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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Nichol questions why a country so wealthy tolerates such poverty

nichol_400Gene Nichol is a lawyer by trade who has spent much of his career in the light of a public stage where controversy became his shadow.

He was dean of the University of Colorado law school from 1988 to 1995 before coming to Carolina’s law school to hold the same job from 1999 to 2005. In the interim, he ran for the U.S. Senate in Colorado, and after losing, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, but lost again.

On July 1, 2005, Nichol became the 26th president of The College of William & Mary. His tenure was marked by a succession of controversies, including his decision in 2006 to remove a cross from permanent display on the altar of the Chapel in the college’s historic Wren Building.

On Feb. 12, 2008, when the Board of Visitors decided not to renew his three-year contract, Nichol resigned as president.

Shortly afterward, he returned to Carolina’s law school to run the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity he had founded earlier to call attention to what he believes is the greatest issue facing the nation.

And the most neglected.

“What I have come to believe in the last 10 years, but very powerfully in the last six or seven years, is how crucial it is that North Carolina focus on the wrenching poverty within its midst,” Nichol said.

He believes three contradictory truths lie at the heart of American poverty and its apparent intractability.

“First, this is the richest nation on earth,” Nichol said. “Second, we have much higher levels of poverty than any other advanced nation. Third, we believe almost to the person that this is the fairest nation in the world.

“You cannot be the richest, poorest and fairest nation all at once, but that contradiction is what we accommodate in the United States. One of the ways we do that is to make poverty invisible.”

When poverty lies somewhere else, affecting someone else, he said, it is far too easy for people to look away.

“If our kids are doing well, if our friends’ kids are doing well, people can know there is economic hardship, maybe even grasp that the hardship is so pronounced that it gives lie to our claims of social fairness, but they can still ignore it,” Nichol said. “Especially if the hardship lies on the other side of the tracks, or on the other side of the county, or the other side of the state.”

Investing in people and places

Part of his job, he believes, is to make it harder for people to look away. It is why he joined NAACP President William Barber last year on a bus ride around the state that they called the “Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina.”

What they found, across the board, is that the need is more powerful than people truly understand, Nichol said.

It is all right to disagree about the root causes of poverty and what should be done to fight it. “What is unacceptable,” he said, “is to say that in the richest nation on earth we are going to have 40 percent of our children of color who are poor, and we are not going to care about it.”

For most of its history, Nichol said, “the South was the native home of poverty in the United States, meaning we had more poor people by far and we have more political leaders who are utterly untroubled by it.”

And for most of its history, North Carolina remained the poorest among the poor. During the past 60 years, though, state leaders such as Frank Porter Graham, Bill Friday, Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt played a key role in overturning that history by investing in North Carolina’s people and places.

But that progress has stalled, Nichol said. A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest poverty rate in the country, which Nichol called “a little bit better than average.” Last year, the state was 12th.

“We’ve got to do something different, but should the something different be taking away benefits from low-income folks? Or taking away their access to health care and cutting them off from unemployment benefits?” he asked.

“We’ve lost our way if we believe the only way we can prosper is to be as harsh as South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. And we’re in danger of forgetting the lessons we can draw from the lives of leaders like Frank Porter Graham and Bill Friday, who believed the only way to lift the state out of poverty was by investing in its people and places,” Nichol said.

Jeffersonian ideals

On Oct. 4, the Faculty Council will present Nichol with the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award in recognition of his commitment to his work, citing his role in the poverty tour, which went beyond the statistics to “put a face on the thousands of families and individuals in the state struggling to get by.”

Faculty members choose the recipients of the annual award, which honors a faculty member who exhibits Jefferson’s ideals and objectives.

Nichol said he had a dual reaction to the news.

“The Jefferson Award means a great deal to me, first of all, because it is associated with Jefferson, but more potently, because the list of recipients includes many of my personal heroes from this University,” he said.

That is also why he feels unworthy.

“I am proud of the work I’ve done and I am immensely challenged by it,” Nichol said. “I find it hugely fulfilling. For me professionally, this is the happiest time in my career, but I don’t confuse myself with those other folks.

“The challenge of poverty in North Carolina is literally the largest problem we face as a society. The more you study it and the more you see it face to face, the bigger it gets. And the more you realize the larger hypocrisy there is in ignoring it.”