The law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is perennially ranked among the top-10 public law schools in the United States. But the 55-year-old building that houses the school is regarded as a relic, inadequate for students and faculty, and an impediment to recruitment.

So in 2008, a new law school building rose to the top of the university’s priority list for new facilities and was included in a legislative spending plan. The ensuing recession sidetracked the project, but most assumed it was only delayed. “We were hopeful that we would get back in the line when prosperity returned to the state,” said then-law school Dean John Charles Boger. 

Until two things changed. First, Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011. Then, two centers at the law school began to receive unfavorable attention from those Republicans—a center that advocated for the needs of the state’s poor, and a civil rights center that sent faculty and students into the courts to challenge discrimination against minorities in education and public facilities. 

Suddenly, the new law school was no longer in the legislature’s budget. Republicans who controlled the university’s budget came to regard the centers as incubators for political attacks on Republican politicians. Both centers were associated with law school professor Gene Nichol. A leading Republican senator told reporters that it was necessary to close the poverty center “because Nichol was advocating anti-poverty measures … that we’re opposed to.”

Boger said no one ever told him the cancellation of the new law school building was related to Nichol’s activism, but that was the clear inference. “I don’t think Nichol’s outspoken presence made it any more attractive to the Republican majority to put us back in line for a new building when there were resources available,” Boger, who retired in 2017, told The Assembly.

In 2015, the Republican-appointed UNC System Board of Governors shut down Nichol’s poverty center, and two years later the civil rights center was banned from engaging in court litigation on behalf of poor and minority populations. Its staff lawyers were fired.

Boger cites the law school building as an example of the costs UNC-CH has faced for  providing a platform to the university’s most outspoken voice on behalf of the underprivileged—and the loudest critic of the Republican takeover of North Carolina’s major institutions. Through his speeches, newspaper columns and books, Nichol has become one of the university’s best-known figures. 

Now he’s back in the spotlight, hurling his supercharged invective in a new book that surveys the changes that have occurred since the 2011 Republican takeover of the N.C. General Assembly. 

His book, Lessons from North Carolina:​​ Race, Religion, Tribe, and the Future of America, portrays a bleak landscape that Nichol blames on conservative dominance of the state’s centers of power, including the legislature, the lieutenant governor’s office, the courts, public schools, and the UNC System Board of Governors.

Courtesy of Blair

“When push has come to shove, many of our leaders have determined to put aside much of what we have committed to stand for in order to perpetuate their own group’s superiority—in short, placing tribe over democracy and power over constitutive principle,” Nichol writes. 

The book won’t win Nichol many friends among Republicans—if he had any. The UNC School of Law remains a target. The House budget includes money for a new law school building; the Senate budget does not. The House keeps the law school’s current budget, but the Senate cuts the school’s annual appropriation by $2.5 million. A conference committee will resolve the differences.  

In an interview just minutes after the Senate passed its budget last week, Senate leader Phil Berger told The Assembly that his caucus members don’t think the law school needs a new building and “does not need the money that it has on a recurring basis in the budget.”

Could those cuts have anything to do with Nichol and his criticism of the Republicans? “I would say that Professor Nichol is the last thing on my mind,” Berger said. He said he had not read Nichol’s book.

Despite the ill will Nichol creates, Boger remains a firm supporter, as are many current and former faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill. He compared him to a pantheon of revered UNC icons, such as President Frank Porter Graham, who in the 1930s and ‘40s opposed child labor and spoke against lynchings. 

“He is in the tradition of that vein of UNC faculty members who were telling difficult truths to people, some of whom were receptive and grateful for that,” Boger said, “and some of whom didn’t want to hear from him.”

Hammer-blasting Republicans

Boger called Nichol a “prophetic force,” and in demeanor and appearance, Nichol looks like an Old Testament prophet. A former football quarterback at Oklahoma State University, he stands an imposing 6 feet, 5 inches, and wears a foot-long ponytail grown out during the pandemic. 

Nichol received his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He was dean of the University of Colorado Law School from 1988 to 1995, then dean of the UNC Law School until 2005, when he left to become president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. His three-year tenure as president of the public institution was the shortest in school history since the Civil War, ending in controversy after he ordered a cross removed from the altar at the college’s historic chapel. 

Nichol felt the Christian symbol made people of other religions feel unwelcome. He was fired, and shortly thereafter rehired at UNC-Chapel Hill to teach constitutional law.

He has a long history of attracting, some might say even courting, controversy. He has for decades written opinion columns for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer that hammer-blast all forces of authority he considers insufficiently attentive to the needs of the poor, minorities, and the disadvantaged.

A 2008 file photo of Gene Nichol, then the president of College of William & Mary, speaking to students gathered for a candlelight vigil outside his residence (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Alexa Welch Edlund)

The attacks can get personal. A 2013 column about a new state election law called Republican Gov. Pat McCrory “a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus”—three ardent segregationist governors of the mid-20th century. In the column, he called McCrory “hapless Pat.”

In a 2015 column, Nichol criticized a cut in funding for the farmworkers legal services agency, which also imposed new reporting requirements on the organization. He noted that Sen. Brent Jackson, sponsor of the legislation, was the Senate’s only farmer. 

“Jackson apparently has a thing for the Farmworker Unit,” Nichol wrote. “It has become almost trademark: the powerful and connected, using their privilege, deploying the levers of state authority to step on the necks of those at the bottom.” 

Nichol, 72, speaks on his themes some 40 times a year and is a regular presence at demonstrations such as the NAACP’s Moral Monday protests at the legislature. 

The question about Nichol is whether his inflammatory presence is as much a liability to the university as an asset. In some quarters, Nichol is revered for his unwavering commitment to speaking truth to power. But his reputation as a flamethrower is so combustible that it is difficult to get an answer to that question from those who run the university. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz declined to be interviewed about Nichol. 

Current law school Dean Martin Brinkley issued a written statement that didn’t do much more than acknowledge Nichol’s biography: “Gene has been part of the Carolina Law faculty for a long time. He is well-known for his measured teaching of constitutional law covering all aspects of the ideological spectrum. He is able to engage and connect with our students as well as people in the community to shed light on the challenges of economic hardship in North Carolina.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chairman Dave Boliek and House Speaker Tim Moore did not return messages seeking comment on Nichol.

Outside the officialdom, there are critics aplenty who are familiar with Nichols’ work and are not admiring. John Ellison, a prominent Greensboro businessman and Democrat, served on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2011. “As a trustee, silently, we thought this guy was a problem,” Ellison said.

Silently? I asked Ellison. Would trustees not criticize him openly? 

“What were you going to accomplish by putting him down?” Ellison asked. “If you did that, you would just create more controversy, which is something he would love. It would put him at the center of attention.”

He added: “I just say Gene has extremely liberal views, he expresses them really loudly, and he alienates people with that approach … And I don’t think he gives a damn about that.”

Steve Long, a Republican lawyer from Raleigh and former member of the UNC System Board of Governors, described Nichol as “a political activist masquerading as a law professor.” He noted that Nichol had twice run for public office unsuccessfully in Colorado before coming to North Carolina.

“He has not stopped politicking. He has not been a legal scholar and has been intemperate in his criticism of people with whom he disagrees,” Long said.

As a member of the Board of Governors, Long led the successful effort to strip the law school’s Civil Rights Center of its ability to bring litigation in court on behalf of poor and minority clients. Long said the law school should not have lawyers on staff to file lawsuits, especially against school boards and other public agencies.

Long said the UNC law school’s reputation for political activism, associated with Nichol, hurts its standing in comparison with rival law schools at the University of Virginia and Duke University. 

Police surround the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument during a protest to remove the statue at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in August 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

“The med school and business school are comparable to UVA and Duke and the law school is not, and I think a big reason is that it’s gotten so involved in politics,” he said. In the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking, the UNC law school ranked 22nd in the country, compared to 8th for Virginia and 5th for Duke.

“I think there’s some feeling in the university that he sort of sucks all of the attention, and causes people to focus on him and his comments when there are a lot of other people at the university who are dealing much more substantively with poverty or government regulation or whatever the issue is, and they don’t get the attention he does,” said Long.

Others who admire Nichol’s message acknowledge that his heated rhetoric gets in the way. Howard Covington, a retired journalist and author who lives in Greensboro, says Nichol’s new book is “devastating” in its depiction of the impact wrought on the state by the Republican agenda. 

But he says the message is discounted for Nichol’s firebrand reputation. 

“My only thought is, it’s a shame Gene Nichol’s name is on the book,” he said. “It’ll turn a lot of people off—they’ll say, ‘Oh that’s just Gene Nichol raising hell.’ 

“That’s a shame, because he’s absolutely right. There’s some hyperbole in there, but where this is headed is very, very troubling.”

A Litany of Ills

Nichol has written two previous books about politics and policy in North Carolina, The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina in 2018, and Indecent Assembly: The North Carolina Legislature’s Blueprint for the War on Democracy and Equality in 2020. 

The new book picks up that theme—that North Carolina under Republican dominance has lost its role as a progressive leader in the South. 

“North Carolina’s politics are no longer moderate or congenial,” he writes. “The formerly purported ‘beacon of southern progress’ is now what national pundits call ‘a laboratory for extremism,’ a ‘poster child for regressive, conservative politics.’”

Nichol cites a litany of ills he says Republicans have foisted upon the state: gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts to their advantage over Democrats; voter suppression through voter ID requirements and voting restrictions; the attempted overturn of a local election; repeal of the state Racial Justice Act; banning removal of Confederate memorials; weakening public schools by expanding charter schools and private school vouchers; and political micromanagement of the UNC System. 

Nichol subtitles his new book “Race, Religion, Tribe and the Future of America,” and those three threads run throughout. Noting that there is only one Black legislator among the 101 Republicans in the General Assembly, he asserts that Republicans use their power to benefit white people at the expense of Black and brown people. 

“They have repeatedly, pervasively, intentionally and invidiously deployed government power to diminish the electoral, representational, legal, educational, and dignitary rights of African Americans. The Republican caucuses of the North Carolina General Assembly not only appear to be white enclaves, they govern like them.”

In a chapter on religion, he starts out by saying, “I’m not out for a religious battle,” then charges into a broad-ranging assault on white evangelical Christians and what Nichol characterizes as disproportionate influence on the Republican agenda. 

In an hour-long interview, Nichol told me that the new book differs from his previous ones in that it is more personal, revealing episodes of his run-ins with the new power structure. This is particularly the case in a chapter on the UNC System and its takeover by conservatives set on altering what they consider the liberal dominance of the campuses. 

One of the early acts was to strip the governor of the power to appoint members to the campus-level boards of trustees, which the legislature proceeded to fill with conservative partisans. The legislature already made all appointments to the Board of Governors, which oversees the UNC System, and that too took a right turn. 

Nichol had angered legislators with a year-long series of articles on poverty in North Carolina that criticized the General Assembly and then-Gov. McCrory for what Nichol called “the stoutest and most substantive war on poor people carried out by any state legislature in a half century.”

Nichol writes that he was repeatedly called into the office of then-Dean Boger warning of threats from the General Assembly that if Nichol didn’t stop writing for The News & Observer, he would be removed as director of the poverty center, the center would be closed, or he would be fired. 

Nichol, backed by Boger, refused to stop writing. He then was told by UNC-CH Provost James Dean to add a disclaimer to his articles indicating that he did not speak for UNC.

Nichol continued writing, and the Board of Governors voted to close the Poverty Center.

“Neither former chancellor Carol Folt nor former Provost James Dean objected to the closure,” he writes. “The days of courageous leadership in Chapel Hill were long gone.” 

(Multiple media outlets reported in 2015 that Folt opposed closing the center. “I disagreed with this action and hope we could have found a different way to go forward,” Folt said, according to WFAE.)   

Shortly after, the Senate wanted to cut the law school’s budget by $3 million in what one Democratic senator called “The Gene Nichol transfer amendment.” The cut did not come to pass that year. But two years later, the General Assembly cut the law school’s budget by $500,000.

Robert Rucho was the Republican co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee and later a member of the Board of Governors. He told The Assembly that the legislature didn’t believe the Poverty Center was affecting poverty. 

“Yes, I probably had a disagreement with Mr. Nichol, and continue to do so in the fact that his way did not work,” said Rucho, now retired. “He continues to espouse government handouts, where in reality all that makes people is dependent on the government, instead of giving them an opportunity to achieve success in life.”

In 2017, after a lengthy campaign led by Long, the Board of Governors banned the law school’s Civil Rights Center from engaging in litigation for its poor and minority clients. The ban came over the objections of the law school faculty and dean, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty assembly, the provost, and the chancellor. 

Nichol goes on to cite several other instances of what he deems transgressions on academic freedom, culminating in 2021 when the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ delayed a grant of tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, known for her controversial writing about the influence of slavery in the nation’s founding. 

The board ultimately relented, but Hannah-Jones, a UNC-CH alumna, declined the appointment in protest of her treatment. Nichol writes: “UNC had thus completed its massive rebranding exercise of the last decade – going from being perceived as one of the nation’s most respected universities to a right-wing, racial-equality-denying, politically interventionist clown car.”

Demonstrators confront Gene Davis, vice chairman of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz after the board voted to approve tenure for journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

While Republicans nationally and in North Carolina are his main target, Nichol does not spare any in authority whom he deems not stalwart enough to challenge the new order. 

In quick succession, he skewers by name UNC-CH leaders and Democrats in the legislature who don’t stand up to what he considers autocracy. Folt, he writes, was “a UNC chancellor who was famed for never taking a position on anything.” (Folt, now president of University of Southern California, did not respond to a request for comment.) Her successor, Guskiewicz, Nichol says, “grovel[s] in dishonest submission in order to hold on to a now shamed and pitiful academic position.”

James Moeser, who was chancellor from 2000 to 2008, often had to contend with the fallout from Nichol’s outspokenness, including from among members of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. He defended Nichol then, and still does in retirement. 

“In the current political environment in North Carolina, he’s a truth teller,” Moeser said. “He says unpopular things and unfashionable things, which are true and which we need to hear … Tenure is the only thing that protects him now. I think the Board of Trustees would have had him fired if it weren’t for tenure.”

Speaking at Churches

Nichol finds hope in the state’s movement politics, as seen in the Moral Monday crowds that turned out in the thousands to protest Republican legislative actions, and in the leadership of the Rev. William J. Barber, a former North Carolina NAACP president who now leads the national Poor People’s Campaign. 

Nichol credits street-level activism for Joe Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump—“one of the most important events in American history.” 

He said he feels “lucky and sort of honored” to operate in the public arena, not just within academia. “Which means I have on occasion probably ruffled feathers, maybe made mistakes too,” he said. “That means some people like and probably respect some of the work I do, and others detest it. I get a lot of letters indicating as much all the time.”

He added: “I don’t regret having been heavily engaged. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.”

Boger, the former law school dean who has a divinity degree, compares Nichol to the Old Testament prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, “calling out those who needed to hear that their words and actions were inappropriate. Prophets create opponents and in effect come with a cost. But I don’t think that means you don’t need folks like that.”

In a recent book reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, Nichol strode the stage dressed in dark shirt and pants and wearing sandals, thundering his message in the rolling cadence of a preacher. 

One audience member, a Presbyterian minister, raised his hand to say, “Mr. Nichol, I think you mischaracterized your credentials. You’ve said you’re a lawyer, but you’re actually a theologian. You talk about sin here, you talk about hope, you talk about love. I think you’ve got another career possibility. You’re a preacher.”

Nichol, who said he had abandoned his Catholic faith, accepted the description with a beaming smile. As he told the overflow crowd, his greatest delight is traveling with his friend Barber, speaking at Black churches. 

“He would say I preach,” Nichol said. “I don’t like the term ‘preach,’ because it implies I am a holy man. Which I am not.”

On that, Republicans would agree. 

Disclosure: John Ellison is a financial supporter of The Assembly.

Ted Vaden was a reporter and editor with the Raleigh News & Observer for 32 years. Now retired in Chapel Hill, he is president of the N.C. Press Foundation, which supports open government and citizens’ access to public records.