RALEIGH — For the past six months, opinion pieces written in a Raleigh newspaper by a University of North Carolina law professor have included the disclaimer: "He doesn't speak for UNC."
The disclaimer was added after Gene Nichol wrote a column in The News & Observer of Raleigh in October that suggested Gov. Pat McCrory's support of new election laws in North Carolina made him a 21st century successor to 1960s-era segregationist governors in the South. He also called the governor "hapless Pat" in the piece.
Several high ranking university officials began discussing the column and how it might affect funding for UNC in a highly politized atmosphere, according to emails obtained by the News & Observer.
"Of course Professor Nichol has a right to free speech, as do all citizens, but we are getting a lot of blowback today. We have over 3,600 professors, but this one gets a lot of attention," UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Jim Dean wrote in a response to Jane Shaw, president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank.
Nichol, who is director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the university, met with Jack Boger, dean of the law school, after the October column and agreed to the disclaimer on his column and give the university a day or two notice before his pieces run.
Nichol was reluctant to talk about the turmoil with the newspaper.
"Despite this letter, which does raise serious free speech questions, Dean Boger has, over the past year and a half, fought hard to resist pressures both from Raleigh and from higher-placed university officials to stop me from writing for the News & Observer," Nichol said in an email. "I admire him. Beyond that, I don't have any comment."
Some of Nichol's colleagues are outraged with the arrangement.
"The attempt to pressure the university to control Gene Nichol's speech is illegitimate, and frankly, borders on the unconstitutional," said Rich Rosen, an emeritus professor of law at UNC.
Free speech remains incredibly important to the university. But the school also exists in a political climate, said Lowry Caudill, chairman of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.
"We understand we live in that world," Caudill said. "What happens here and what happens in Raleigh — there's connectivity, and we understand that."