--March 2014

'(Governor Perdue is the) 21st century successor to Winken, Blinken and Nod' - October 15, 2013

'We’re engaged in a breathless competition to produce the most extreme government in America...Havoc nears. The result will be unlike anything we’ve seen in more than three decades'- (actual quote)

And those are the 'nice things' Mr. Nichol had to say about Republicans in public!

Would anyone care to guess how long this Republican political figure and the CEPTFE would have lasted under the Democrats once they took over the NCGA in 2010 in our hypothetical situation described above? About 'as long as it takes poop to go through a goose' as the old saying goes.

What is lost in this story is that it not as much of a case of 'academic freedom' as much as it is a case about the lack of 'civil public discourse'.

Everyone wants 'academic freedom'. But doesn't that mean 'universal' academic freedom? Where is the counterpart to the liberal Center on Poverty on any UNC System-wide campus? We asked some people who should know. They all shook their heads and said they couldn't think of any pro-enterprise center on any campus. One prominent Democrat actually started laughing out loud to our face when we asked them this question:

'Maybe there is a conservative Republican law faculty member at the UNC Law School we could talk to about this?'

'There are none!' he replied laughing so hard he could hardly breathe. 'Are you crazy?'

'Sorry. I lost my head there a second'
I had to admit nicely.

Another thing that many people either don't realize or respect is the fact that every single professor or teacher in the UNC educational system from top to bottom, from UNC-Chapel Hill to the smallest elementary school in Tyrrell County, is a 'public servant' of the taxpayers of North Carolina.

They are paid salaries by the taxpayers of North Carolina. They participate 100% in one of the nicest health care plans in the country, the NC State Employees Health Plan, paid for by the taxpayers of North Carolina. They participate 100% fully in the North Carolina State Pension Fund, one of the most fiscally sound state pension plans in the country.

'Public servants' are exactly that: People who choose to work in the public sector because they like to help other people in our state and communities. Once they are named or sworn in to their state government jobs, they become public servants to all of us: white or black or hispanic; rich or poor; smart or not-so-smart whether they disagree with the elected officials in Raleigh or not.

We can't have public servants serving only 'part' of the public, the part of the public they like or agree with. If anything, public servants have to divorce themselves of their own personal preferences and serve people they might not ever agree with or particularly want to work with because of some political difference of opinion.

They do it. 95% of them do public service well and in an honorable fashion, just as in any business  where 95% of the people do well-meaning, heartfelt good jobs.

Gene Nichol attacking the NCGA now run by the Republicans would be like you walking into your boss's office one day; telling him/her that they were a son-of-a-bitch bastard..but you wanted a raise anyway because you were such a good worker. Or your son or daughter yell and scream at you every day telling you what an awful father or mother you had been 'but, hey, mom or dad, can you buy me a new car for my birthday and give me an allowance of $100/week?'

That won't feed the bulldog as another quaint Southern expression might explain.

We had one person tell us that UNC professors have not been and never will be 'public servants'. As a result, public university professors had the opportunity and yes, the duty and responsibility to 'speak their minds about whatever they wanted to say' in essence.

That is not true. No one wants to frustrate fair and reasonable debate about anything. The day America can't talk about everything openly is that day America ceases to be America when you really think about it seriously.

However, public servants can't take taxpayer money and expect everyone to be happy when they start what is essentially a 'political vendetta' against anyone in state government. That is where Gene Nichol crossed over the line with the NCGA and the Republican Governor's office. It was just like the angry employee in the office or the spoiled kid asking for a higher allowance.

There are 'adult' ways to air political differences and there are 'childish' ways to air political differences. Presenting data in objective ways and offering to disagree in agreeable manners is the adult way to do so. Using ad hominem attacks on people's character and political beliefs is not.

In Washington, there is a thing called the 'Hatch Act'*. All federal employees have to abide by the Hatch Act which simply states that when you are on your federally taxpayer-paid job, you do the work of your country first and foremost and only. Period.

No politicking while on the federal pay tab. No fundraising on federal grounds. No nothing political while serving the public as a whole.

You want to be political? Go off the federal payroll and join a campaign and do it! Go ahead! Knock yourself out! If Mr. Nichol wants to be political and passionately advocate the issues of the poor, he should run for the US Senate or the Governor's Mansion or run a 527 off of publicly-supported state grounds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For any federal worker who wants to be political, they can request a leave of absence perhaps or they might have to retire altogether from federal service. They just have to be ready to drop all the political baggage at the door when they do come back from their leave of absence and be ready to serve the totality of the public with their talents and energy. Not their political party or interests.

North Carolina should adopt a version of the Hatch Act if they haven't done so already. If Gene Nichol didn't know there was already a Hatch Act-like statute on the books in North Carolina, perhaps they should teach it at the UNC Law School.


*The Hatch Act of 1939, officially An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, is a United States federal law whose main provision prohibits employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president, vice-president, and certain designated high-level officials of that branch, from engaging in some forms of political activity. The law was named for Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico. It was most recently amended in 2012.

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  1. I am surprised by your and others' presentations of a "counterfactual" that posits a center or institute that would support free enterprise and capitalism and fails to mention the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Free Enterprise. That Institute, a part of the Kenan-Flagler Business School, itself an entity of the University dedicated to supporting and extending the reach of business and private enterprise, also pays attention to the eradication of poverty. It has a functioning working group that attempts to develop entrepreneurial solutions to expand the economy in eastern North Carolina. I occasionally attend those meetings as my work supports the development of health care business and programs.
    Your statements about the State Employees Health Plan (SEHP) describe it as a "Cadillac" type plan. That may have been so in comparison to other workplace-based health insurance coverage, but it is now much reduced in the scope of its benefits and has shifted much more of the costs to the member. I think an objective reviewer would find it somewhere in the middle range of such plans. Yes, the retirement plan is in good shape and part of that is due to the costs cutting and investment policies put in place by the Treasurer. That office, which oversees the SEHP has also cut benefits and raised member costs with the same attention to solvency that it pays to the retirement program.
    You make much about university employees being state employees and that is so. There are important differences and many exceptions relating to the medical schools and other groups—there are abundant exceptions for physicians, and coaches and executives at the University and the idea of academic freedom is a real principle that the State recognizes in one way or another by granting a form of tenure—meaning a person in an academic position may not be fired for reasonable political expressions. It does not keep them from getting let go because of lack of funding or any other legitimate reason. Tenure does not guarantee anyone a job, just a limited set of reasons why they cannot be relieved of their job.
    I take very serious my position as a public servant and have done so ever since 1970 when I first became a state employee (and was required to sign and oath of allegiance to the State of North Carolina at the time—something that was a relic of the state's rights efforts and dropped.
    My job is to use research and analysis to bring factual information and informed opinions to policy discussions and debates. I have done this for administrations of both parties and General Assemblies or individual houses of the Assembly governed by both parties. They get the same fast, the same information and the same opinions no matter who asks.
    I do this while I raise funds to support my and others' work through grants and contracts and, at the same time, I teach and supervise students research. The latter is often gratis due to my external support. Still, I remain a state employee—a public servant.
    I have, on two occasions, also been a federal employee. The most recent time was last year and that ran parallel to my part time employment by the state as a professor. I was required to undergo training and repeated review of the requirements of federal service with regard to political activity. I saw that as a mirror of my obligations as a state employee. I accept and understand that whatever I do when I am working for the State is open to the public—my email, my written documents, any expenditures I make, my salary, and any other documents related to my work. That is the nature of public employment. For my federal job I was required to fully disclose, every six months, all of my and my wife's investments and any business relationships I had. I have had to do that on prior occasions when I worked on an advisory committee or as a commissioner. That's part of the reality.
    Thomas C. Ricketts


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