A group of professors from public and private colleges across North Carolina has for months been criticizing a conservative think tank in Raleigh: They say the non-profit Civitas Institute purports to be independent, but really is an arm of the state Republican Party, and that it is trying to bully liberal academics in the state’s public university system.
On Monday morning, members of Scholars for North Carolina’s Future took one step further. They hand-delivered a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office and asked him to speak out against what they say are Civitas’ intimidation tactics.
The academics’ central gripe is that Civitas has requested the e-mails, phone records and calendars of a left-leaning director of UNC-Chapel Hill Law’s Center on Poverty. They say Civitas requested Professor Gene Nichol’s correspondence to intimidate him because he had criticized McCrory in an op-ed column for the Raleigh News & Observer.
The governor’s office’s response was to point out that Nichol, as a state university employee, is subject to public records requests, and say the matter is between Nichol and Civitas.
“While Professor Nichol might think himself to be special just because he runs the John Edwards Poverty Center,” wrote spokesman Ryan Tronovitch in an e-mail, “he does not get special treatment.” (Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards helped found the UNC School of Law's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity in 2005, but the institute is not named after any individual.)
Outside of the State House, Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University, told reporters that she was troubled by connections between Civitas and McCrory’s administration. The family of the governor’s Budget Director Art Pope has funded more than 90 percent of the operations of Civitas, MacLean said.
“Citizens may reasonably infer that a sitting adiminstration is using a private, tax-exempt non-profit organization founded by one of its leading officials to intimidate future political dissent,” Maclean said. “That’s serious.”
But Civitas Director of Policy Brian Balfour said his organization’s request for Nichol’s records is part of a years-long investigation into the possible use of tax-payer money for advocacy purposes at law school’s Center on Poverty and similar institutes at public universities. He said the requests were not for Nichol’s personal information. Civitas has issued reports on the center since July 2012.
“It sounds like some of these professors want to be above the public request law,” Balfour said. “They want to make an exemption for themselves, even though their institutions are funded by the public through tax payer dollars.”
In an interview with WRAL-TV, Pope emphasized he has not been on Civitas’ board since 2012. He told a reporter that he had taken no action with regard to Nichol on behalf of the McCrory administration.
Pope said: "I don't see or read anything Civitas does until it’s released publicly."